The Zodiac Killer, a serial slaughterer who struck repeatedly in northern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s, has never been apprehended. His terror spree remains one of the most notorious and fascinating cold cases in U.S. history — as well as one of the most cinematic.
In mysterious, intricately complex letters to police and the media loaded with pictograms, map coordinates, and encoded clues, the killer, who called himself “Zodiac,” claimed to have committed 37 murders. However, authorities have only been able to definitively pin seven attacks on the same perpetrator.
Two of Zodiac’s victims survived, and another is believed to have escaped physically unharmed. One survivor described the killer as wearing a black executioner’s hood, black wraparound sunglasses, and a black smock bearing a white cross-within-a-circle on the chest — the same symbol Zodiac used to sign his letters. Truly, this seemed the stuff of horror movies.
The movie business certainly picked up on the ticket-selling potential of the case, as well.
Whether Zodiac is dead, behind bars for a different crime, or still at large, his legacy as movie subject has generated cheap exploitation flicks, acclaimed thrillers, and one bona fide detective film classic. Here’s a handy guide.
The Zodiac Killer (1971)
A grimy grindhouse nugget ripped from the headlines decades before Law and Order, The Zodiac Killer sticks close to the facts of the case that was still terrifying the public.
Paul Avery, the actual San Francisco Chronicle reporter to whom Zodiac sent his bizarre missives, opens the movie by stating: “[The film’s] goal is not to win commercial awards, but to create an awareness of a present danger… if some of the scenes, dialogue, and letters seem strange and unreal, remember — they happened.”
Don’t let that apparent stamp of authenticity carry too much weight, though. The Zodiac Killer eventually offers up its own theories as to the murderer’s motives (his father is a psycho caged in a mental hospital) and even his identity (he may be a bunny-loving postal worker who wonders, “Why are evil people allowed to live, but innocent rabbits must die?”).
Dirty Harry (1973)
Set in San Francisco, one of the Zodiac’s hunting grounds, Dirty Harry introduces Clint Eastwood’s iconic rogue cop anti-hero by pitting him against “Scorpio” (Andy Robinson), a mysterious sniper, kidnapper, and psycho terrorist whose crimes were modeled directly after the real-life Zodiac murders.
Director Don Siegel crafts a masterpiece of tone, taut pacing, and suspense, centered on the mesmerizing minimalism of Eastwood versus Robinson’s over-the-top hysteric of a homicidal maniac. Plus, Dirty Harry ends the way many wish the real Zodiac case could have.
The Exorcist III (1990)
A bomb when first released, The Exorcist III, directed by original Exorcist author William Peter Blatty and based on his novel 1983 Legion, has since become a cult favorite.
The film chronicles George C. Scott as Lieutenant William F. Kinderman, a D.C. detective who notices that a series of satanic murders uncannily resemble the work of the Gemini Killer, a serial slayer confirmed to be dead.
Blatty based Gemini on Zodiac, inspired in part by the real-life killer proclaiming in one of his letters that The Exorcist was the “best saterical [sic] comedy I have ever seen.”
What a creep!
Uli Lommel’s Zodiac Killer (2005)
Infamous schlock filmmaker Uli Lommel began pumping out a succession of true-crime-inspired, direct-to-video quickies with the (amusingly) pretentiously titled Ulli Lommel’s Zodiac Killer.
Shot on a nauseating handheld camera, ULZK tells the sordid saga of a nursing-home worker who worships the original Zodiac and initiates a new series of killings in the same tradition. You’ll want to shoot your TV screen.
Curse of the Zodiac (2007)
To cash in on the major Hollywood release Zodiac, writer-director Uli Lommel returns to the source material of his previous Zodiac Killer effort. Remarkably, this one is worse.
As such, it’s very much of a piece (of junk) with its predecessor, along with Lommel’s uniformly inept endurance tests B.T.K. Killer (2005), Green River Killer (2005), Black Dahlia (2006), Son of Sam (2008), D.C. Sniper (2009), and Manson Family Cult (2012).
Zodiac is Hollywood’s big-budget, high-prestige take on the Zodiac Killer case, directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network), starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr.
The movie effectively recounts the saga from the point of view of the police and the San Francisco Chronicle staffers who set out to decode Zodiac’s messages.
In addition, Zodiac even implies that one real-life prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), was not only somehow involved in the crimes, but that he died in 1992 just as investigators took a new interest in him.
Critics almost universally praised Zodiac, with the film landing on numerous best-of-the-year lists. No one knows if the actual Zodiac Killer ever got to see it.
Main photos: Zodiac Killer (1971) movie ads