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.
Interesting that the tag line on the film’s one-sheet uses a quote from the Riverside confession letter, showing the two cases linked in the minds of the filmmakers. Or perhaps Avery was influential here too.
Yeah, I thought about that too. Undoubtedly, Avery believed in the Riverside Connection and hence he likely had some influence on Tom and company. Maybe more importantly, it’s just a very quotable line.
That full article about Tom Hanson has a bit where Hanson describes Avery as being really paranoid. I found his quotes kind of funny.
Back to your observation… The use of that line reminds me of The Zodiac (2005) movie because it has several prominent shots where they (intentionally) use the well-known Bates crime-scene photo as if it were one from one of the Vallejo crimes. Strangely, I found it distracting.
The Zodiac responded to the newspapers many times, notably the ‘Debut of Zodiac’ Letter, ‘Bus Bomb’ Letter and the example you gave regarding the ‘My Name is Cipher.’ Zodiac loved his name in the papers and he wanted front page coverage, yet this film was released in April 1971 and Dirty Harry was released in December 1971, and despite this wonderful coverage to boost his ego, he fails to mention anything about these films made in his honour. Zodiac’s last letter was either the Los Angeles Letter or Pines Card in March 1971, prior to the release of both films and then he went quiet for three years (if we believe the Exorcist Letter was his last correspondence in January 1974). Failing to capitalize on this wonderful publicity is indicative of a man, if not dead, at the very least incarcerated and unable to bathe in the glory of his own ego.
Excellent points, food for thought.
Yeah, it’s curious, especially considering how soon after the Los Angeles Times letter this movie was. This seems to suggest that the Pines Card and the Los Angeles Times letter (which were mailed in very close proximity to each other) together represented a bit of a mini re-emergence, since the killer hadn’t communicated since the previous Halloween. In other words, he was already fading away into what would become his three-year hiatus.
Yes indeed. It is strange to me that Zodiac never went through with his bomb threat, after making this so very clear. Also, if he intended to follow the Wheel of Doom around full circle, he really did not get that far. There was certainly “deaths by gun” and “deaths by knife”, and although he tied the hands of the knife victims there really was never a “death by rope” that we know of. We can presume that the bus bomb would have been intended to represent “death by fire”. The fact that he stopped is indicative of a man who had either died, been incarcerated for another crime, or whose health had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer carry out his crimes. Perhaps he ended up in a hospital or in a mental institution? When you think about it, something as simple as diabetes could have cut his criminal career short. He was only a man after all, not some kind of superhuman, (although some try to portray him as such). This is the problem with mythology, it tends to grow all out of proportion over time. Zodiac mythology has taken on a life of its own, and as a result, so too has the Zodiac. This is why we have instances of people claiming that the Zodiac is still alive and well and still killing. They forget that even serial killers get old or sick. Using Occam’s Razor, the most obvious explanation for why he stopped killing is that he could no longer physically kill or had fled the country. In the case of the latter, why didn’t he start killing again in a new location? Surely his ego would have been such that his identity would have soon become obvious. The idea that a serial killer could suddenly stop and decide to “play it straight” does seem ludicrous, unless his mental condition had been entirely drug-induced and for some reason he had stopped taking those drugs.
The interview with Hanson is a gem. Thanks for sharing it. Everything he says needs to be read to be believed. (or not.) His stories perfectly epitomize the carnival-huckster exploits of many of the grade Z filmmakers of the time. “For my third film, I was gonna go get Dr. Mengele.” LOL.
It’s quite an article. Makes me feel like I’ve lived a very conventional (read dull) life 🙂
Just saw snippets of the 1971 movie. Hal Reed was listed as “Jerry” in the credits, however the actor Reed, born in 1936, doesn’t match the face of the actor that actually played the part in the movie.