Monday, December 30, 2019

“It’s Just Not Cool When a Guy Just Honks His Horn” - The Zodiac Killer (1971) - Film #167

We have not yet explored one of the most famous and fascinatingly unique films of all time, pizza restauranteur Tom Hanson's The Zodiac Killer (1971) aka Zodiac, one of a handful of films made as a plot by a private citizen to provide the public service of catching a serial killer.

Reviewer preppy-3 writes, "It's all too obvious padding--and boring padding at that! There's also tons of misogynistic comments, terrible dialogue, low production values and unsure direction." Reviewer wilburscott writes, "Obviously made by people who were not too hip to film-making, the film is shoddy and poorly shot." And reviewer utgard14 writes, "It's got some grit, I'll give it that, but it's all just so cheap, slow, and dull that I couldn't enjoy it."

Read on to find out more about The Zodiac Killer...

The film opens with a nearly unreadable block of text in pink superimposed onto footage of car headlights. The text reads “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 really happened. My life was threatened on October 28, 1970 by Zodiac. His victims have received no warnings. They were unsuspecting people like you — Paul Avery, Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle.”

In a shocking opening, a police car pulls to a stop. The driver is reading a book called “It Can’t Happen Here.” A gun appears at his temple and fires. A voiceover—the voice of the Zodiac Killer—says, “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.”

The film cuts to its next shocking scene—a girl knifed on a suburban street by a man wearing glasses and a false nose. The girl looks straight at the camera. “My God. Help me please.” As she dies, blood flows from her handbag.

Then the credits appear in pink text, telling us that actor Ray Lynch plays Sergeant Pittman and Tom Pittman plays Officer Heller, the switching of names just one indicator of the filmmakers’ brilliantly realized fascination with the border between reality and film.

The film introduces us to Grover McDerry, a bald, overweight truck driver who brags about “scoring” with a “broad” while denigrating the mother of his little girl as a “bitch” and who also hands a friend a pornographic magazine to read in the men’s room.

Grover, of course, is one of our heroes.

Grover walks to his apartment building and listens to his postman Jerry complain about the uselessness of Christmas cards. After Grover goes to his apartment, a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Crocker  harasses the postman: “Hey, stupid! Hey, you ignorant mailman!” Staring at the camera, she berates the man for leaving advertising in trays underneath the apartment tenants’ mailboxes. “How you ever got this job, I’ll never know.”

Jerry the mailman’s fury boils just under the surface. “Oh, shut up! Quit picking on me!”

Mrs. Crocker tosses the ads across the front step. “Listen here, I’m gonna take your mail and spread it on the ground and tell them that you did it. Yeah!”

“Why, you hairy old—“ Jerry walks away, leaving the mail on the ground.

Jerry, of course, is another of our heroes.

Continuing the themes of animosity between the sexes, Grover’s ex-wife appears in his apartment, trying to get money from him and threatening him with jail. Furious, Grover kicks her out, then puts on a slow jazz record.

When Jerry returns home to his house, he has a jovial conversation with his neighbor Doc about how awful women are. “Once they get over 20, they’re all no damn good,” Doc says. “The Chinese got it put right. They call it the Year of the Dog. Or better explained in English, the birth of the bitch.”

“You don’t mind if I get some of my claws on them young ones, do you, Doc?” Jerry says.

“Be my guest,” Doc, played by Doodles Weaver (Sigourney Weaver’s uncle), jokes. “If you get any leftovers or extras, remember, I like ‘em plump and juicy. And dumb.”

Jerry enters his house, then climbs down three flights of stairs into his basement, where he keeps rabbits in cages in the dark. A rabbit named Leo is dead, causing Jerry to cry and complain about evil people. He buries Leo under a gigantic cross. “Take good care of the grass here,” Jerry says. “Goodbye, old buddy.”

Back at Grover’s apartment, Grover gets ready for a party by putting on cologne and then a blond toupee that can only be described as ridiculous. He also sprays hairspray on the toupee, though the hair appears not to be in danger of moving a millimeter even without hairspray.

Grover also puts a handgun in his pocket for the party.

Elsewhere, a young man picks up a young woman at her house in his VW van. She complains that he didn’t come to her door to pick her up. “It’s just not cool when a guy just honks his horn.”

Jerry meets Grover at the party, which is at a bar. Grover is hosting four women, who are presumably attracted to his toupee, and he needs help from Jerry to take some of the women off his hands. Jerry sits down and Grover jokes, “Come on, sit down, don’t be afraid. They’re not gonna rape you. At least not here.”

Unsurprisingly, Jerry immediately starts making out with two of the women.

A few seconds later, one of the women knocks Grover’s toupee off and he grows furious, almost murderous. “No one calls me a bald-headed bastard!” he yells, though nobody called him a bald-headed bastard. Jerry tries to calm him down, and Grover leaves the bar.

Elsewhere, the Zodiac Killer shoots the young man and woman who are making out in their van.

Later, the film provides a detailed look at the justice system in your universe’s San Francisco. A reporter joins a detective for a criminal lineup in a police station. The purpose of the lineup is to match criminals who have been arrested with other crimes. Three detectives and the reporter sit in the dark, watching six men (all white, in a fascinating political statement) dressed in leisure clothes stand against a wall with a grid made of white tape. The criminals admit to various crimes they have recently committed. After a few questions about their crimes, one of the detectives says, “Well, a lot of candidates. No suspects.”

(It is unclear whether this lineup is related in some way to the Zodiac Killer investigation.)

Later, Grover runs into Jerry at a diner. Jerry orders a chef salad, oil and vinegar dressing, hold the meat. When Grover sits down, the waitress tells him the special is rabbit stew.

“Nobody should eat rabbits,” Jerry says, offended.

“Everybody likes rabbit stew,” the waitress, Gloria, says. “It’s delicious.”

Not only does the waitress offend Jerry with the talk of rabbit stew, she tells Grover she plans to tell everyone at the bar what a cheapskate he is because he was drunk previously and told everyone Gloria was easy. The film then follows Gloria and a friend of hers as they park his car and talk about his ex-girlfriend. The Zodiac Killer shoots the two of them.

The next day, two detectives question Grover, apparently due to his connection with Gloria the waitress as well as his history of drunkenness, assault, and narcotics use. The detectives list some complaints against Grover: “Proceeded to urinate in customers’ drinks, yelling, ‘The Fountain of Youth lives!’”

“I know I did some screwy things last night, but I’m no killer,” Grover says.

The interrogation goes in an unexpected direction. Asking about Grover’s handgun, a detective asks, “Why do you wear it when you go out boozing, disguised as a businessman? With hair?”

“Now wait a minute!”

“Are you ashamed of being a truck driver?”

“No, of course not.”

“Why the big exec act all the time? You ever think of psychiatric help, McDerry?”

“I don’t need a head shrinker! So I put on the dog a little. So what? Everybody does. People just don’t look up to a truck driver. Besides, I get better treatment and more broads by being a successful businessman. And that’s all. Is there anything wrong with that?”

The film then cuts to a newspaper printing press, where one of the Zodiac’s famous messages is opened by a newspaperman, who immediately calls the detective to read him the message. The letter also includes a cipher, which the detective tells the newspaperman to run on the front page.

Later, Grover goes to his ex-wife’s house because he wants to see his daughter. When she refuses to let him see her, Grover goes to the garage and picks up a saw. “This’ll get me my half,” he says, apparently intending to cut his daughter in half so he can have custody of one of the halves.

Grover’s ex-wife runs outside, leaving her daughter inside for some reason, after calling the police. When the police arrive, they ask who has broken into the house. “My ex-husband. He’s drunk or doped-up or something. Just get in there.”

Instead of cutting his daughter in half, Grover pulls out his gun and uses her as a hostage, but only for a second. He sees a newspaper across the street with a headline about the Zodiac, so he yells, “The Zodiac! That’s me! I’m the Zodiac!” He shoots at the police, but he is killed in the backyard, falling into a swimming pool.

Having only used up 38 minutes, the film moves into its next act. The detectives receive a phone call from the real Zodiac Killer—who the filmmakers reveal to be Jerry the mailman! On the phone, he yells, “I think this deserves front page coverage! I want headlines!”

Now revealed to the audience as the killer, Jerry’s accent changes to that of a Shakespearean actor.

He also reveals himself to be some kind of Satanist or New Age enthusiast who believes that when he is reborn in paradise, all the people he has killed will be his slaves. Jerry helpfully explains all this while sitting in his shrine room. He also believes that Atlantis will rise again.

The film cuts to a couple strolling on a beach that appears to be hundreds of miles south of San Francisco. “This is the first time I’ve ever felt that I’m part of the company,” the man says. “You know, that they really value me, that they’re counting on me to help make it work.”

“That’s great, Dick,” says the woman.

When night falls, the couple encounter Jerry sitting in front of a fire on the beach cooking hot dogs. Jerry offers the couple hot dogs and then allows the woman to sing “Auld Lang Syne” and “Streets of Laredo” with a guitar before he just lets them walk away.

Later, Jerry interacts with more potential victims at a park where children are playing. A boy named Bobby climbs too high in a tree and Jerry helps him get down. “I hope he doesn’t fall on that foot of his,” says his mother for some unexplained reason.

“Now there’s a gentleman,” says a mother.

“And handsome too,” says another mother.

These characters are never seen again.

In another vignette, Jerry dresses up in full super-villain gear to assault two sunbathers by the edge of a lake.

Holding the couple at gunpoint, Jerry tells them he is an escaped convict (perhaps explaining his Satanic outfit). Then he kills them not with his gun but with a knife, saying, “I’m going to have to stab you people.”

In an inexplicably comic scene, Jerry resumes his mail route, only to be waylaid (in more ways than one) by a young woman in a bikini who pulls him into her apartment. Minutes later, Jerry stumbles out of her apartment, pulling his jeans up, having not even put down his mailbag.

In another vignette, Jerry shoots out a car’s tire on a deserted road. When the old lady driving the Mustang gets out of her car, Jerry steps out of the woods. Instead of being suspicious, the old lady allows Jerry to change her tire, but he murders her by slamming the spare tire down on her head.

The film proceeds to chronicle Jerry’s killing spree, showing Jerry as so arrogant he gives clues to his identity to random people. At a local tavern, he spreads salt across the bar and draws his cross-and-circle logo in the salt, but the clue is unnoticed by the bartender. In an infamous sequence, Jerry kills a woman who is having car trouble by asking her to hold her hand on the carburetor while he slams the hood down on her head—he even climbs onto the car and jumps up and down on the hood to make sure she is dead.

Meanwhile, the detectives visit a psychic, who gives them dozens of clues: “Your man was a civil service employee. He was terminated under unfavorable circumstances four years ago. At the present time, he’s working in an automobile body shop. He’s involved in painting the cars. He’s done this kind of work in other establishments over the last few years. He tried to be a private detective but that didn’t work out too well. He was injured on a motorcycle, not too serious. Oh yes, you will find a rabbit’s foot on his keychain. He’s frightened of women. And he has a disarming, outgoing personality. Last week, he purchased products from a health food store not far from here.”

“Is there anything else you can tell us?” asks a detective, befuddled that the psychic has not given them enough concrete information.

In the final part of the film, the filmmakers allow us to see some of Jerry’s motivation for indiscriminately killing innocent people around San Francisco. Jerry visits his father in a hospital—or, more accurately, in a jail cell inside a hospital room. We never see his father. Jerry gets emotional. Sobbing, he asks, “Dad, can’t you give me some love? Some expression of your feeling?”

The only response is the trickling sound of water, as if Jerry’s father is urinating into a bedpan.

“There’s nothing left, is there?” Jerry asks. “If there ever was anything. Mother! Dad! Talk to me!”

After he leaves his father’s room, Jerry cruelly injures another hospital patient confined to a bed, then kills another patient by rolling his lounge chair down a steep hill.

Jerry finishes with a monologue as he walks along Hollywood Boulevard (which, I believe, is not in San Francisco): “Well, now you know I exist. What are you gonna 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. I know, you hear things like mentally maladjusted, schizophrenic, paranoiac, and oh yes, homocidal. 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.” He continues with his rambling. He ends with, “I’ll be seeing you.”

Fascinatingly, the end credits roll over shots from the film, including production shots of Grover’s shooting at the swimming pool where the camera and filmmakers are clearly visible

The story behind the making of The Zodiac Killer is fascinating (see Mental Floss and Temple of Schlock for illuminating interviews with director and Pizza Man owner Tom Hanson). Unfortunately, many people ignore the qualities of the film itself, dismissing it as a quickly made ruse to catch a killer. The film, however, is just as fascinating as its backstory, moving from comical vignettes to hypothetical murder scenes to deadly serious warnings about the dangers of modern society as effective as those in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). The events of the story are made even more chilling by the fact that the real-life Zodiac was never caught, despite the efforts of policemen, cartoonists, reporters, and low-budget filmmakers alike.

As a proto-slasher, The Zodiac Killer should be recognized as one of the most creative serial killer movies of all time. Jerry's murder spree includes guns and knives, of course, but how many slashers can boast of killing people by dropping tires on their heads, slamming car hoods on victims, and rolling invalids down hills on wheeled chaise lounges to their deaths? Not many, I can assure you.

There is one point, however, that I believe The Zodiac Killer gets wrong. Of course, this is the psychic's contention that the Zodiac has a rabbit's foot attached to his keychain. Jerry, who keeps rabbits, feeding them while he is not killing innocent people, would never own something as cruel as a rabbit's foot. This fact is almost enough for me to believe the psychic is not a real psychic, though he is correct about several of Jerry's characteristics.

In the end, The Zodiac Killer is a masterpiece of American filmmaking, and it would stand as such even if it were not made as a desperate attempt to unmask a serial killer. The cinema owes much to The Zodiac Killer--creative murders, nice guys who joke about hating women, Los Angeles doubling for San Francisco, implications about sawing young children in half...the list could go on and on. What would modern cinema be without The Zodiac Killer? Dreadfully dull. Dreadfully dull indeed.