“The Zodiac Killer”: How A 1971 Grindhouse Movie Tried To Trap The Real Killer

Zodiac (1971), movie poster detail [promotional image]

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Director David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) is a film that’s long been well-respected by many true-crime aficionados.

But that critically acclaimed, $65 million Hollywood production is not the first — nor, at all, the most unique — motion picture titled Zodiac to take on notorious terror spree of the “Zodiac Killer.”

Related: Serial Killer Cinema — 6 Films Based On The Zodiac Killer

In terms of sheer moxie, perhaps no other movie can quite measure up to director Ton Hanson’s 1971 opus Zodiac, which was later retitled The Zodiac Killer.

It’s a $13,000, made-on-the-fly exploitation blowout filmed in San Francisco during the Zodiac’s peak period of serial slaughter and media manipulation right on those very same streets.

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As such, The Zodiac Killer delivers the gritty, gory goods in terms of grindhouse audience gratification. It’s set to hit Blu-ray this July in a deluxe edition from AGFA/Something Weird Video sure to amaze fans of way-out cinema.

The Zodiac Killer (1971), 2017 Blu-ray front cover [Amazon]

Still, what elevates Hanson’s endeavor beyond its considerable B-flick pleasures is that he actually made the movie to be “bait” that he hoped would lure the real-life Zodiac Killer to a theater where, in addition, the director set up traps to ensnare the murderer!

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Before we get to the movie, though, let’s explore some Zodiac Killer facts.

In August 1969, someone claiming to be an active serial slayer wrote taunting letters to San Francisco’s top daily newspapers. At first, the sender issued a 408-character pictogram puzzle in lieu of a signature. Later, he referred to himself as “Zodiac.”

With each new delivery, a tragic pattern emerged. The Zodiac would take out a human target, fire off a letter to the press and, eventually, strike again.

Authorities worked frantically to identify the mystery assailant, but to no avail. That’s when Tom Hanson, the owner of a restaurant chain called Pizza Man and part-time filmmaker, took action.

Related: These 8 Serial Killers Could Still Be Roaming The Streets

The erstwhile Pizza Man himself rushed Zodiac into production, then filmed fast and slapped it together frantically (a fact that becomes obvious when, at one point, a scene ends with the director audibly yelling, “Cut!”).

From there, Hanson booked Zodiac at the Golden Gate Theater just off the very busy Market Street. Believing the Zodiac Killer was so egotistical that he wouldn’t miss the movie, Hanson aimed to catch the psycho right on the spot.

In the theater lobby, Hanson set up a motorcycle giveaway as part of a cross-promotion with Kawasaki. Everyone who bought a ticket got a yellow card that stated “I think the Zodiac kills because….”

Attendees would then jot down a theory, along with their name and address, and place the card in a box.

Zodiac (1971) movie poster [promotional image]

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Unbeknownst to the contest entrants, a Hanson associate was hidden inside the box, analyzing the responses — trying to match the handwriting on each card to that in the letters Zodiac had sent to the newspapers.

In addition, Hanson had somebody else staked out inside an ice cream freezer, watching the crowd as it passed by. The only real hitch occurred when “one of the guys almost died because the g–damn vent wasn’t working right and we left him in there too long.”

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In a stunningly informative and entertaining interview with the titanic cult film site Temple of Schlock, Hanson explains his plan:

“In the lobby on the second floor, I had a display built that didn’t look like there could be anybody underneath it. The motorcycle was on top of that, and the box was there to drop yellow cards in…

If a card came through that had some significance, [the guy in the box] was supposed to push a button that would alert all of us. I also had a guy in a freezer, one guy across the street, one guy in the theater, and one guy in the office, and we just kept more or less alert.

People went and saw the movie, and they dropped those cards in to win the free motorcycle. We would look at them, and there was all kinds of bull—- in there — ‘He kills because he’s been treated badly,’ on and on. And then on the fifth or sixth night, I forget which night it was, one of those yellow cards came through the box – ‘I was here, the Zodiac.’ That was all that was on there.”

In the same Q&A, Hanson also states he believes he encountered the Zodiac Killer face-to-face in the theater’s restroom.

Related: Serial Killers By The Numbers — 11 Facts About The Darkest Side Of Humanity

The director says that, while relieving himself, someone snuck up behind him and uttered, “Y’know, real blood doesn’t come out like that!”

Zodiac Killer wanted poster [San Francisco Police Department]

Upon turning around, Hanson said the speaker looked unmistakably like the sketch on the Zodiac’s SFPD wanted poster. In a panic, Hanson assembled his team. They grabbed the patron in question and dragged him into the theater office.

The six amateur sleuths interrogated the guy, and Hanson says he remained utterly calm the entire time. Eventually, their suspect calmly talked them into letting him just walk out.

Hanson claims the guy returned the next day and said, “I just thought I’d stop by and see if everything is okay,” and then left.

Related: Serial Killer Cinema — Movies Inspired By David Berkowitz aka “Son of Sam”

The director maintains that even if that oddball wasn’t the actual killer, he still believe he was most likely the one who claimed to be Zodiac on the yellow contest card.

When asked why he didn’t pursue the lead even further, Hanson says, “I had to leave. When you’re on your ass you gotta try and make a living.” That’s show biz!

The upcoming Zodiac Killer Blu-ray will contain even more interviews with Hanson, other special features regarding this one-of-a-kind moment in movie history, as well as a second off-the-wall true-crime cash-in feature, 1977’s Another Son of Sam.

Read more:
Temple of Schlock
American Genre Film Archive
Dangerous Minds

Main image: Zodiac (1971), movie poster detail [promotional image]

  • Martha Bartha

    Which sign of the Zodiac was he?