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The Zodiac Killer

a/k/a Zodiak

      "I am the Supreme Zodiac! If Iím to be happy in Paradise, I must collect my slaves now! All those that I kill in this life will be my slaves when I am reborn in Paradise! Atlantis shall rise again!"

-- Not Charles Berlitz    




Gonzoid Cinema




She shoulda called Triple-A.


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With no real warning, we open in the thick of it as the narrator, our killer, spouts off his self-aggrandizing, narcissistic diatribe, making light of his victim's unawareness of his random acts of violence ... First he shoots some unsuspecting person in a car, and then attacks and kills a woman with a knife -- both in broad daylight, both on a populated street, while wearing banana-nose glasses -- before the opening credits even roll.

As the killer's cerebral rants continue, bragging up his current reign of terror and killing spree, he taunts the audience about his ability to blend in. He could be a stranger, or friend, or the quiet guy who lives next door. It doesn't matter. He could kill you. Anytime. Anywhere. And you'd never see it coming...

"The motion picture you are about to see was conceived in 1970. Its goal is not win commercial awards but to create an 'awareness of the present danger.' [The Zodiac Killer] is based on known facts. If some of the scenes, dialogue, and letters seem strange and unreal, remember - they happened. His victims received no warnings. They were unsuspecting people like you..."

-- Paul Aver :: The San Francisco Chronicle  

It's a little depressing when I mention the names David Faraday, Betty Lou Johnson, Darlene Ferrin, Mike Mageau, Cecelia Shepard, Bryan Hartnell and Paul Stine, you won't have a clue as to who I'm talking about. And what's even more depressing, if I say, Zodiac Killer, you'd probably know about him -- or at least have some recognition of who that was. That's just the way it is, I guess. We hardly ever remember the names of the victims (-- unless you're directly affected by the tragedy), but the killers will live on forever in infamy, film, stories and true crime novels. My point here is not to preach. I'm as guilty as the rest of you ... I didn't know who those people were, either, until I did a little research for this review. Yeah, I already knew who the Zodiac Killer was. Make that I knew what the Zodiac Killer was ... For those of you who don't, the Zodiac was a real serial killer that terrorized northern California in the late 1960's. It is believed that he killed seven people, possibly more, and one victim who claims to have escaped his clutches. And during his reign of terror, he wrote taunting letters to the newspapers and the police, bragging himself up, and even offered a cryptogram that, when deciphered, would reveal his true identity. 

Eventually, the code was broken, but his identity remained unattainable. And then it all abruptly and inexplicably stopped. Some believe he was arrested for another crime, others think he somehow died, or he's still out there. Regardless, the Zodiac was never caught and his identity remains a mystery. Over the years, there have been several suspects, including a member of the Manson Family, and one theory even points the finger at Ted Kaczynski -- a/k/a the Unabomber. For more information on the Zodiac, click on over to The Zodiac Killer.com.

The Zodiac -- not this film, mind you -- definitely put his stamp on Hollywood, as well. Serving as the basis for Harry Callahan's first nemesis, Scorpio, in Dirty Harry, his actions -- the letters, manifesto and motives -- set the template for many a serial killer movie to come. And to possibly cash in on both that film and the killer's lingering notoriety, came a no-budget exploitation quickie, The Zodiac Killer.

As with most bio-pics of this nature and type, the filmmakers took quite a few dramatic liberties for The Zodiac Killer. Director Tom Hanson and screenwriters Ray Cantrell and Manny Cardoza, were all graduates of the Coleman Francis / Anthony Cardoza school of filmmaking, and with the likes of The Hellcats and Bigfoot under their belts, were no strangers to exploitation pieces. They claim to only want to tell the truth. And they did. The truth being that these kind of cheap exploitation knock-offs always made money.

Meanwhile, we've yet to see who the killer is or what he truly looks like in the film either, which means we must root through a few suspects. And, as usual, when it comes to these types of killers, their narcissistic fueled bravado doesn't exactly match up to the miserable losers they really and truly are.

Our first suspect, Grover McDerry (Bob Jones), is a truck driver, bad toupee-wearer, and one-half of a bitter divorce settlement -- and the mere mention of his ex-wife will trigger a full-blown psychotic episode in our boy, Grover. Returning to his apartment, Grover gets his mail from Jerry (Hal Reed), the postman, but all he gets are bills, and after catching hell from his landlady over the back rent he owes, Grover finds more bad news inside as his wife, Helen (Dion Marinkovich), is there waiting for him,  wanting her child support payments. Told that if he refuses to pay up he can't see their daughter anymore, Grover, of course, goes ballistic and threatens to kill her ... Next, we leave Grover for a while, to get a peek into the life of a postal worker as Jerry heads home, where he listens to some strange stories from his neighbor about dames being plump, and evil, and as dumb as leftovers. (The hell?) Inside, we can't help but notice one wall of Jerry's apartment is dominated by a series of rabbit hutches. Checking in on the animals, our boy is soon overwrought when discovering that Leo, his favorite bunny, has passed on. (You have to feed them, ya know.) Cradling the deceased bunny, Jerry laments over why evil people get to live when innocent woodland creatures have to die (-- when you don't feed them.) 

Moving back to Grover, we see he's preparing for a night on the town by donning a hideous helmet of hair (-- Style B: The Ted Koppel), a plaid leisure suit, and then completes his accessorizing with a snub nosed revolver. (And yes, I think we're supposed to notice the poster of the naked woman with large breasts tacked onto his mirror.) Fully loaded, he heads to a singles bar, where miraculously, he attracts not one, but four, women! When this gaggle proves quite a handful, Grover spots Jerry and begs him for reinforcements. But when Jerry turns him down, Grover accuses the timid postman of being "a faggot." However, Grover quickly apologizes and Jerry, with his manhood on the line, agrees to join the party ... Commandeering a corner booth, though he warns the ladies not to touch his hair, Grover's hair helmet inevitably gets knocked off. It was an accident, but Grover is humiliated, and when he inevitably goes bonkers, Jerry must push him away before he takes his anger out on the toupee-tipper. Both men are asked to leave the bar.

Meanwhile, out at Lover's Lane, a young couple take part in some passionate pre-marital necking until a flashlight illuminates the cab. When the man opens the window to see who's spying on them, he is shot dead. The terrified woman tries to get away, but the killer empties his revolver into her, too ... The next morning, while the cops investigate the crime scene and chase their tails with the usual suspects, we find Grover and his toupee in bed, recovering from a hangover. Jerry's hungover, too, and they meet by happenstance in a cafe, where Jerry is appalled that they're offering rabbit stew as the lunch special and Grover has no luck schmoozing the surly waitress, who eventually tells him to get bent. Rebuffed and rejected, Grover storms off ... That evening, after the surly waitress offers to give the short-order cook a ride home, they get into her car and begin to talk about life's problems. Suddenly, we spot a flashlight coming toward them. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Fearing they have a spree killer on their hands, the local authorities form a task force led by by Detective Pittman (Ray Lynch). But with no leads, no witnesses, and no motive, the investigation goes nowhere fast. Having a record for narcotics possession, urinating in someone's drink (!?!), and several assaults on women, Grover is brought in during the latest round-up of usual suspects for some routine questioning. At some point during the interrogation, the surly SOB realizes that they're looking for a killer, and that he's a suspect, and when they ask to look at his gun, he loses his temper and tells them to take a flying leap. Interview over.

A few days later, a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle receives a package: a letter from the killer, who calls himself Zodiac, and a copy of his manifesto. Apparently, the killer wants the paper to print that manifesto exactly, and also warns that if they don't, he will kill more people. Zodiac also taunts them with a strange cipher, saying if they can break the code they will have his true identity. The civic minded reporter calls Pittman and turns the letter and cipher over to him ... But the paper still prints the story and the code.

After his dust up with the police, an even surlier Grover goes to his ex-wife's house and demands to see his daughter. Helen refuses, accuses him of being doped-up again, and threatens to call the police if he doesn't leave. Since she has full custody there's nothing he can do, but still wanting his half, Grover heads to the garage and retrieves a saw (-- though I don't think this is quite what Solomon had in mind...) When the police arrive just as Grover rousts his daughter, Judy, out of her bedroom, he pushes Judy away, draws his pistol and opens fire. The cops return fire and chase the estranged husband into the backyard. And as they close in, Grover screams out that he is the Zodiac before the police shoot him dead; his body falling back into the pool, where it slowly sinks to the bottom.

Case closed? Nope. Shortly after Grover's demise, Pittman receives a phone call. The caller read the papers and says Grover's claims were a hoax. He is the real Zodiac, and after providing details that back up his claim, he asks Pittman if they've solved the cryptogram yet, and then taunts him further, saying "Solve it and you solve me." Also of note, before the killer hangs up, he demands more headlines ... At the other end of the line, our true culprit is revealed to be Jerry (-- insert your own 'gone postal' joke, here), who turns to a strange shrine covered in runes and odd symbols, to which he rants about how the people he killed will be his slaves in the next life, and that it's necessary to collect more slaves before he crosses over to the other side. Screwed-in-the-head Jerry then ends his rant by announcing that Atlantis shall rise again.

Next, we have two bizarre vignettes: One is unintentionally funny, as a young couple stumbles upon Jerry having a cookout on the beach. When Jerry demands that the girl sing "Auld Lang Syne" she does, but Jerry's odd behavior continues, turning things sinister, so they quickly excuse themselves. As they leave, the boyfriend exclaims "There's something weird about that guy." (...And your first clue was?) The second vignette finds children playing at a playground, under the less than attentive eye of their parents. When one of the little rodents gets stuck up a tree, guess who pops up out of nowhere to help? Old psycho-boy himself. And after he helps the kid down, the mother comments on how nice and helpful the young man was.

This is followed by a recreation of the true Zodiac killer's most infamous murder ... Wearing a black executioner's hood and black sweatshirt, with the Zodiac symbol stamped on the front, Jerry tromps out of the forest and spots a couple lounging by the lake. I guess only around San Francisco is this kind of thing considered normal, so the couple doesn't panic at his appearance until he pulls a gun. Saying he's an escaped con, who claims he will only tie them up and steal their car, after Jerry binds the terrified but pliant couple he brutally stabs them both to death. The deed done, Jerry gathers up a few souvenirs and leaves the cops another taunting message, written in lipstick, on the victims' car. While he writes, he flashes back to the killings -- and I believe he's writing the note with only one hand because the other hand is busy. (You figure it out.) The message claims responsibility for all the killings so far, giving their date and location, and he even goes so far as to call the police and report the latest attack, himself

His murder lust satisfied, if ever so briefly, Jerry returns to his mail route, where he is mistaken for the pizza boy by a desperate old woman, who drags him into her apartment for a ... well, special delivery. But Jerry emerges seconds later, pulling his pants up, with a desperate, donut-glazed look in his eye. (Is the man sexually frustrated, lost without a clue about the horizontal bop -- is this why he's turned homicidal? I believe we're supposed to think so.) That little incident also triggers another rash of homicides, starting when Jerry offers to help an old woman fix a flat -- a flat he caused by shooting out the tire. But he beats the woman to death with the spare, and then knocks the car off the jack so it lands on top of her, just for the heck of it ... As his reign of terror continues, he next kills a taxi driver, shooting him in the face after driving him to where he wanted to go. (Nice friggin' tip.) People heard the shots and called the police, who throw out a large net, but again, Jerry's perceived normalcy gets him through the dragnet. He even flags down a passing patrolmen, saying he spotted the killer -- who went thataway. Jerry laughs as the car roars off.

Later, we find Jerry's in his favorite watering hole, listening to a radio report about his latest homicidal escapades. When the bartender can't believe they haven't caught that degenerate yet, Jerry offers that maybe the killer is as normal as he is. But the bartender says the killer would never be able to fool him like that. After Jerry leaves, we see the Zodiac sign drawn in the spilled salt where he was sitting. Once more, the bartender comments on how nice a guy Jerry is as his bar towel erases the evidence.

With the bodies piling up, Pittman is beginning to grasp at straws and reluctantly agrees to consult the famed psychic, Aaron Kozlow. After making their way through his entourage, the psychic gives them a reading. Despite Pittman's obvious skepticism, the medium senses vibrations that tell him the killer is a charmer, but is really frightened of women; he used to be a civil service employee; but now he works with automobiles; a body shop; a detailer; and has access to many automobiles. The psychic also keeps hearing water. (What? Is he hearing Atlantis surfacing? What a quack.) But while the cops consult the psychic hotline, Jerry is back on the rampage as he kills a man in an elevator, taking an ear as a souvenir. He then picks up a hitchhiker, who realizes his dubious intentions and tries to get away. But Jerry runs her down and stabs her to death. On his way back into town, Jerry stops to help another stalled motorist. First checking under the hood, he then asks the elderly driver to help. Instructing her to hold the carburetor open while he tries to start it, Jerry slams the car hood shut on top of her, and then crawls on top of the hood and starts jumping, crushing the woman underneath. Finished, he drags the body into the car and pushes it over a cliff.

His murder lust seemingly satisfied again, Jerry pays a visit to a local hospice to visit his father. (At least I'm going to assume it's his father.) He passes Mr. Quigley (George Fryette), whose recuperating from a heart attack, resting in a rollaway chair outside and says hi. Heading in, Jerry finds the cell -- What kind of hospital is this? -- where his father is being held. Their conversation is completely one-sided as Jerry begs him to say something, anything, to give him a sign of affection. These pleas continue until Jerry hears his father urinating, followed by a toilet flushing. With that, Jerry flies into rage over this repeated rejection, so he's asked to leave ... On his way out, Jerry sneaks into another room and kills a patient. Outside, he pushes Mr. Quigley's chair down a hill, where the old man careens out of control until eventually crashing into a subway entrance, but he was already dead; his heart couldn't take the ride.

Our movie then ends as it began, with Jerry's narration, escorting us as we walk down busy street. No one is aware that a homicidal maniac walks amongst them, who taunts the audience further, saying the police won't do anything to stop him. They can't stop him. He's still on the loose, and there are plenty more like him running amok. And he won't stop. Ever. Because "I like what I'm doing too much." His psycho babble continues -- it is not I who am crazy, it is I who am mad blah-blah-blah I can't get it up. And as he helps an old lady to cross the street, Jerry signs off, promising us all that "I'll be seeing you."

This Is Not The End

I will give this wonky film a lot of points for at least attempting to let us know who the victims are (were?), as before each person is killed, the film takes a brief hiatus where we get a quick peek into their lives before they're ended -- by no fault of their own. It's an attempt to show that these are real, normal people, just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seems a little silly, but the film wouldn't have worked without them, because it really helps bring home the film's big central theme of the randomness of the killer.

For some reason films like this bug me. I don't know if it's the low-budget auteurness -- the sleaze noir, if you will -- that gives it a quasi-documentary feel, making things seem a little too real, or what. You get the feeling, an almost impending sense of dread, and dare I say helplessness, that this is something you really shouldn't be watching at all. It is grim, gritty, and rings true despite several instances where it gets more than a little goofy.

The movie's central theme does ring out, loud and clear. Are we really safe? Probably not. Jerry is a putz. Just like you and me (-- without the homicidal tendencies of course.) Hannibal Lector is a work of fiction, and his exploits are pretty damned ridiculous, as are most films depicting nigh-omnipotent serial killers. (A genre I really don't care for and find extremely silly -- including Silence of the Lambs.) So unlike it's brethren, The Zodiac Killer doesn't glorify the killer, and that makes it infinitely harder to watch and endure.

The Zodiac Killer (1971) Adventure Productions Inc. :: Audubon Films / P: Tom Hanson / AP: Werner Maahs, Matt Marinkovich / D: Tom Hanson / W: Ray Cantrell, Manny Cardoza / C: Robert Birchall, Wilson Hong / E: Tom Hanson / S: Hal Reed, Bob Jones, Ray Lynch, Tom Pittman, Mary Darrington

Originally Posted: 05/04/04 :: Rehashed: 09/10/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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