Not to be confused with the $65 million 2007 David Fincher epic, Zodiac, 1971’s Zodiac (later released as The Zodiac Killer) was produced for a mere $13,000, and, remarkably, it hit theaters less than a month after two “This is the Zodiac speaking” letters were received by the San Francisco Chronicle.
But the fact that a quickie exploitation movie was churned out during the Zodiac killer’s reign of terror in the very city where the murders were taking place, isn’t the most insane thing about 1971’s Zodiac. No, the completely insane thing about this film is the fact that the producer/director was a pizza restaurateur who made the film in an effort to actually catch the killer with elaborate traps he had set up in the lobbies of the theaters where it played.
A scene from “Zodiac,” the film produced to help catch the Zodiac killer.
In a bonkers interview for the excellent Temple of Schlock blog, director Tom Hanson explains why he premiered the movie in San Francisco:
When I went up there to show it, there’d been a letter every 17 days for about 6 months. That’s why I knew he was still there, still operating, and that’s why I thought he’d come to that theater to see it. He’d have to, with that sicko twisted mind. So that’s why I set the trap there.
The trap that Hanson set to catch the killer involved a contest drawing for a motorcycle giveaway to check for handwriting samples, with men hiding out in the motorcycle display and a freezer they dragged into the theater.
I talked Kawasaki into giving us a motorcycle. Everyone who bought a ticket [to see the movie] got a little yellow card they would fill out that said “I think the Zodiac kills because…” In the lobby on the second floor, I had a display built that didn’t look like there could be anybody underneath it. The motorcycle was on top of that, and the box was there to drop yellow cards in, “I think the Zodiac kills because…”
[If] a card came through that had some significance, he was supposed to push a button that would alert all of us. I also had a guy in a freezer, one guy across the street, one guy in the theater, and one guy in the office, and we just kept more or less alert.
When the manager of the Golden Gate wasn’t there, I brought in a freezer, which we had hollowed out so a guy could lay in there, kind of cramped up, but he could look through the vent. The idea was that if a card came through the box, the guy [under the display] could beep if it was something significant so the guy in the freezer could see who dropped it in.
The theater manager wanted to know why we brought in that freezer to begin with. I forgot what the hell I told him, but it was some bullshit to try and cover why we really brought it in there.
[P]eople went and saw the movie, and they dropped those cards in to win the free motorcycle. We would look at them, and there was all kinds of bullshit in there—“He kills because he’s been treated badly,” on and on. And then on the fifth or sixth night, I forget which night it was, one of those yellow cards came through the box – “I was here, the Zodiac.” That was all that was on there.
The final shot of the film, chilling if you consider that the Zodiac was actively killing at the time of release.
Hanson indicates in the interview that he may have actually identified the Zodiac at one of the screenings. Read the full interview HERE.
The film gets a deluxe Blu-Ray release in July from AGFA (American Genre Film Archive) and Something Weird Video. It can be pre-ordered HERE.
The movie itself isn’t the greatest exploitation film I’ve ever seen by any stretch, but it does hold the viewer’s attention and has enough oddball moments that have some camp value in retrospect (I doubt anyone was laughing back in ‘71). But, the real reason to check out this release is certainly going to be for commentary and interviews with the director… because the entire backstory on this production is just nuts. This is my most anticipated release of the year, strictly for that commentary.
Here’s a clip, exclusively provided for Dangerous Minds, of the Zodiac in action: