Sunday 1 November 2009

Zaat (1975)

Director: Don Barton
Stars: Marshall Grauer, Wade Popwell, Paul Galloway, Gerald Cruse, Sanna Ringhaver, Dave Dickerson, Archie Valliere and Nancy Lien
The IMDb Top 250 list is a pretty good list as such things go, especially if you apply a rule that says that nothing is a classic until it's ten years old and so consequently discount that section of the list dedicated to current flavours of the month that will quickly disappear. Think Transformers, think American Gangster, think The Simpsons Movie. At the other end of the scale, though, the IMDb Bottom 100 list is pretty bad and not in a good way. One of its biggest problems is that it essentially falls into two definable sections: recent crap that people have seen and stuff that everyone forgot about but which found its way back into public consciousness courtesy of Mystery Science Theater 3000, this film falling into the latter category.

There's a huge difference between these two halves. For instance, consider something like Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever, which recently won the dubious honour of being selected as the worst film of the last decade by the Rotten Tomatoes website. It certainly wasn't a good film but it just can't hold a candle to the awful films of the past when it comes to sheer ineptitude. I enjoyed it, in a guilty pleasure sort of way and Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu are talented actors in hot outfits. While it's easy to find bad things to say about it, it's also easy to find good things to say about it, however the whole picture comes out in the end.

To find the truly bad films you generally have to delve into the obscure, the paradox being that this list could only get better if only the obscure stuff wasn't quite so obscure. Fortunately it is getting better over time as more films reach that magic threshold of 750 votes which is what's needed to even qualify for the list. I'd just love to know what's out there that MST3K couldn't get rights to but which it would take forever for 750 people to rate. For instance, Chester Novell Turner's Black Devil Doll from Hell only has 166 votes and his follow up film Tales from the Quadead Zone is only up to 37 in the 22 years since its release. Having appeared on MST3K under an alternate title of Blood Waters of Dr Z, this film has a built in advantage and, as I write, has 1,861 votes. I'll soon make it 1,862.

Zaat is a perfect example of an old school truly bad movie because it's not just about failing to achieve what the filmmakers intended, it's not even about failing to come up with something to intend, it's about completely failing to understand the basics of almost any aspect of filmmaking except having fun. It's really a throwback to the days of the creature features of the fifties, reaching similar heights to what people like Ed Wood, Coleman Francis or Jerry Warren managed to achieve. There is literally nothing here that's done right, unless you count the casting of a couple of young ladies who are pleasing to the eyes, Sanna Ringhaver and Nancy Lien. OK, there's some capable underwater photography too at points, though it's obvious that some of it is shot outside and some inside in Marine Land tanks, tanks that keep changing size and colour.

We have only one focus, a mad scientist by the name of Dr Kurt Leopold, who explains what this film is all about in an over the top opening narration that accompanies some stock footage from nature documentaries. He's into fish, I mean really into fish, not just in some detached ichthyologist sort of way, but in a palpable declaration of kinship. 'Sargassum, the weed of deceit. Sargassum fish, mighty hunter of the deep!' he rants, as if he was reciting poetry, 'I love you. I hope I'll be a good imitator.' As Leopold gets excited, he reaches the level of, 'They think I'm insane! They're the ones who are insane! Oh, my friends of the deep! This day, this very day, I'll become one of you! My family! And together we'll conquer the universe!'

To look at Dr Leopold you wouldn't think that he'd be able to conquer anything, given that he has enough trouble actually walking, instead shuffling along like a talented zombie. He doesn't look like a scientist, having a boring grey shirt instead of a traditional white lab coat, but he did buy a former government research station in Cypress Grove. He has a regular haircut instead of a shock of white hair, but he's apparently unable to work out what a comb is for, so he looks perpetually like he just got out of bed. Maybe he had. Also unlike regular scientists he plans out his nefarious experiments by use of some sort of huge astrological wheel. Having seen UHF recently and given the subject matter, I couldn't help but think of the Wheel of Fish.

Leopold doesn't speak either, letting the narration speak for him. I presumed it was because the filmmakers didn't have the budget to record sound, like The Beast of Yucca Flats, but once other folks turn up they start to talk fine. So instead of hearing Leopold talk, we watch him take off his shirt and stick a huge needle into the obvious patch of fake skin on his arm. We watch him continually play with equipment with coloured light bulbs attached to it that has no apparent purpose except to make strange beeping noises. Finally we watch him spray his magic formula of 'Z sub A, A sub T... ZaAt!' into a huge water tank then lie down in some sort of contraption and lower himself carefully into the water.

The suspense is palpable! No, I'm lying. There isn't any suspense because we're too busy working out why this cool pulley contraption is even there and Leopold doesn't just climb into his tank. Certainly he climbs out, having been transformed completely into a really cheap version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Up to now we've been watching Dr Kurt Leopold played by Marshall Grauer but now we get to watch Wade Popwell play The Monster, because Popwell is much taller than Grauer and can actually walk. The monster is memorable in all the wrong ways, looking more like a full size version of ALF, or just a man in a wetsuit covered in camouflage netting, bits of green fur and odd patches colured with a red marker pen. Doctor Who monsters were never this bad, even before 1971 when this film was initially released.

So out climbs the monster, wanders over to the nearby mid-Florida lake to take a swim among the octopi and the sea turtles and whatever other critters were in the nature documentary stock footage the filmmakers had to hand, spraying ZaAt everywhere he goes with his little red spraycan. As he swims and walks around in this little lake, looking totally obvious, precisely nobody notices him. Sheriff Krantz and the marine biologist called Rex don't notice, because they're on the shore looking at walking catfish, which have been plaguing the town lately. The blonde girl camper painting over by her Volkswagen on the shore doesn't notice him. Not even Dr Leopold's nemesis and his family notice him, from their conveniently placed fishing boat right in the middle of this tiny little lake.

After he kills this nemesis and his family, the Sheriff starts investigating, but for some reason doesn't connect the dots, even when it's pretty obvious what's going on. Rex calls in INPIT, the Inter-Nations Phenomena Investigations Team, which is a young couple in orangy red jumpsuits and a camper van with a cool logo on the side. They work out that it has to be some sort of fish monster created through deliberate mutation of a human being by someone like Dr Leopold, at which point Sheriff Krantz realises that maybe it could be Dr Leopold. After all, he's the only mad scientist in Cypress Grove, who wanted to work bizarre experiments on death row inmates to try to mutate them into fish monsters. What sort of law officer could connect those dots?

This is blissful insanity, utterly inept in every way. Only one person associated with this film ever appeared in another one, that being Paul Galloway who was a unit manager on the film and also played Sheriff Krantz. He had a small part in JD's Revenge a year later as 'Garage Man' and that appearance seems to be the sum progression of the entire cast and crew into cinematic careers. Zaat is it for all of them, though I'm happy to say that the film is still going strong, being shown this very week on the big screen at the 5-Points Horror Fest in Jacksonville, FL, with producer and director Don Barton present, presumably for a Q&A. I wish I'd been there.

Technically, it's not good, however much fun the folks who made it were obviously having. To highlight how walking catfish are plaguing the town we see catfish piled onto a road to suggest they can walk, and a little walking catfish squirming around on something that has a tiny model fence stuck on it to suggest scale. The scene where the monster trashes the drug store is as dramatically inept as Tommy Wiseau's trashing of his apartment in The Room except the colour balance keeps fading in and out too. When the monster slashes people they bleed because the fake blood is cunningly concealed in his clawed gloves, but that means that when he misses people the walls bleed instead. That's hilarious.

Zaat doesn't have the restraint of classic monster movies, the monster here being seen pretty much consistently throughout the entire film. That may work for six year old kids but it doesn't work for anyone else, stripping the movie of any tension it may otherwise have contained, not that that was particularly likely. In other ways however it goes back to the old school ethos, not getting outrageous to the same degrees that seventies exploitation films generally went to. There's blood but nothing much, and at one point the monster kills someone by swiping at them in such a lackluster manner that I'm not sure he even connects. Even the token naked chick doesn't even get naked. She does go for a swim in a bikini though so Dr Leopold can capture her and turn her into his mate, but it doesn't work out so he has to carefully select another mate, coincidentally the only other woman in the film who has a name. He even nails up a picture he's drawn of her onto his wheel of fish, literally hammering the point home.

However Zaat definitely falls on the right side of the so bad it's good paradigm. Some truly awful films are difficult and painful to get through, often the serious ones, though The Room wins out through sheer sincerity. Others are simply joys to behold in all the wrong ways and Zaat is one of those. No, I can't come up with anything redeeming to say about the film, which is inept and laughable. Yet if I hadn't just deleted it off my DVR I'd happily watch it again next week. I need to buy the awesome poster. I'll also have to track down a DVD copy, if there is one, or a VHS copy or whatever's out there, not just to rewatch but to circulate among friends and fellow bad movie devotees. The film's website (yes, there is one) talks about a 30th anniversary collector's edition tape, autographed and numbered, but that may be a number of years out of date and the link is broken. I shall investigate... watch this space!

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