Wednesday 22 September 2010

Zaat (1975)

Director: Don Barton
Stars: Marshall Grauer, Wade Popwell, Paul Galloway, Gerald Cruse, Sanna Ringhaver, Dave Dickerson, Archie Valliere and Nancy Lien
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

I'm fast coming to the conclusion that my favourite bad movies are the ones that provide the sole entry on the filmographies of almost everyone involved. Career filmmakers, especially low budget ones, often have distinct voices discernible across their entire output, but a need to be at least successful enough to finance their next picture has a tendency to adulterate their personal vision. It's usually an artist's first feature that carries the best mark of who they are and what they have to say and it can be fascinating to see the work of those who never went any further. Don Barton and his Florida creature feature, Zaat, are a great example. Barton was an industry professional, whose Barton Films produced documentaries, commercials and training films. Like most professionals, he eventually succumbed to the urge to try a feature but, while it had a good initial run in the southwest, it never made money and he never made another.

Zaat is a fascinating picture that soon becomes a guilty pleasure for many of its viewers. It's also one that becomes more fascinating the more you read up on it, because it's a rare example of an inept film that didn't have an inept production. Barton freely admits that he 'learned a lot about the movie business' by making Zaat, but unlike many one shot wonders it had reasonable funding for a Z grade movie, a full $50,000, and the production finished on schedule and within that budget. That's especially admirable as almost nobody involved had made a film before. This was a debut for every member of the cast, only two of whom chose to follow it up with another one. Paul Galloway, a Jacksonville firefighter who played the movie's sheriff, had a small part in JD's Revenge a year later, and Carol Thompson joined the hospital staff in Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! eighteen years after shooting this film. All are obviously amateurs.

A few of the crew had some experience but, like Barton, not with features. In particular, George Yarbrough, who handled the sound and editing, was a film professional who wrote a fascinating technical article for American Cinematographer about his experiences on Zaat, perhaps most interesting to the layman while discussing innovative ways of acquiring sounds: Geiger counters, phase shifting on CB radios, underwater sounds provided by the US Navy that are usually used to train sonar operators. Most experienced was cinematographer Jack McGowan, who had shot a number of Bob Clark movies including Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Dead of Night and Deranged. He also shot Stevie, Samson and Delilah for Steve Hawkes of Blood Freak fame, demonstrating a little crossover between Florida filmmakers. And so, with technical knowledge mostly obtained outside of feature production, these folks set about making a monster movie.

My previous review of Zaat talked about how truly inept it was, but the more I watch it the more I realise that its ineptitude has its own peculiar charms, often because it does things in ways that feature filmmakers would never choose. The introduction, for example, is textbook documentary stuff, merely replacing a sedate narration with over the top histrionics from mad scientist Dr Kurt Leopold. He's into fish, and I mean really into fish, not just in some detached ichthyologist sort of way, but in a palpable declaration of kinship well beyond The Incredible Mr Limpet. 'Sargassum, the weed of deceit. Sargassum fish, mighty hunter of the deep,' he rants, as if he were reciting poetry. 'I love you! I hope I'll be a good imitator.' As he 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, as he has trouble enough actually walking, shuffling along instead like a talented zombie. He isn't a stereotypical scientist in any way. He has a boring grey shirt instead of a white lab coat, and a regular haircut instead of a shock of white hair, but as he's apparently unable to work out what a comb is for, he looks perpetually like he just got out of bed. Maybe he had. Maybe it isn't really Marshall Grauer at all, it's a seriously hung over Al Pacino. Also unlike regular scientists he plans out his nefarious experiments with some sort of huge astrological wheel, which given the subject matter, couldn't help but remind me of UHF's Wheel of Fish. He did buy a former government research station in Cypress Grove, in reality a part of Marineland that had previously been used in Revenge of the Creature, another monster movie that did at least spawn the career of Clint Eastwood.

Dr Leopold doesn't speak either, letting the narration speak for him. Initially I presumed it was because Barton didn't have the equipment to record sound, like The Beast of Yucca Flats or Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, but as other folks turn up they prove perfectly capable of speech. Yarbrough's article explains that none of the dialogue was dubbed. This substitution of narration for speech is therefore deliberate, perhaps to show Leopold's dedication to his future fish state, given that this is one monster who becomes so entirely voluntarily. We watch it happen too through inevitable scientific gibberish. He does all the requisite random knob turning and switch flicking so that his bulky equipment can generate flashing light bulbs and warbling sounds, before injecting himself with a courageously sized needle, spraying his magic formula of 'Z sub A, A sub T... ZaAt!' into a huge water tank and using a needlessly complicated contraption to haul himself into it.

The suspense is palpable! No, I'm lying. There isn't any 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 completely transformed into the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or at least a cut rate version with a snout. The inspiration for this creature feature was a National Geographic article about walking catfish plaguing Florida, but the first thing the creature does is to look into a mirror and confirm that it doesn't look remotely like them. No, it's not being vain, it's checking for success. 'Nothing at all like a catfish,' it thinks, 'but it's beautiful.' I found the transformation particularly notable because it replaces Marshall Grauer with Wade Popwell, who is much taller and who can actually walk. Becoming a walking catfish is a strange way to learn how to walk but then Leopold is supposed to be a mad scientist so we can't dispute his logic.

Unlike most movie monsters, Popwell had a lot of work to do. He'd answered an ad in the local paper that read, 'Wanted: 6'5" or taller male to play the role of monster in horror movie. Must be experienced swimmer, scuba diver. Acting ability not required!' Ed Tucker, a fan of Zaat since he first saw it at the age of six and who wrote an article about the film for Scary Monsters magazine, explained the draw to him. 'For a 1971 film, you got a lot of bang for your buck,' he suggested. 'You got a lot of monster on the screen. I can't think of any film before or after that has as much monster.' While this breaks the cardinal rule of creature features and destroys any semblance of suspense the picture might have generated, by showing us the monster in detail before we see a single other character or hear a single word of dialogue, it meant Popwell was kept very busy. It also means that this giant walking catfish is absolutely the focal point of the film throughout.

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 or which they shot at Marineland, spraying ZaAt everywhere he goes with his little red spraycan. Even though he's more than obvious, looking like a scaly full size version of ALF, precisely nobody notices him. Maybe they've all forgotten that they're in a movie given that it takes no less than 25 minutes for any of them to even show up. Good old boy Sheriff Krantz and a black marine biologist named Rex don't notice, as they're busy recreating scenes from In the Heat of the Night, the more polite ones. A blonde girl camper painting by her Volkswagen 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 the river. Until he attacks them!

With one prominent scientist murdered and a second following suit in the privacy of his own home, the Sheriff begins an investigation, but proves to be unable to join any dots at all, though it must have been entirely obvious what's going on. There's precisely one mad scientist in town, one who wanted to attempt bizarre experiments on death row inmates to try to mutate them into fish monsters, and the two men who laughed at him turn up dead on the same day. What sort of law officer could possibly connect these facts? Not Sheriff Lou Krantz, who apparently needs the help of INPIT, the Inter-Nations Phenomena Investigations Team. They're a young couple in red jumpsuits with a big camper van, some sort of a cross between the Scooby gang and Mulder and Scully. Only when they suggest some sort of fish monster created through deliberate mutation of a human being by someone like Dr Leopold does the Sheriff think, hey, Dr Leopold!

Shot in February 1971, Zaat had a limited but successful release that year to southern theatres, even outgrossing films like The Poseidon Adventure in some venues, but didn't spread further until 1975, by which point it must have felt tame by the standards of that decade. Unashamedly a fifties creature feature, there's only a little blood to be found and at one point the monster kills someone by swiping at them in such a lackluster manner that I don't believe he even connects. Nancy Lien, the token female victim, doesn't even get naked to swim around, the year Susan Backlinie became so famous for doing that in Jaws. She does swim around in a bikini so 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.

So, even had Capitol Films, the national distributor, not inconveniently gone bankrupt and taken most of the fifteen prints of the film with it, Zaat probably didn't have much of a chance in 1975, even under a new and meaningless title of The Blood Waters of Dr Z. It took over three decades of languishing in obscurity, the inevitable fate of most one off exploitation movies with no overt connection to someone or something else of note, before it could be rediscovered. Don Barton had written the whole project off long ago, although he obviously has an abiding affection for his creation given that the creature suit still sits in his garage. It was when fans started to contact him that the picture began to take on a whole new life, most of them people who had seen the movie on its original run, often as kids, rather than fans of MST3K who had lampooned it in 1999. Now Barton has become enthused once more and has even suggested a sequel.

Much of the reason for the film's resurgence has to be that old time feel. Any other films with a similar attraction are generally decades older, thus precluding the possibility for a second shot because anyone involved is less likely to still be around. Yet it definitely benefits from falling 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, but others are simply joys to behold in all the wrong ways and Zaat is certainly one of those. The dialogue is outrageous and there's very little of it. There are almost no people in the film. The monster is omnipresent. I love the sheer concept of a man deliberately turning himself into a monster, even if he's an astrologically aware scientist, but it doesn't exactly make a lot of sense. The plot is threadbare and the suspense is non-existent. It really stands or falls on whether your taste runs to this sort of polite cheesiness.

For many that seems to be the case, and I'd count myself among them. I've seen the film a few times now and it's becoming much more available, fans no longer having to settle for low quality bootleg copies. It's been shown twice on Turner Classic Movies, the MST3K version is available on Netflix and the 30th anniversary tape has become an official DVD release with an introduction by Don Barton himself. He's even appeared at a number of revival showings in the southeastern states to present his film and to enjoy the whole filmmaker experience. The film didn't recoup its costs on its initial run, the $50,000 budget driven up to $75,000 by the cost of striking prints and handling publicity. Perhaps through sales of the DVD and the awesome poster, Barton might one day break even on his film. I'm not so fussed about a potential sequel because it wouldn't be the same, but I'd be happy to know that such a fun bad movie could officially become a success.

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