On December 20, 1968 near the town of Vallejo, California a madman laid claim to the lives of 2 teenagers in a hail of bullets that set off one of the most fascinating unsolved tragedies of the 20th century. The Zodiac killer’s path of terror carved its way through central California. In September 1969, the Zodiac began to taunt the media and the police department with a series of letters and cryptograms that continued sporadically for the next 10 years. Although police investigated thousands of leads, in the end, the Zodiac killer was never found.
In 1971 director Tom Hanson perpetrated the Grindhouse bastardization The Zodiac Killer in an effort to cash in on the terror that had gripped the nation. Over the years, a few other folks have tried their hand at bringing this account to the screen, but 2005 began a renaissance with some 4 films competing for the title as the definitive Zodiac film. This recent release from ThinkFILM and director Alexander Bulkley is the first, and with respects to David Fincher’s upcoming version, one of the more highly budgeted pieces. Although still well within the reigns of low budget independent cinema, Buckley managed to cast a few solid actors in the project, including Phillip Baker Hall, Robin Tunney, William Mapother, Rory Culkin and Justin Chambers.
Like almost all films in the “True Crime” genre, the tale of the Zodiac is told from the perspective of the police officers investigating the tragic turn of events. Unlike so many other films though, the Zodiac suffers from the fact that the killer was never caught. So the film is hamstringed at the outset by a lack of conclusion. It is now up to the filmmakers to make the investigation, not the capture, of the Zodiac killer a fascinating film. Unfortunately the issue is that the project more often than not has the feel of a late 1970s/early 1980s made-for-TV movie. With the jaded sensibilities of today’s viewing audience – who are inundated a dozen times or more each night by every imaginable pretense of slick cop & robber cum forensic science series – it becomes increasingly difficult to convince people to give up an hour and a half of their lives for a 30-year old case with no resolution.
The failure, however, of the Zodiac to capture our imagination is not entirely the fault of circumstance. Co-writer and director Bulkley has not given us anything to identify with, we have no vested interest in the whole of the production. The cops are unlikable, the press is greedy and uncaring, the victims are cardboard cutouts and the killer is a disembodied voice over. There is little suspense as the killings are perfunctory and since we know in advance that the killer was never found, there is no build up to his apprehension. It is not to say that there are no great stories in the underlying Zodiac saga. Spike Lee proved several years ago, with Summer of Sam that the killer need not be the focus of story to make the film effective. Now with all due respect, Lee’s film is entirely fiction where Bulkley’s only contains elements of fiction, but still, uninspired filmmaking is uninspired filmmaking regardless of the source material. So it seems that with one in the series of Zodiac films already a bust, the odds are severely stacked against the others. Perhaps we as the audience should start to resign ourselves to the idea that chronicling unsolved mysteries of our time was a task once better suited to the great Robert Stack.