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Zodiac, The

ThinkFilm // R // August 29, 2006
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted September 5, 2006 | E-mail the Author
"The Zodiac" opens with a disclaimer informing us that names have been changed to protect the innocent. That's a fancy, look-how-responsible-we-can-be way of saying "this is a fictionalized retelling of a true event." The filmmakers have taken accounts of the Zodiac Killer case and dumped in a fairly standard cop thriller plot; you can tell it's hokum once the detective's kid starts solving the crime himself.

The film (not to be confused with "Zodiac," David Fincher's upcoming all-star, big-budget version of the story; or "The Zodiac Killer," the 1971 exploitation flick churned out while the murders were still happening; or "Zodiac Killer," the 2005 direct-to-video schlocker about a copycat killer) is slickly made yet rarely interesting, too unfocused and dry to ever get where it wants to go. But then, it's a bit unclear where it wants to go at all, as the script, from brothers Alexander Bulkley (who also directed) and Kelley Bulkeley (both making their feature debut, and yes, their names are spelled slightly differently), tries to cram too much into a limited running time, allowing it to ramble, bouncing here and there and everywhere without ever finding its proper footing.

Sgt. Matt Parish (Justin Chambers from "Gray's Anatomy") is the detective on the case of the serial killer who terrorized Vallejo, a cozy community in California's Bay Area, starting in December 1968, followed by letters sent to the press by the killer that include a set of ciphers designed to taunt the authorities who were unable to crack the mysterious code. The crimes all come from real life - the filmmakers provide almost fetishistic detail regarding time and place - but the investigation is a work of fiction. The most intriguing/frightening (depending on your point of view) aspect of the Zodiac case is that the killer was never caught; as such, any attempts to show too much of the killer or cops slowly closing in on him will defy the reality of the tale.

And so the filmmakers aim to make this a "Summer of Sam" type work, one less concerned with the killer himself and more with the reactions of the community, which was sent into a world of total fear for years. But the filmmakers don't want to leave the ace cop too far behind, so we also get formulaic melodrama about how a cop's life is hard on the whole family (beleaguered wife Robin Tunney is reduced to a long string of hand-wringing moments). The bits involving Rory Culkin as the detective's son are intriguing at first, suggesting we may see these years through inquisitive young eyes; but then the son becomes so obsessed that he starts trying to crack the killer's ciphers - a subplot that's so clumsy and ridiculous that it doesn't last long.

But then, nothing really lasts long. Instead of just focusing on the community, or the family, or maybe the cops that grow increasingly stressed over their failures (Philip Baker Hall, as the chief, pops by now and then to grumble about how crappy it's all going), the filmmakers also want to get their hands around the true facts of the case. The cop/community story is too often dropped (despite the movie's own intents) so the film can linger over the minute details of the Zodiac murders. It's the sort of thing designed to satisfy the sweaty types who collect serial killer trading cards and have every last fact of the case memorized.

These scenes are handled well enough, I suppose, but that can't change the fact that they don't belong here, in a movie trying to steer away from exploitive horror. The same goes for the scenes involving William Mapother as a TV journalist; his investigations into the case come and go awkwardly throughout, never giving us enough to satisfy, giving us too much for it to work as the minor subplot it should be (at best). All this jumping around becomes too frustrating - when Mapother's character reports that a couple of retirees have cracked the Zodiac's cipher, we grumble, as the film refuses to give us more. How? Who? Why? Huh?

Then there's the film's final moment (no, this is not a spoiler - it's part of the obligatory title card wrap-up about the facts following the events seen in the movie) that reveals the Zodiac's last letter to the media, a letter which ended with the (in)famous line "I hope somebody makes a good movie about me." Obvious jokes about the quality of "The Zodiac" aside, such a comment reveals a lost opportunity. Here is a psychopath who fed off media attention and the sense of power it provided him. Yet "The Zodiac" never once discusses this angle of the case; did the media's fascination urge him on? Once again, the lack of focus here frustrates.

In individual moments, "The Zodiac" is sleek and effective, but as a whole, not enough connects. It's two, maybe three different takes on the same subject duking it out for airtime, and the resulting struggle only leads to boredom.



ThinkFilm oddly labels the picture as being "16x9 anamorphic full frame." Don't worry, there's no cropping here - that's just a fancy way of saying original 1.78:1 widescreen format. The image looks very good, strong blacks and vibrant colors.


The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is just as good, although watch out: the movie has a habit of going from quiet to loud (thanks to sudden gunshots) very quickly. This balance is handled very well. An average Dolby stereo track is also provided, as are optional Spanish subtitles.


Bulkley and Bulkeley hand in a fairly chatty commentary. They obviously know plenty about their subject, which makes one wonder why their film couldn't have been more focused.

"Behind the Zodiac" is a ten-minute featurette that delivers your standard behind-the-scenes footage and interviews.

Of questionable taste is the inclusion of the text of the Zodiac letters sent to the press (which seems to give the killer the further publicity he was seeking decades ago). Also thrown in are the original ciphers and the translations of those that were decoded (only without any information at all regarding how they were solved). A detailed timeline of the Zodiac case rounds out this ickier side of this disc.

Finally, the film's theatrical trailer and trailers for other ThinkFilm releases are also included. Those extra previews also play as the disc first starts up, although you can skip over them if you so desire.

Final Thoughts

"The Zodiac" could have been so much more, but as is, it's too messy and dull to achieve the levels it wants. Rent It, and wait for Fincher's version.
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