"The Zodiac Killer" comes alive in 4K at the Michigan Theater
Many filmmakers have tackled the true crime saga of the Zodiac Killer, who stalked Northern California and stole national headlines in the late '60s, but only one has been brave enough to try to face the murderer himself. That distinction belongs to Tom Hanson, an L.A. fast-food-magnate-turned-amateur-director who made his 1971 debut, The Zodiac Killer, with the express purpose of catching the actual Zodiac.
When he wasn’t managing a successful pizza restaurant chain, Hanson moonlighted as an actor in exploitation movies like the '68 female biker flick The Hellcats. He was inspired to make The Zodiac Killer by two wildly disparate motives: to make a quick buck and to rid society of evil by luring the real Zodiac to one of the film's screenings. Given the Zodiac's apparent love of media attention, exemplified by his frequent cryptic letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, Hanson presumed the killer would be vain enough to show up to a screening of a movie bearing his namesake.
For the film's premiere, Hanson devised what has to be the weirdest raffle in history. He convinced Kawasaki to donate a motorcycle as the grand prize. Audience members who attended the opening night screening at San Francisco's RKO Golden Gate Theater on April 7, 1971, were asked to write their answers to "I think the Zodiac kills because ..." and drop their entries into a large box. What the unsuspecting filmgoers didn't know was that there was a volunteer crouched inside the box comparing their handwriting with samples of the Zodiac's and that there were goons (including members of the film's cast) waiting in the wings ready to apprehend and interrogate anyone whose penmanship raised a red flag. Hanson obviously never nabbed the Zodiac, but his low-rent retelling of the infamous murders still looms large among exploitation movie lovers.
The Zodiac Killer was recently restored in 4K and released on Blu-Ray by Austin, Texas' American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) in partnership with Something Weird Video. The Michigan Theater will screen the film on Sunday, Sept. 24, to celebrate Art House Theater Day, and we chatted with AGFA Director and The Zodiac Killer superfan Joe Ziemba about his fondness for the film, how he got the opportunity to restore it, and whether or not Tom Hanson knows the true identity of the Zodiac.
Q: I just watched this movie for the first time last night, and I can't wait to see it again on the big screen because there's so much to unpack. How would you describe The Zodiac Killer to someone who has never seen it?
A: For most of us, when our community is being threatened by something we watch the news, make sure our doors are locked, make sure our loved ones are safe, but we don't take action. This is one of the only times in the history of the world where someone actually picked up a movie camera and said, "I'm going to save my community by making a movie and catching a serial killer." I think that pretty much says it all. And it was also made by a guy who ran pizza restaurants, which is completely insane. The level of thinking that goes into making this movie, imagine what came out of it and you get The Zodiac Killer.
Q: How did you first discover this film, and what about it appealed to you?
A: I first discovered it through [exploitation film distributor]
Something Weird. Something Weird for me was one of the big entryways into movies when I was in college. A lot of my friends in college were into Godard and art films and important cinema. I thought that stuff was cool and I enjoyed it to a certain extent, but when I walked into a video store called That's Rentertainment, which was in the town I went to college in, I saw on the back wall they had this huge display that said: "Something Weird." It was all these neon, dayglo colored VHS boxes and I was just completely taken with that and the insane titles of these movies that I'd never heard of. Something Weird really became, at that young age, a film school for me. Along with books like Incredibly Strange Films and the Psychotronic Video Guide, that became how I learned about movies.
The Zodiac Killer was a little later after that because I think The Town That Dreaded Sundown, where there's true crime happening and someone's trying to document it but also add their own spice to the movie so that it will attract people with exploitation. I find that endlessly fascinating. I like the idea that filmmakers take reality and bend it to their needs, and make something completely new about it. The Zodiac Killer looked so cool to me. I actually didn't even know the first time I saw it that it was made as an attempt to catch him. I just thought it was an exploitation movie. But I loved the movie when I first watched it. When I found out the story about it, it just got even better.
Q: You interviewed Tom Hanson for the Blu-Ray special features. Do you have a favorite anecdote regarding the production of the film or any of the screenings where Hanson tried to catch the real killer?
A: Before we even started filming I said, "How did you come up with these ideas, because they're so outrageous? Did you have some insight with the FBI to know the things that you were putting in this movie about the Zodiac?" And he looked at me, took a sip of coffee, and said, "It's all made up shit." It could not have been a better response. It was so perfect.
Q: What does he think about his movie taking on a second life all these years later?
A: He always saw this as a business opportunity. It was never about art. It was never about making a movie. It was just about making money. His hope was that he would make a couple of million dollars off of it and then keep making movies where he could catch criminals with them. He's always a business-minded person, especially from having a huge pizza restaurant empire in L.A. He doesn't care about what people look into the movie or what they think about its place in history. His first thought is always, "We can still catch this guy." I think he's sincere. He never wavered from that when we talked with him. I think that's totally amazing. After all these years he still feels that it maybe still has the power to catch the Zodiac.
Q: I've read that he believes he may have actually identified the Zodiac.
A: We talked a lot about that. There was a guy at one of his screenings that he thought had matched the profile of the Zodiac. So he had his guys jump out of the freezer at the box office and pull this guy into the bathroom and punch him a few times. One of the guys was Bob Jones, who plays Grover in the movie.
So they were interrogating him, but they ended up just letting him go because they had nothing on him. There were all these different clues that lined up. Apparently, he looked just like the "Wanted" photo. [Hanson] was so convinced that it was this guy that for the next 15 or 20 years he kind of followed this guy around and kept tabs on him. It's mind-blowing, the things that he would do to follow this guy, breaking into his storage facilities … just insane stuff. He really believes to this day that that's him and that the guy is still out there.
One of the last things we asked him before he left was, "So you know who this guy is? So who is it? Tell us?" And he's like, "That's privileged information for me and the FBI only." To this day he's still got that showmanship about him, which is very cool.
Q: Watching the movie already knowing the backstory, I still questioned how sincere his motives were.
A: He found a way to do both, which is the perfect ideal for exploitation. If you can make a ton of money off of exploiting something and do something good for society then you're winning. Very few exploitation filmmakers, if any, did that. "I wanna make money, and I want to catch this fucker," that's what he'd say.
Q: The statement that opens the film was written by Paul Avery, who famously reported on the Zodiac case for the San Francisco Chronicle. Did Hanson actually have any interaction with him? How much was Avery actually involved with the film?
A: That's legit. He actually met a lot with Paul Avery. And he was with Avery around the time that the Zodiac or someone left that sign that said, "Boo! I'm watching you," by Paul Avery's hotel room.
We asked [Hanson] about that. We said, "You were so close to it. Weren't you getting scared?" He said that Paul Avery was scared to death, as he should be. But Tom Hanson said he was never scared because he was always packing a .38. He was like, "The Zodiac never had the guts to come up to me, and if he did I'd just shoot him."
Q: How did AGFA acquire this film, and how much work did you have to put into restoring it?
A: When Mike Vraney of Something Weird Video passed away in 2014 after a really long battle with lung cancer, and his creative partner Lisa Petrucci was left with the company. We were at a crossroads where AGFA was purely an archive to keep genre prints safe and to make them available for theaters. We were very antsy to take it to the next level. We thought, "Why don't we start a theatrical distribution arm and a home video arm?"
We did a Kickstarter to get a 4K film scanner for AGFA, and that was successful. A little before that we had started talking with Lisa about what would be available from Something Weird. She gave us a huge spreadsheet with her whole archive on it and said, "This is all available to AGFA. Let me know what you want." I opened it and was thinking to myself, "Please let The Zodiac Killer be on this list. Please let it be here." It was, and I was super excited. I was like, "That's the first one. That's the one we gotta do."
As far as actually doing the transfer, there's only one print in existence. I think Tom Hanson said maybe 20 were actually struck, but they're all lost. The original negative is lost. He has no idea where they are, mostly because he had a couple of bad distribution deals and the distributors took everything. There's one print that was blown up from the 16mm negative, and that's our master. Luckily the print itself was in really nice shape. It was mostly [AGFA Chief Archivist] Sebastian del Castillo doing color grading and cleanup work, and I do the audio work for AGFA.
We really don't believe in making things pristine. We want the film feel to be there. We want to replicate the theatrical experience as much as possible. We like these prints to bloom. We don't want to add anything to them, but we don't like to take away. That's what we did with Zodiac. It pretty much replicates seeing it in a theater in 1971 as close as we can.
Q: I'm excited to check out AGFA's second release, Tom Savini's long-lost Effects, and I hope we can get a screening of it in Ann Arbor soon. What else do you have in the pipeline?
A: We have two more [Blu-Ray releases] this year. On October 17 is Bat Pussy, the world's first X-rated parody movie. It's basically what happens when a porn producer has $5 and wants to make a version of the Batman television show himself. It feels the most like a movie that came from another dimension of all time. It feels like it was made by extraterrestrials. We're really excited about that movie. And then on November 21 we have Ed Wood's The Violent Years, which is a movie that we really love. In January we have The Sword and the Claw The Dragon Lives Again!," which screens at 8 pm. Ticket packages for both films are $14 for non-members and $11 for members. Ticket info can be found at michigantheater.org.