The Austin Chronicle

Exposing The Zodiac Killer

The first film to be restored by the American Genre Film Archive

By Richard Whittaker, September 16, 2016, Screens

True crime and cinema go together like highways and spree killers. But no film has a more bizarre relationship with real-life murder than 1971's The Zodiac Killer, the first film to be restored by the American Genre Film Archive.

The new 4K restoration debuts during Fantastic Fest and comes from AGFA's new relationship with exploitation masters Something Weird Video. A year ago, AGFA director Joseph Ziemba was researching the films to which the home-release house holds distribution rights. "I was going through the list and thinking, please let Zodiac Killer be in there, please let Zodiac Killer be in there, and it was the last one."

The revived whodunit returns with its core mystery unsolved. In 1968, a bizarre rash of murders hit northern California, with the killer – nicknamed Zodiac – sending notes and grisly crime scene mementos to police and press. The letters were a mix of psychosis and Sixties psychobabble, and were the closest the police ever came to finding him. So in 1970, wannabe director Tom Hanson conceived of a deranged plan: Make a movie to draw the killer out of hiding. Paul Avery, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who both covered and was targeted by the killer, even authored a card at the film's beginning to explain that "its goal is not to win commercial awards, but to create an awareness of a present danger."

"Nobody has ever made a movie to catch a serial killer," said Ziemba, but Hanson really believed his film would flush the murderer out. He convinced Kawasaki to sponsor a bike giveaway for evidence leading to his capture, and he turned theatre staff into his private detective agency, just in case the killer bought a ticket. "They did handwriting comparisons. 'Everyone that goes to this theatre, write down "This is the Zodiac speaking," and then we're checking everyone's writing, and then we're going to jump them.'"

For Ziemba, the appeal is its bizarre welding of fact and fiction. "It's very close to reality in terms of reporting the crimes," he said, "but everything else about it is so false, and that's why I love it." It also reverses the lurid exploitation trope of women as disposable eye candy. In The Zodiac Killer, he said, "All the male characters are these terrible, misogynistic turds who get what's coming to them."

The Zodiac Killer screens at Fantastic Fest, Sunday, Sept. 25 at 5:15pm, and Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 5:35pm. For more Fantastic Fest news, reviews, and interviews, follow all our updates at

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.