The Zodiac Killer

| August 24, 2017

Something Weird Video is a legend in cult and exploitation home video for good reason. Since Mike Vraney founded the company in 1990, SWV has discovered and released countless numbers of features, shorts, trailers, educational films, and weird cinema of every imaginable type. Regional horror movies, Christian scare films, nudist pictures, grimy porn loops, drivers’ ed films, and the oeuvres of underground auteurs like Andy Milligan, Doris Wishman, and Joe Sarno all sit happily side-by-side in the Something Weird catalog. Without SWV, many of these films would have disappeared. The American Genre Film Archive (AGFA), an offshoot of Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, has similarly been doing spectacular work recovering and archiving film prints. Their collaboration began with a successful Kickstarter campaign that allowed AGFA to purchase their own scanner to preserve their rare film prints and to make them available for home video release. The Zodiac Killer Blu-ray/DVD combo is the first release from the AGFA/SWV home video imprint, and it sets a high bar for everything they release going forward.

The Zodiac Killer case has been the basis for a number of films since the killer’s reign of terror in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Most of these were made some time after the Zodiac was most active, but Tom Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer was released in 1971–right in the midst of the killings and cryptic letters the Zodiac was sending to California newspapers. Hanson, who at the time owned a California pizzeria, decided that he could possibly help catch the Zodiac by luring him out into the public eye. He would do this by making a film about the Zodiac, and he reckoned that chances were good the killer would see it. The ploy didn’t work, and the identity of the Zodiac Killer remains unknown to this day. However, it resulted in a truly one-of-a-kind film that veers from wild speculation on the Zodiac’s personal life to carefully researched replications of his crimes.

The Zodiac Killer opens following parallel stories of two regular guys as they go about their day-to-day lives. Grover (Bob Jones) is a womanizing truck driver with a volatile temper who likes to wear a wig and pretend to be a big shot to impress the ladies. His pal Jerry (Hal Reed) is a friendly postman who tends to a number of pet rabbits in his basement. Grover has trouble with his ex-wife demanding back pay for child support, and Jerry has some expected annoyances with people on his route, but other than their disproportionate anger at the regular obstacles of life they seem mostly normal. But could one of them be the Zodiac? Between scenes of the two men going about their lives, there are dramatizations of actual Zodiac killings. Screenwriters Ray Cantrell (an actor who appeared in 1970’s Bigfoot and The Hellcats) and Manny Cardoza settle on one of the men as the actual killer and delve further into his mentality. But they wanted to underline the concept that the Zodiac was likely a regular guy, so even after the audience knows who the killer is they return to his everyday life. At one point, it’s not hard to imagine a spin-off titled The Erotic Misadventures of the Zodiac Killer could have been in the works.

AGFA and Something Weird Video present The Zodiac Killer in a new 4K transfer “from the only surviving 16mm blow-up elements.” But rather than take the standard restoration route, this transfer borrows from Vinegar Syndrome‘s approach to embracing the look and texture of projected film. The transfer looks very much like what the film probably looked like when it was first projected, and instead of scrubbing it totally clean of imperfections, the film retains the character of a 1970s film print. Anyone expecting a super-clean reference quality showcase for their A/V setup should look elsewhere. For fans of low-budget 1970s cinema, though, it’s pretty much perfect. Special features include a commentary track with director Tom Hanson and actor Manny Nedwick moderated by AGFA’s Joseph Ziemba (also the creator of paracinema zine Bleeding Skull!) and Sebastian del Castillo, an interview featurette with Hanson and Nedwick, “Tabloid horror trailers” from the AGFA collection, and a booklet with photos from the film and liner notes by Chris Poggiali of Temple of Schlock.

In addition to all this, the disc also includes an entire second feature film: Another Son of Sam (1977). The only directorial effort from stunt performer Dave Adams, this tasteless obscurity is even weirder than the disc’s main feature. Opening with a solid three minutes of title cards detailing violent events of the 1960s and 1970s (all American serial or mass killers, other than a reference to the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre) followed by a performance of the entire song “I Never Said Goodbye” by Johnny Charro, the film cobbles together a fictional tale of mass murder from details of actual well-known incidents. A killer (who is only ever shown from the chest down aside from extreme close-ups of his eyes) escapes from police custody and holes up in the girls’ dormitory of a local college, leading to a standoff with the police. There is a subplot about money that went missing from the school that has absolutely no bearing on the main action of the film, and it contains a number of pointless slow motion shots and frequent freeze-frames that sometimes occur mid-sentence while a character is speaking. Another Son of Sam is hilariously inept, but that unintentional humor is balanced by a grimy sheen of ghoulish opportunism. Both films on the disc are fascinating snapshots of low-budget independent American filmmaking in the 1970s, and it’s great to have these weirdo cultural artifacts preserved for future generations of cinephiles. Exploitation and cult cinema fans hopefully have a lot to look forward to from the collaboration of AGFA and Something Weird Video.

AGFA/Something Weird Video released The Zodiac Killer in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack 25 July 2017.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium:

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