During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a ruthless killer who came to be known as the Zodiac Killer terrorized California. To this day, he has never been officially identified. Because of the severity of his crimes (not to mention the uncracked cipher he used in his letters to the media or, you know, the fact that he wasn’t brought to justice), a mystique has grown around him. David Fincher‘s underrated 2007 effort Zodiac attempted to unravel some of the mysteries of the murderer, resulting in the best true crime film of the decade. This wasn’t the first film about the slayings and their unknown perpetrator, and as much as I love it, it isn’t the most interesting movie about the Zodiac either. That honor goes to 1971’s The Zodiac Killer, a ballsy and brilliant grindhouse effort from director Tom Hanson that was made specifically to catch the murderer. Yes, you read that right. At the time, Hanson was a successful restauranteur who thought that the Zodiac would be interested in seeing a film about his crimes, so he made this film and rented out a movie theater in San Francisco with the explicit purpose of bringing him to justice. How? He arranged for a giveaway of a Kawasaki motorcycle, with attendees to the film having to write the reason why they think the Zodiac killer murders people on a card that would be inserted into a box. Underneath the box was stationed one of Hanson’s associates, who would compare the handwriting on the card with that of the Zodiac himself. If there was a match, then they knew the Zodiac was in their presence and the serial killer could be brought to justice.
As history tells us, the inspired plan wasn’t a success. Nevertheless, Hanson may indeed have crossed paths with the Zodiac. In an in-depth interview included in the Blu-ray booklet for the new 4K restoration of The Zodiac Killer just released by the American Genre Film Archive and Something Weird, Hanson shares a chilling story about a run-in he had at the theater he rented with a man he believed was the Zodiac Killer. That combined with the fact that he received a card signed by someone claiming to be the murderer results in a fascinating footnote to the story of the Zodiac. All of this is background information on the film, which itself is notable for being a low-budget retelling of the killer’s crimes that takes many liberties (i.e. makes stuff up) to tell his story. While the movie was just crafted with hopes of getting the Zodiac arrested, it is no afterthought. Hanson’s movie is a grindhouse lover’s dream, full of the sort of gorgeous grime that 1970s psychotronic cinema celebrated. There are no awards for acting to be found here, but the game cast — headed by Hal Reed — do the best with the script they are given, and bring the Zodiac’s twisted story to life. The Blu-ray suitably includes a number of other trailers for schlocky horror picture shows such as Carnival of Blood, as well as more extra features that include an audio commentary with Hanson that is the year’s best to date and the suitably bonkers bonus feature Another Son of Sam, which establishes this as the kookiest double feature in some time. As for the aforementioned 4K restoration, a movie like this has no right looking as great as it does, and is a great tribute to Hanson’s workmanly directorial style.
A film crafted entirely to catch a killer? That’s somewhat of a genius move. The plan may have failed, but the movie itself is a glorious thing that will likely having you thinking of the run-down drive-in or sleazy movie palace in which you idled away some hours during your misspent youth. In that sense, The Zodiac Killer is an absolute success.