Sleazy Zodiac Exploitation From the Early 1970s
Since he first terrified California in the late 1960s, the Zodiac Killer has continued to fascinate Americans decades after his last confirmed killing. That continued interest led director David Fincher to take a stab at the infamous killer’s story in Zodiac. One of the first modern serial killers to gain any individual notoriety in America, the Zodiac Killer picked an opportune moment in history to permanently embed his horrific identity in our cultural memory. Though several people have been identified as strong suspects for the Zodiac Killer, the case remains unsolved to this day.
AGFA and Something Weird Video have formed a partnership rescuing obscure and forgotten exploitation movies. The Zodiac Killer is their latest movie they’ve saved from the dustbin of forgotten exploitation. Director Tom Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer is a low-budget exploitation flick from 1971 that adapted the serial killer’s tale from news reports into a docudrama cum slasher movie. Funded on the questionable hook of luring the notorious killer into a San Francisco movie theater and capturing him, the movie takes a detached look at his killings in gory fashion. Tom Hanson actually set up theatrical screenings with the idea that he could catch the Zodiac Killer. The film’s backstory may be more interesting than the movie itself.
You shouldn’t expect much historical accuracy from this movie. Many liberties are taken in crafting a fictional identity for the masked killer. The Zodiac Killer preferred shooting young couples he found necking in several different California parks. This cheap production mostly makes it up as it goes along, fabricating a strange motivation for his actions and inventing several murders that never happened. If you want an exacting account of what actually happened, watch Fincher’s exhaustive telling of the case in Zodiac.
… the cheap b-movie comes off as amusingly hokey today
… the cheap b-movie comes off as amusingly hokey today
The loose narrative begins with Jerry (Hal Reed) and Grover (Bob Jones), the two central characters. Grover is an outright misogynist that hates his ex-wife and lies about being a businessman to impress women. Jerry is a young postal worker friendly with Grover. Grover will quickly become a primary suspect in the police’s investigation of the Zodiac Killer’s crimes. By the standards of low-budget exploitation, both Hal Reed and Bob Jones are fairly dynamic performers. Both give credible performances for a disposable b-movie that wasn’t made to last beyond its initial theatrical run.
Tom Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer does have a sleazy charm to its lurid depiction of the serial killer. Its tabloid blend of pop criminal psychology, gritty recreations of the killings, and a certain je ne sais quoi would have been engaging exploitation when first released in 1971, particularly in the San Francisco area. Now that serial killers have been relentlessly mined as primary characters since that time, the cheap b-movie comes off as amusingly hokey today. The movie does pick up in its last act as it covers the Zodiac Killer’s murder spree with a couple of original sequences. This is exploitation fare from a different time and knowing its historical context makes it far more enjoyable. In that regard, a familiarity with the actual Zodiac case is recommended before viewing this movie.
American Genre Film Archive purchased a 4K scanner for transfers from Something Weird’s library of niche cult and exploitation films. Distributed by MVDvisual on Blu-ray, the included booklet details this transfer’s checkered pedigree. It’s serviceable in the sense that The Zodiac Killer barely survived over the years and lucky to receive a Blu-ray release. From the booklet:
The Zodiac Killer is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics film scanner from the only 35mm theatrical print in existence. The print was made from the original 16mm camera negative, which is now lost.
What can you say about this grindhouse print that doesn’t sound terrible? The presentation is rough. It’s full of noisy grain, scratches and other debris. Some edge enhancement introduces halos and black levels are smeared all over the place, producing crushed shadows. There’s no heavy filtering but there is little visible resolution surpassing DVD quality.
As part of The Zodiac Killer’s restoration, the monaural soundtrack was remastered using Pro Tools HD. The included 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio has decent enough clarity but it’s clear from the beginning this recording wasn’t state-of-the-art even for its day. The 1971 production has major fidelity limitations and occasional issues. Dialogue is intelligible, if harsh and distant. This audio gets the job done, but barely delivers a smooth listening experience.
Optional English SDH Subtitles display in a white font for both included movies.
AGFA and Something Weird present The Zodiac Killer in this fairly packed Blu-ray and DVD combo set. The two-disc set comes in a clear Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve featuring an alternate cover. A second movie in a similar vein as The Zodiac Killer is included and may actually be more entertaining.
One of the big draws included is a nicely-produced collector’s booklet featuring rare production stills and a new interview with director Tom Hanson called “This Is Not The Zodiac Speaking.”
Audio Commentary – The team from AGFA (American Genre Film Archive) introduce this commentary that ultimately includes director Tom Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick. They provide some fun nuggets of background on the exploitation film in a casual, loose discussion that goes back and forth.
Let’s Get This Guy: The Origins of the Zodiac Killer (03:35 in HD) – Director Tom Hanson and Producer Manny Nedwick give short interviews discussing how this film got made. Hanson briefly mentions his crazy scheme to lure the actual Zodiac Killer out to a San Francisco screening.
Tabloid-Horror Trailers – A series of trailers from AGFA’s archives for similar movies to the Zodiac Killer. Trailers include Carnival of Blood (01:54), The Mansion Massacre (00:31), The Other Side of Madness (01:50), Three On A Meathook (00:31), and The Toolbox Murders (02:14).
Another Son of Sam (71:57 in HD) – AGFA includes an entire second movie from their archives as a bonus in decent condition. Directed by Dave Adams and released in 1977, this slasher roughly works in the same genre as The Zodiac Killer being loosely based on a real killer. Taken from a 2K film transfer of a 35mm print, Another Son of Sam actually looks slightly better on Blu-ray than the main feature. It does share its unique grindhouse ethos. The exploitation film comes in lossless 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound with optional English SDH subtitles. Despite being a bonus, this movie may actually be more entertaining than The Zodiac Killer. It follows more of a traditional slasher model.
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