In the same general time period as everyone in northern California, and San Francisco in particular, was inundated with news about the still mysterious – and now-infamous – so-called “Zodiac Killer”, part-time actor, fast-food mogul and wannabe filmmaker Tom Hanson hatched a one-of-a-kind idea: make a movie to try and capture the Zodiac, whilst in turn breaking into the movie business. But, while his ambitious plan didn’t result in the capture of the title serial murderer, the culmination of Hanson’s efforts nevertheless did result in THE ZODIAC KILLER (1971), an entirely unique, never-to-be-duplicated film whose back story proves to be even more fascinating; all of which is nicely documented on this newest – and most impressive – Blu-ray / DVD Combo that also partners together the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) and the legendary Something Weird Video.
Beginning with an ominous title card – accredited to Paul Avery, the real-life reporter who worked at The San Francisco Chronicle and was a consultant on this film – to help create (quote) “an awareness of a present danger”, Hanson’s THE ZODIAC KILLER appears to be (at first glance, anyways) a cautionary tale of sorts, which will try and recount the actions of this enigmatic killer, but through a shortage of either hard facts or a general lack of skill, Hanson’s film becomes something altogether different: an insane bit exploitation hokum, which even recreates some of the actual murders. The first act tries its best to cast suspicion on a number of eccentric characters, including Grover (Bob Jones), an angry truck-driver currently on the rebound following his divorce (“That no-good bitch was holding me back!”) and Jerry (Hal Reed), a mild-mannered postal worker who also just happens to have a collection of bunny-rabbits down in his basement. Even renowned comic actor Doodles Weaver appears as Jerry’s neighbour to warn him about conniving women (“Don’t let them dames get their claws on ya!”) while brandishing a pair of garden shears. Although the killer is revealed earlier than expected, the film continues to revel in ‘senseless killings’, some of which are actually based on factual evidence, while many are simply made up. Not surprisingly, the double murder that occurred at Lake Berryessa on September 27th, 1969 is easily one of the film’s strongest and most alarmingly effective scenes (“I’m going to have to stab you people!”), but later in the film, during a completely ridiculous and over-the-top moment, Zodiac viciously murders a lady with her own car hood while erratic fuzz / acid guitar blasts on the soundtrack… and just you wait until the killer visits his locked-up father at the local loony bin!
In 1985, under the slightly altered title THE ZODIAK KILLER, this made its home video debut on U.S. VHS videocassette from Academy Home Entertainment (“Don’t ask him his sign…”), but neglected to generate any interest (“I want headlines!”) until Something Weird Video resurrected it as part of their “Sharpshooter Triple Feature” DVD in 2003, which also included Barry Mahon’s THE SEX KILLER (1968) and Lee Frost’s ZERO IN AND SCREAM (1970). Appearing faded and rather worn, it was still quite a miracle that this ever appeared on DVD at all, and along with its co-features, the disc also included a number of trailers and a “Gallery of Sick Sixties Sex Stills and Audio Oddities”. Making the jump to Blu-ray, Tom Hanson’s film gets a fresh 4K scan, which was taken from (quote) “the only surviving 16mm blow-up elements”, and the results are definitely a very notable upgrade; which, according to the restoration team at AGFA received some (quote) “basic colour correction” and that (quote) “no other digital enhancements” were made. Despite some visual debris here and there – especially around reel changes – and a few vertical scratches, things look mighty fine considering the elements they had to work with. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio also sounds fairly solid, and is a marked improvement over the old SWV disc.
The extras compiled on this Blu-ray should really earn AGFA and SWV the accolades they deserve. The first – and easily the most informative – extra is a feature-length audio commentary with the film’s director Tom Hanson and producer / writer Manny Nedwick, moderated by AGFA’s Joseph A. Ziemba. The first 10 minutes are taken up by Ziemba and AGFA’s head archivist Sebastian del Castillo, who discuss their philosophies about working with theatrical film prints (“let them bloom”), which includes refraining from digitally enhancing their transfers. They also discuss their debt to SWV and the tireless efforts of the late Mike Vraney and his wife Lisa Petrucci, who currently runs the long-standing company. It makes for a nice primer before they head off to Burbank, California for the remainder of the commentary, which also includes occasional comments from Hanson’s sons, Jim and Robert as well. First, they discuss Hanson’s Pizza Man restaurants and actor Bob Jones, who sold franchises for him and came from a (quote) “hustling background”, and who essentially (quote) “played himself” in the film. Of course, they also discuss their strategy of trying to capture the Zodiac (“We figured he would show up!”) in the very theatre where the film was playing. They relate some incredible and quite frankly unnerving stories, including one about a contest to win a motorcycle (Kawasaki actually sponsored the event!) through filling-out yellow customer comment cards (“I think the Zodiac kills because…”), which in turn allowed them to forensically examine entrants’ handwriting samples! Hanson also goes on to discuss the rushed schedule and how he had (quote) “very little to no prep work” and how they took many liberties with the story because they (quote) “needed enough murders to fill the running time.” It’s a wonderful, good-humoured track full of amazing anecdotes related to the production, involving much of the cast and, most importantly, their attempts to catch the killer. Absolutely essential listening!
Also on hand are a couple of brief on-camera interviews with Hanson and Nedwick in “Let’s Get This Guy” (3m35s), which covers similar territory as their engaging commentary but also touches on some of Hanson’s previous acting gigs; how much of the film was put together with (quote) “friends and family”; and Hanson’s fearlessness in his attempts to catch the Zodiac. Next up is a collection of “Tabloid Horror Trailers from the AGFA Archive”, which includes Leonard Kirtman’s CARNIVAL OF BLOOD (1971, “A colorful merry-go-round of death!”), Frank Howard’s THE OTHER SIDE OF MADNESS (1971, “See what actually happened that horrible night!”), Dennis Donnelly’s THE TOOLBOX MURDERS (1978, “Simple tools became the instruments of death!”) and a couple of TV spots for Kentucky Jones’ THE MANSON MASSACRE (1971) and William Girdler’s THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972). A nicely-illustrated liner notes booklet is also included, which contains a slightly abridged interview with Hanson (“This is not the Zodiac Speaking!”) by Temple of Schlock’s Chris Poggiali. For the full interview click here.
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In keeping with the “tabloid horror” theme, the disc also contains a worthy co-feature, namely Dave A. Adams’ ANOTHER SON OF SAM (1977), which makes Hanson’s film seem positively impeccable in its execution. Riding on the headlines of the, then recent, “Son of Sam” or “.44 calibre killings” which plagued New York City from 1976 to 1977, this threadbare North Carolina production has more similarities to a typical slasher film than a tabloid horror. Escaping from the local asylum, a mentally deranged patient (“He couldn’t function in our society”) goes on a killing spree at a college campus during Spring Break while a couple of trigger-happy cops give chase. Weird, out-of-place slow-motion, random inserts, freeze-frames and some pre-HALLOWEEN (1978) P.O.V. shots are all unconventionally cut together, which certainly makes it distinctive… but it’s still awful nonetheless! Scanned in 2K and presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, it’s a little faded with the usual debris inherent in an old 35mm film print, but miles better than previous releases, so kudos to AGFA and SWV for including it, just the same. It’s a nice unexpected bonus.