For people who don't have a serious interest in the case of the Zodiac, this movie deserves a 0 star rating. It's a trifecta of bad acting, a bad script, and bad production. On the other hand, for those of us who do have a nontrivial interest in the case, this film does have a few redeeming qualities (hence the two-star rating), but more in terms of the story around the film than for any entertainment or informational value the film itself provides.
Released in 1971, The Zodiac Killer was the first movie to portray some version of the events from the case of the Zodiac.
After a bit of a red herring thread involving a toupee-wearing truck driver who pretends to be a businessman to attract women, the audience comes to understand that the Zodiac is actually Jerry, a socially-awkward, rabbit-loving mail carrier. Apart from a couple scenes in which Jerry proclaims himself the "supreme Zodiac" in the privacy of his own place while having a conversation with the disembodied voices of his victims, he mostly goes around wreaking havoc by committing murder one way or another, with a particular penchant for attacking lone women with automotive troubles.
Perhaps the best way to get a sense of the movie's view of the Zodiac is through the bookend narration that begins and ends the film. From the introduction:
"Why? Why don't you idiots ever learn? You walk around like everything is all right. Don't you know people like me exist? You're still alive. Well, maybe you've been lucky. [attack scene] Would it surprise you to learn that you've come into contact with a potential killer more than once? Many of you, in fact, have been watched by a murderer. Someone very possibly sitting next to you, or behind you, has killed. Sometimes it's a stranger. But, it could be a friend, or the quiet guy that lives next door."
The conclusion is a bit more involved:
Well, now you know I exist. What are you going to do about it? I'll tell you. You won't do anything. You'll go about things the same way you always have. I'm sick you say. I need medical help. I should be put away. I'm dangerous. Yeah, yeah that's right. But, I'm still loose, aren't I? Me and a lot of guys like me. What do you expect me to do, turn myself in? Are you kidding? I like what I'm doing! Oh, I know, you hear things like "mentally maladjusted," "schizophrenic paranoid," and, oh yes, "homicidal." Did it ever occur to you that guys like me don't care about all that crap? You know I'm insane, don't you? Well, I don't think so. The Webster's dictionary says insane means "absolutely senseless." How do I feed myself, clothe myself, and hold down a job if that's true? Well, me and my kind of people are smart enough to do our handy work again and again. Sure, you'll catch some of us. But, you let most of us go after a few years anyway.
[Looking at cop car] You don't scare me. You got him tied up pretty good. It used to be they could use the instinct they developed in their jobs. Today, if they make one false arrest, fail to warn me of my rights, or their cause of suspicion, search my car — where I keep my loaded gun and knifes — that's illegal search! They ain't got a case! [laughter]
Well, I don't want to take any more of your time. Besides, it really wouldn't do any good. I mean, you're not going to be careful, are you? I'll be seeing you. [laughter]
The stop-frame ending adds the ominous declaration: THIS IS NOT THE END.
One of the interesting aspects of The Zodiac Killer (1971) is that Paul Avery — the San Francisco Chronicle columnist most active in covering the Zodiac — participated in the production of the film. Specifically, he was listed as a consultant in the closing credits and he wrote the following short paragraph which is shown in the opening minute of the film:
The motion picture you are about to see was conceived in June 1970. Its goal is not to win commercial awards but to create an "awareness of a present danger". Zodiac is based on known facts. If some of the scenes, dialogue, and letters seem strange and unreal, remember — they happened. My life was threatened on Oct. 28, 1970 by Zodiac. His victims have received no warnings. They were unsuspecting people like you...
Paul Avery. Reporter
San Francisco Chronicle
A number of the Zodiac's actual crimes are portrayed in the film. However, though recognizable, many of the details of the crimes have been changed. Some of the ages, locations, and circumstances are often different. Hence, the relationship to the Zodiac is, in some ways, abstract. This is neither good nor bad; it's just the way it is.
Several of the killer's letters are also represented in the film. Apart from a few minor exceptions, the content of the communiqués is directly from the letters. However, sometimes the circumstances differ from reality. For example, part of one letter is transformed into a telephone conversation, parts from two different letters are portrayed as belonging to a single letter, etc.
Again, since the intention of the movie is not to represent the facts as accurately as possible, these observations matter relatively little.
Beyond the questions of how the movie relates to the actual case of the Zodiac, the film is definitely a product of its time. In some ways, this is a good thing. Whereas David Fincher had to work hard to recreate the look and feel of the Bay Area during the Zodiac era, The Zodiac Killer (1971) just had to roll the cameras. On the downside, there is a definite misogynistic overtone to the movie and hence parts of it come across feeling archaic.
The Story Behind The Story
What really makes The Zodiac Killer (1971) interesting is the story of its creation.
The primary driving force behind the movie was a man by the name of Tom Hanson. Tom is the kind of person that you occasionally read about who has lived a eclectic and remarkable life. While a complete accounting of Tom's (mis)adventures are beyond the scope of this review, there's a long and detailed article over at the Temple of Schlock blog that the author compiled after interviewing Tom multiple times.
Tom's primary goal in creating The Zodiac Killer (1971) was not to create an entertaining or informative movie; instead, he was trying to catch the killer. Yes, you read that right: trying to catch the Zodiac.
The plan was the following. Tom rented out the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco and premiered the movie on April 7, 1971 (the killer had written his Los Angeles Times letter just three-and-a-half weeks earlier). In line with conventional wisdom, Tom believed that the killer's ego would all but guarantee that he would attend one of the several showings.
To get the killer to reveal himself there was yet another layer to the plan. Tom convinced Kawasaki to sponsor the event by donating a motorcycle. Moviegoers could secure a chance at winning the prize by filling out a card that involved completing the statement: I think the Zodiac kills because... Tom then orchestrated a complex setup whereby somebody would immediately, but secretly, look at the submitted entries and signal if one of them looked like a match to the killer's handwriting. Various people stationed in and around the theater would confront any viable suspects.
Refer to the above article for all the details, including how one of the people involved almost died in the process (at least according to Tom). It's quite a story. In the end, of course, the plan did not nab the Zodiac. But, then again, neither did any of the other, more conventional, efforts...
From a strictly cinematic perspective, The Zodiac Killer (1971) leaves a lot to be desired. But, when considered against the backdrop of how and why Tom Hanson created it, it becomes one of the more interesting entries in the collection of Zodiac-related movies. Of course, that doesn't make the film itself any better. But it does provide another reason to find it interesting.