When Horror Crosses Over: Zodiac (2007)

This feature looks at films that do not easily fit within the confines of traditionally defined horror, but contain elements or vignettes within them that borrow from or are influenced by the horror genre. Sometimes, perhaps, pulling off horror more effectively than those films that fit easier within the genre. This time around I look at a couple of scenes from what I consider to be David Fincher's masterpiece, Zodiac.

David Fincher does not pull any punches by driving the audience, first thing, into a Zodiac murder film set piece. These set pieces, throughout the film, are jarring and violent, but he obscures the observer from details that would give the murders over to being gory or indulgently exploitative. He vies, instead, for splatters of blood on windshields, muzzle flashes from a detached distance and victims faces as their stabbing is only intermittently displayed beyond its implied presence. Fincher is attempting to strike a fine balance between the detached observer of a researcher and re-enactor and immersing the audience in the emotional sinews and suffocation that filled the air around San Francisco during the 1970s. Somehow Fincher and his superb cast are able to turn this true (and still officially unsolved) tale of a serial killer into one of the most stark and remarkable crime noir/crime procedural films of the new century.

Zodiac is a film that actually does a better job of getting under my skin and scaring me than 99% of general horror fare. Horror can be breathed in the damp, darkened mists that roll over the varied elevations and streets that merge into focus on a bridge that crosses the watery abyss. As I have spoken about many times before, horror works the best when it refuses to indulge the human desire to sense, rationalize and control the unknown. If you have any knowledge of the Zodiac murders, then you know that there were suspects but no one was actually processed, indicted and put behind bars. It is a cold case. One of the most famous in history. It has defied human abilities to reason out the answer and control the varied factors that play into this Grand Guignol of a case. However, there are two specific scenes I would like to focus on within the film that nail the dread and unknowns of horror and speaks to the very thing that horror excels at exploring.

There is a scene about midway into the film that caught me off guard and terrified me on my first viewing and on subsequent viewings does not seemed to have lost its effect on me. By the point we see a young woman driving down a rather dark highway, we have already been introduced to to the crimes, paranoia and media frenzy that the Zodiac killer has stirred up. Fincher, again, directs the scene with the tension of another murder set piece in the making. So the young lady is driving and she gets flagged down by a fellow driver to pull over. She does and the obscured gentleman comes up to her window and says that one of her wheels seems to be loose and that he would be willing to tighten it for her. She allows it and we come, in this moment, to know that she is not alone in the car, but, in the passenger seat, is a baby that she covers up and talks to while the man is working on the tire outside. The man confirms it has been tightened and goes back to his car, they both get back on the highway. 

A little later, the ride becomes rougher and the audience recognizes that the man had probably only loosened the wheel more--if it was even loose in the first place. She pulls to the side again and the same man passes, stops and pulls off again. He comes to the lady's window again and says the tire must have been more loose than he thought. He offers her a ride to the nearest gas station and she hesitantly accepts, not seeing many other options with a child in tow. She wraps up her baby and gets in his car. The baby whines a little and the man notices and notes that he didn't know she had a baby with her. Another unsettling element in the scene. The audience is just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

As soon as he drives past the gas station, we share in the uneasy terror of the lady as she recognizes what is really going on. The man then states matter of factly that he will toss the baby out of the window before he kills her. The scene fades before we are then brought once again to the highway where the young lady who is frightened and frenzied is yelling at a stopped truck driver as another woman pulls up to the scene and starts trying to find out what happened. The young lady is screaming that the man was going to kill her baby and the woman asks her where her baby is. At that moment there is hesitation. The dread hangs heavily over the scene: did he actually throw the baby out of the car even though he was unsuccessful in killing the woman? 

The woman frantically moves to the ditch. The viewer clutches the seat, perhaps expecting a small mangled body. Just then, a whine. A cry that signifies a respite of hope in the midst of utter, true terror.

The second scene finds the film's protagonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal)--the cartoonist who becomes the obsessive amateur sleuth and the audience's surrogate for the film's run--tracking down a potential break in the case at the house of a man who was an organist at a movie theater where Rick Marshall, the guy Graysmith was looking into at this time, worked. Rick had been the projectionist for the theater. Graysmith asks the man about the posters because the handwriting was the closest match the police had gotten to the Zodiac. The organist says that it was not Rick's handwriting, but, in fact, was his own. Graysmith's pallor becomes very pale and the potential danger he is in becomes very apparent. The man asks if he wants him to check the records in the basement to see if the film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), had played at that theater in 1969. Graysmith hesitantly follows him into the basement. 

A creak is heard overhead. Rhythmic footfalls on worn wooden floors. Graysmith asks if anyone else lives there with no response. The creaks continue and the tension is getting worse. The man finds the proper book with the record and he tells Graysmith that it played 9 weeks before the first Zodiac murder. Graysmith asks again if someone else lived there and the man answers, "Would you like to go upstairs and check?" The possibility that his guy was the Zodiac or was housing the Zodiac hammers Graysmith and he goes white and starts to move toward the stairs, running back up them to the door, but it is locked. The man follows him through the basement, turning out the lights as he goes, up the stairs and eventually unlocks it, never projecting violent intentions, just sheer sinister creepiness. 

These two scenes make my heart beat, goosebumps rising from my flesh and my stomach plummets. Not only are these scenes masterfully filmed and directed, but they rival some of the greatest of their kind within the horror genre. But it is not the scenes themselves that get under my skin, it is the implication made by these scenes that makes Zodiac a modern classic. Both of these scenes are ultimately misdirects. They have little to no direct involvement in the case Graysmith is making against the man he is ultimately convinced is the Zodiac. 

The man driving on the lonely highway, threatening the woman and her child is not the Zodiac. Neither is the man who brings Graysmith into his musty basement. I am convinced these misdirects are intentionally placed within the narrative of the film by Fincher to give the film a real sense of systemic human evil. The film and all of its main protagonists are blindly concerned with the Zodiac. They are obsessed to the point of nearly destroying their lives and reputations. However, it is these minor vignettes placed in the film that signify the presence of the Zodiac when he is not actually there that tell us something significant about true crime stories. Serial killers do not exist within a regional vacuum, they exist in a regional space where other evil, sinister works of man take place simultaneously with only a red thread of sin and violence to connect them. 

When people have Zodiac on the mind, there is a sense he is the only threat. As long as you don't find yourself in his presence, then you are sure to live another day. But, as these scenes show, evil permeates societies, cities, towns, families, biding its time before it rears its head. Most of them never become a media obsession and true crime sensation, they happen under the radar. They happen when our eyes are on the central monster showcased, the murderous scapegoat if you will, letting our strong sense of the nature of humanity soften. 

Any of those who do these small acts of violence could become the next Zodiac. We'll never be rid of the serial killer. As soon as one is caught and/or killed, another (or two) will rise in his or her place. Evil is relentless in this world. It will always be with us. This is the dark reality that permeates Zodiac and the very thing that makes it one of the greatest horror crossovers ever.

Zodiac (2007)
dir. by David Fincher
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo
Language: English
Runtime: 157 min.
Rating: R