Release Date(s)1971 (August 2017)
Studio(s)Adventure Productions (AGFA/Something Weird)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B+
One of the truly odd films ever to get made (specifically for its intended purpose), The Zodiac Killer was released in 1971 during the height of the Zodiac killings that were taking place throughout northern California. Produced by one-time director Tom Hanson, the film was brought into the world expressly for the purpose of catching the Zodiac Killer, an effort that ultimately didn’t pan out. Mostly forgotten throughout the years, it was slowly revived through Something Weird Video on VHS and DVD, and now, through the America Genre Film Archive (AGFA) on Blu-ray.
Tom Hanson became an actor in the 1960s, with his biggest claim to fame being The Hellcats, a Roger Corman-production developed during the Easy Rider knock-off cycle. After having all but given up on acting, he opened a successful chain of restaurants in San Francisco. When the Zodiac Killer began his killing spree, Hanson became obsessed with discovering who it really was. He took it upon himself to make a fictionalized first-person account of the events that had taken place thus far for around $13,000. For the film’s premiere, he rented the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco, but with the objective of actually luring the Zodiac Killer in to see it. He went so far as to give a motorcycle away to patrons who could best answer the question “I believe the Zodiac kills because...”, but also hid rent-a-cops in a walk-in freezer should he actually show up.
While not quite on par with something like Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Zodiac Killer definitely has a raw, amateur quality to it that can be a little difficult to take in. The characters and the situations are often laughable at times, including the dialogue, but the events that are so well-documented in Robert Graysmith’s book and David Fincher’s film definitely have a crude but effective edge to them here. The film attempts a narrative of a sorts, but the events that ultimately guided its existence in the first place are almost impossible to ignore. The how and why of the film’s being are more fascinating than the film itself, and unfortunately, the two cannot be separated from each other to allow for the film to be judged of its own merit. Whether that’s a negative or a positive thing, I’ll leave you to judge.
The transfer for The Zodiac Killer is sourced from a 4K scan of a 35mm theatrical print blown up from the original 16mm camera negative, which is now lost. Keep in mind that the film is quite low budget, even in its day, and this is the only known print of it to survive. It’s full of problems including crushed blacks, blown-out whites, a variety of damage (lines, speckling, scratches, changeover cues, etc), occasional density issues, and a lack of extreme fine detail. That said, this is raw presentation, unsurprisingly, adds to the aesthetic value of the film. The color palette is relatively solid most of the time, while overall brightness and contrast levels are acceptable. For something that should no longer exist, it looks as best as it can without heavy-handed restoration. The sole audio option is an English 2.0 mono DTS-HD track. Much like the video, it has its share of problems, including hiss and occasional crackle, but is a decent presentation regardless. Dialogue isn’t always clear, which I chalk up to the film’s budget, but score and sound effects come through well. Subtitles are also included in English SDH for those who might need them.
Extras include an audio commentary with director Tom Hanson, producer Manny Nedwick, and the AGFA team; the all-too brief Let’s Get This Guy: The Origin of The Zodiac Killer; Tabloid-Horror Trailers from the AGFA Archive (Carnival of Blood, The Manson Massacre, The Other Side of Madness, Three on a Meathook, The Toolbox Murders); a bonus film: Another Son of Sam from 1977, which is sourced from a 2K scan of an original 35mm theatrical print; an additional DVD of Another Son of Sam; and a 16-page insert booklet containing an interview with director Tom Hanson by Chris Poggiali and restoration details.
The Zodiac Killer is an extreme example of what the AGFA team refers to as the “Tabloid Horror” genre. It’s enlightening in knowing that it got made in the first place, but the film is likely to leave modern viewers a bit cold to it. However, AGFA’s presentation of it is top of the line and worth seeking out, simply for the curiosity factory alone
- Tim Salmons