Zodiac Killer is an odd, uneven film. It's ultra-cheapness is rarely disguised. Now & then the digital video does look like a real movie but most of the time it looks like a home-movie. The soundtrack is occasionally effective but most of the time it is just noise. A very young mentally ill man who idolizes the never-captured Zodiac Killer who terrorized San Francisco in the 1960s, then just stopped, is in some scenes admirably played by Vladimir Maksic, but in most scenes comes off as never having tried acting before some aging chickenhawk cast him in a starring role in exchange for blowjobs.
The writer & director & producer is Ulli Lommel, who while pulling off this vanity affair figured what the hey, he'll co-star in it too. He gives a sometimes lackluster sometimes interesting performance as the author of a bestseller about the Zodiac killer, the very book which inspired our young copycat.
The young psycho doesn't really emulate the Zodiac, but has an agenda to avenge old people, who he likes, & if their grandchildren don't visit gramps or granny in the old folks home, our neo-Zodiac will track them down & shoot them. That he works with the elderly & avenges only old folks he has cared for would definitely have gotten the police on his trail pretty fast, but the film doesn't deal with its subject realistically, so the police are a joke & the media instantly accepts that this nothing-like-the-Zodiac killer claiming to be Zodiac might be Zodiac. Doesn't make a lot of sense but okay.
Plus the author played by Lommel knows far more about the Zodiac than would be possible without being psychic or without being the Zodiac, so the only mystery here is why he wasn't arrested when he revealed so much in the first edition back in the 1970s.
The film rather clumsily inserts underdeveloped scenes of a Secret Society which orchestrates city-wide murders for their own poorly defined moralistic reasons. This secret society is apparently the actual Zodiac, who never stopped killing, they just stopped pretending to be the Zodiac. They're a little bit miffed that a fake Zodiac has appeared on the horizon, & want him dead, as apparently only their little cult is allowed to kill for poorly defined moralistic reasons.
We'd know from the start that the Zodiac's biographer is the Zodiac if the film wasn't simultaneously telegraphing that the Zodiac didn't actually exist but was a secret society. This aspect of the "plot" is so murky & misleading as to be ultimately & merely ridiculous.
Most films this cheap & shoddy are the works of young filmmakers forgiveable because they have no connections, no money, no running record, often no talent but if they do have talent it will be revealed in future films if they get the chance to make any others. There is sometimes a certain charm to terribly bad films made by yunkers with dreams of being filmmakers.
But Ulle Lommel is an old fart, & the yunker-cheapness of his films is a bit puzzling. However, if a viewer is in a forgiving mood, the workings of a mature actor-writer-director do surface in this film at uneven intervals. Compared to the yunker equivalents, Ulle has a greater understanding of morality & immorality & brings interesting textures to his shlock horrors, making slightly more adult statements even in the context of such trivial film forms.
Zodiac Killer is too clunky to rate anywhere near such Z-budget triumphs as Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, but at times it seems to strive in that direction. For all its cheesy flaws, it kept me genuinely interested until the end, & the pay-off while not brilliant compared to an actually good film, it was brilliant enough compared to the usual psycho killer cheapy.
My review of Zodiac could end on that note but two other points merit mention. First, although the gore element of the film is muted (the scenes of killing never rise to the level of gore), spliced into the film are actual crime scene photos not really related to the characters of the film. These police photos of people with their heads blown off, their bodies ripped up or hacked up, are a lot more convincing than horror movie gore FX, because they are real.
These photos are creepier than the movie & seem to be inserted into the film to provide the gore without having to invest in any gore FX for the film proper. Or perhaps the crime photos are inserted to see if the sort of horror fan that rents cheap slasher movies can be grossed out by the real thing. And I bet many will be grossed out by the real thing. Beyond that possibility, the insertion of these photos into the film lends little or nothing to the story.
The other odd element which pads out without adding to the story is the use of footage from a better film about Germany's best known serial killer, Fritz Haarmann. The old footage is poorly integrated into the new film, being shown while the Zodiac's biographer is interviewing the imagined son of Fritz, who amusingly insists his father's name should be spelled with two Ts, Frittz. Although this footage doesn't really belong in Zodiac, it does permit a segway into the second review:
Now Ulle Lommel has directed a lot of films, all cheap, most difficult to praise unless one just likes cheap horror (as I do). But one of his earliest directorial efforts deserves greater attention. This was 1973's Zartlichkeit der Wolfe or The Tenderness of Wolves, set in Germany of the 1920s, produced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder who also appears in the film.
The central performance by Kurt Raab as the serial killer Fritz Haarmann "the butcher of Hannover" is a stunning even pretty physical presence for the film. Even if his performance suffers a little from being so much an impersonation of the greater Peter Lorre who played the same role in the Fritz Lang classic M (1932). Raab brings a level of originality to the character by giving him moments of quietude quite different from Lorre's portrayal of the killer as jittery.
Raab mixes poetry with revolting grotesquery recreating the homosexual blood-drinking flesh-eating youth-killer's many moods & traits. When I first saw this film I did not rate it highly, but the cinematography was so haunting, the central performance so sensually appalling, that I was never able to forget it. Some serial killer films I literally can't remember much about them a week later. This one was striking in memory & more than holds up to seeing again.
Even in the context of serial killer films, this is a disturbing film, do in great part to that unexpected edge of physical poetry Raab brings to the role. A recounting of events would seem par for the course for films intended to gross out the non-horror fan & make the jaded horror fan giggle, like when Kurt begins to dispose of his victims by butchering them as meat & selling the meat to unknowing neighbors. But in fact it is never the kind of sick-comedy that often defines the genre.
History's Haarmann, assisted by his lover Hans Grans, killed over fifty boys. Hans would find homeless boys & bring them to Fritz, who would seduce them then bite out their jugular veins, then sell the meat locally. This killing rampage that turned the neighborhood into an unwitting cannibal enclave is abslutely historical, so there was no need for Lommel's film to exaggerate a thing to create a monster. Bare in mind this film is from 1973, & even the biggest slasher films of the period weren't as grotesque as this, as it's often true that reality out-disgusts the merely imaginary.
The Tenderness of Wolves demands that Ulle Lommel be regarded one of the great artists of horror cinema. it's only too bad most of his films require far more forgiveness & are often so crappy, though if one looks hard even at a film as cheap & awful as Zodiac Killer, there are moments when we glimpse an artist at work, the man who so artfully repelled us with Tenderness. Why Lommel wanted to reference this film in Zodiac Killer is hard to figure out -- unless he just had to say, "Look here, not everything I've directed is as bad as Zodiac."
Do get your hands on a copy of Tenderness. It will very likely make an Ulli Lommel fan of you, & like me, you'll soon be tracking down every film he directs. Even if you get annoyed that the other films are so often such stinkers, there'll always be something in them that keeps you from giving up, because there's always some remaining hint of hope that if this oddball geezer lives long enough, he may eventually make a film as awesomely disturbing as Tenderness.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl