Shot in 1970 and released a year later, in the midst of the nationwide search for America's real "Zodiac Killer", Tom Hanson's cheap, tawdry crime-horror hybrid comes on for the most part like an unusually downbeat Herschell Gordon Lewis film.
It focuses on three male characters all going about their business in San Francisco during the time of the unsolved murders. All three will become suspects in the eyes of the increasingly baffled police.
First we have middle-aged truck driver Grover (Bob Jones). He's unhappy at home, always squabbling with his wife, and consequently spends a lot of his free time getting drunk in bars while hitting on younger women.
Then there's Jerry (Hal Reed), a put-upon postman who seems like an amiable enough chap for the most part. However, an early altercation with Grover's landlady demonstrates that he also has quite a temper on him at times...
Finally we have Judd (Richard Styles), an introverted type who has more love for dumb animals than even dumber humans.
The film's first half concentrates primarily on Grover's troubled life. From pretending to be a successful businessman while trying to chat women up, to becoming enraged when a date reveals that he's wearing a wig, to turning truly dangerous when his estranged wife refuses him access to their son ... he's a seedy, volatile character all right - but does that make him a murderer?
Likewise with Jerry and Judd, who both become more prominent during the film's latter half. All the while, the killer attacks victims sporadically and with ruthless efficiency, filling in their time in-between by making taunting telephone calls to the baffled cops. In particular, detectives Heller (Tom Pittman) and Pittman (Ray Lynch) - who even enlist the help of a psychic (Aaron Koslow) at one point, such is their desperation.
Of course, we all know that the Zodiac Killer was never caught - so the film can offer no real resolution. But that matters not. What THE ZODIAC KILLER offers is an engrossing time capsule snapshot of San Francisco in the early 1970s. The grime, the hustle and bustle, the muted fashions, the smoky bars ... it's all captured with guerrilla-style authenticity. Even the laconic jazzy score is so purely of its era.
Tom Hanson directed the film. He came fresh from having owned a chain of pizza shops. As a filmmaker, I bet he made damn fine pizzas. THE ZODIAC KILLER isn't exactly a "good" film, but does work on some curious level.
The acting is often poor, the script is clunky and the camerawork is perfunctory. As I mentioned above, it looks and feels a lot like a less frivolous Herschell Gordon Lewis movie. In terms of violence, the film is low-key for the most part, barring a couple of unexpectedly gory knifings. Rather than being overtly explicit though, or even dabbling full-on in horror territory, THE ZODIAC KILLER's terror is understated - perhaps even accidental. But, for however unintentionally amusing a great deal of this may be, it's also quietly disturbing at many times.
The American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) have teamed up with Something Weird to release this curiosity piece on blu-ray for the first ever time. Their region-free release is a dual-format affair, also offering the film on DVD.
The blu-ray proffers the film uncut - 85 minutes and 50 seconds in length - and in full 1080p HD. The original 1.33:1 ratio has been respected for this new 4K scan. Colours are strong and true, blacks are solid and a keen filmic texture is retained throughout. Images are a tad soft, and some print damage is evident. But this is by far this relative obscurity has ever looked ... and, most likely, ever will.
English DTS-HD mono audio is clear at all times, despite frequent background noise. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easily readable at all times.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include a scene selection option allowing access to the film via 9 chapters.
Extras begin with a commentary track from Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick. Moderated by Josie and Sebastian from the AGFA offices, this is an enthusiastic and informative chat track - informal, interesting and fluent. A nice touch is kicking it off with audio from a couple of unadvertised radio spots for the film too.
"Let's Get This Guy" is a 3-and-a-half minute video interview with Hanson and Nedwick. They discuss the origins of the film, with Hanson explaining his background in acting and the reason he moved from pizza retail and into filmmaking. This short interview is peppered with clips of the film's more salacious sequences.
By far the most substantial bonus feature is a second film, also presented in HD: 1977'S ANOTHER SON OF SAM. Presented in 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 televisions, this starts off in sombre fashion with a list of murderous statistics playing against a black screen as lone gunshots punctuate the silence every so often.
David Adams' film begins with mental patient Harvey escaping from an asylum and going on a killing spree. He's pursued by cop Claude (Russ Dubuc), who even enlists the help of Harvey's mother (Ann Owens) in a bid to bring the killer to justice.
Occasionally violent, fleetingly effective (there are a couple of accidentally proficient sequences); this is mainly a plodding and ugly little film. At just 61 minutes and 57 seconds in length, it still manages to drag. Arguably the highlight of the film is the hilariously terrible song being sung by Johnny Charro in the first ten minutes.
Still, there's something about the film's ineptitude and downbeat tone that makes it worth a watch, if only once. Originally titled HOSTAGES, the film was made in 1975 but released two years later with its new title to cash-in on ... well, you know.
We also get an interesting gallery of "horror-tabloid" trailers: CARNIVAL OF BLOOD, THE MANSON MASSACRE, THE OTHER SIDE OF MADNESS, THREE ON A MEATHOOK and THE TOOLBOX MURDERS.
Finally, this package comes replete with double-sided artwork (the reverse being the better of the two) and a colourful 16-page booklet containing excellent liner notes from Temple of Schlock's Chris Poggiali. In a nice touch, the book dedicates this release to Something Weird's late head honcho, Mike Vraney.
THE ZODIAC KILLER is an oddly likeable relic from early-70s America, purporting to offer more insight into the crime that inspired it than David Fincher's ZODIAC. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. But it does provide a lot of guilty fun. This AGFA/Something Weird release treats it with more love than I bet anyone ever dared hope for!
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by AGFA|