Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area during the time when the Zodiac Killer was actively committing crimes, I became fascinated with the broadcast news and newspaper articles about the case being delivered into my home on a regular basis. My fascination with the topic increased when I developed a love of cinema as I began seeking films on The Zodiac Killer, captivated by their take on the infamous unsolved mystery surrounding the serial killer.
This article explores THE ZODIAC KILLER IN CINEMA. This is a list of films both new and old, good and bad. I urge each of you reading this to indulge yourselves in these movies in order to form your own opinion on their value. I’ll present you with a brief synopsis, a concise review and my personal recommendation or warning.
On a side note, please be sure to check out the new podcast Criminology. In season one of this new episodic show your hosts Mike Ferguson and Mike Morford crack down on this unsolved case and deliver the most detailed account of the case ever brought to audio via a podcast.
THE ZODIAC KILLER (1971)
Synopsis: The San Francisco area is beset by a series of seemingly random murders without motive or pattern. The police are taunted by phone calls and letters. Could the maniac be the violent truck driver, the seemingly mild-mannered mailman, or even a cop? (IMDB)
Review: This film isn’t very good. Poor production and a lack of filmmaking experience from director Tom Hanson make it difficult to watch. While the plot revolves around the real murders, it manages to take too many liberties and is in no way accurate to the actual case. The most interesting part of the film is its history. Hanson made this film in an attempt to catch the killer. In a 2017 interview Hanson stated that the Zodiac wouldn’t be able to resist seeing himself portrayed on film, so it showed in one San Francisco theater in hopes of luring the killer.
Recommend: If you’re a fan of bad movies this is a must see. There are tons of filmmaking mistakes, making it laughable and entertaining. It is not, however, even close to being accurate.
DIRTY HARRY (1971)
Synopsis: When a mad man calling himself the “Scorpio Killer” menaces the city, tough-as-nails San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan is assigned to track down and ferret out the crazed psychopath. (IMDB)
Review: This Don Siegel directed picture drew upon two real life cases when the film was being produced. The first case was that of the notorious Zodiac Killer. The second case was the kidnapping of Barbara Jane Mackle. Mackle was only 20-years old when she was taken at gunpoint and buried in a shallow grave. The kidnappers demanded a $500,000 ransom from her wealthy father who was a Florida land developer. DIRTY HARRY managed to intertwine these two stories together perfectly with the “Scorpio Killer” not only killing at random, but also kidnapping the girl for ransom within the movie.
Recommend: Despite being a fictionalized account of two separate cases, DIRTY HARRY is a must see not just for fans of true crime, but for fans of movies in general. Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan character is loosely based off of David Toschi, the real chief investigator in the Zodiac case.
THE ZODIAC (2005)
Synopsis: An elusive serial killer known as the Zodiac terrorizes the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s while detectives aim to stop him before he claims more victims. Based on a true story. (IMDB)
Review: This retelling of the Zodiac Killer presents itself with a solid cast, decent production, and solid direction. The film ultimately falls flat, especially if you’re well versed on the actual case. The script plays on the dull side of things and too many details on the case and the victims are left out.
On the Fence: If you’re someone who isn’t well versed on the Zodiac Killer, then you’ll likely enjoy this methodically paced picture. However, if you’re familiar with specific details of the case you might find this version off-putting.
CURSE OF THE ZODIAC (2007)
Synopsis: Though decades have passed since the multiple murderer held the state of California hostage with fear, the mystery of the identity of the Zodiac killer has never been solved. (IMDB)
Review: I have not seen this direct to video movie all the way through. I literally could not sit through it. Ulli Lommel’s vision of the Zodiac Killer is sloppy and unwatchable. It feels a lot like a backyard production that presents itself as hip and cool when in fact it’s neither of these. It takes too many wrong turns and doesn’t rely on any of the authentic facts from the actual crimes.
Avoid: At all costs.
Synopsis: In the late 1960s/early 1970s, a San Francisco cartoonist becomes an amateur detective obsessed with tracking down the Zodiac Killer, an unidentified individual who terrorizes Northern California with a killing spree. (IMDB)
Review: David Fincher’s portrayal of the ZODIAC case is hands down the best and most accurate to date. Production and direction are outstanding as are Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector Toschi), Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery) and John Carroll Lynch as the creepy as fuck Arthur Leigh Allen. It’s one of the best police procedural films out there despite the inaccuracies of the Robert Graysmith book (Zodiac) on which the film is based.
Recommend: I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Seek it out if you haven’t seen it yet.
The Zodiac Killer has permeated cinema since the case came into popular culture. Films such as THE EXORCIST III (1990), DISGUISED KILLER (2000), HUNTING THE ZODIAC (2007), and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012) all reference the case or the killer in some fashion. Zodiac references can also be found in TV, music, video games and literature alike. It’s a case that will likely go unsolved but a case that will likely continue to permeate media and popular culture for decades to come.
Contributed by: Mike Murphy