Tracing the Zodiac Killer's SoCal Connections 10 Years After Fincher's Masterpiece
We don't even know if the Zodiac wrote this.
Unconfirmed Zodiac Letter, 1978
“Nothing makes sense anymore,” Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) tells Melanie (Chloë Sevigny) as their lives fall apart in David Fincher’s 2007 masterwork Zodiac. There’s an almost romantic cloud of nihilistic doom hanging over every molecule of Zodiac, as you and the characters get caught in a web trying to sift through the tornado of bullshit, bureaucracy, half-truths and media hijacking. It’s a wave of tragedy after which nothing makes sense and, over time, people stop caring and go on with their lives in a dark fog. Feels pretty germane, non?
Bleakness aside, Zodiac is one of this century’s most rewarding and rewatchable major studio movies, and it turns 10 this February. So on Feb. 9 Cinefamily (also turning 10 later this year) will screen the cult ensemble film about the notorious unsolved murders that plagued California during the late 1960s and early ’70s. But while the Zodiac Killer is commonly associated with Northern California, the masked killer also has some meaningful ties to the Southland, both in the real-life series of events and the film’s production.
The Zodiac Killer was famously never caught or prosecuted, and he (or they or she) killed an unknown number of people — and claimed to have killed many more. There were many other serial killers on the West Coast around the same time, but the Zodiac is probably the most legendary because he had created such a large profile for himself but was never brought to justice. He was the real-life boogeyman, a nouveau Jack the Ripper who cribbed a great deal of inspiration from the infamous Texarkana Moonlight Murders and other bits of pop culture folklore like The Most Dangerous Game.
The Zodiac is most famous for really wanting to be famous. He sent at least 18 letters (many featuring cryptographic puzzles) to California newspapers and media figures, taunting and openly defying every symbol of authority in his path. The Zodiac's existential nightmare lasted the better part of a decade and terrorized millions. If the Zodiac were alive today (he hopefully and likely isn’t), odds are he’d have a reality show franchise. Or be Ted Cruz.
Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), left, and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal)
Before delving into the L.A. connections (fair warning: This is a meandering piece about a serpentine story that's about as easy to untangle as a trash bag full of spaghetti and old USB cables), I’d like to emphasize what a substantial film Zodiac is. Based on Robert Graysmith’s book, it’s Fincher’s ode to ’70s filmmaking; it's epic, long, serious (but not without a scathing, cynical wit), with a total downer of an ending, an anti-classical Hollywood ethos, and a load of great performances. Zodiac is like if Altman and Pakula made a beautiful, albeit morbid, little baby.
It’s probably also Fincher’s most personal work and reads like an epic Russian novel. The director spent many of his early years in Marin County and was 6 years old on the eve of the Lake Herman Road attack (the first widely accepted crime in a string of contested murders and attacks by the anonymous Zodiac). The Zodiac Killer left an enormous impression on Fincher’s impressionable young mind. Se7en, Fincher’s breakout hit, features a similar serial killer who taunts cops and the press in a Zodiac-ian fashion, and in many ways Zodiac is the answer to and a spiritual prequel of Se7en. They make an amazing double feature, at the very least.
All of the themes in the Zodiac’s wave of terror ended up being key motifs peppered throughout Fincher’s career. His other works feature basement-dwelling psychopaths (Se7en, The Social Network), psychological torture (The Game, Panic Room, Gone Girl) and media manipulation (Gone Girl, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, House of Cards). The Zodiac saga reflects the Fincher worldview where the world is mostly terrible and the laws of cause and effect may or may not apply. Chaos wins. Terrible people thrive all the time. Murders go unsolved every day. Bad dudes win more often than they don’t.
And this is a long, dense film. No doubt it’s indulgent on top of just being long. But it’s so long because it is squeezing in as much historical detail as possible and making room for a murderer’s row of character actors. In addition to heavy hitters like Gyllenhaal, Sevigny, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., you’ve also got Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, John Carroll Lynch, Brian Cox, Philip Baker Hall, John Ennis, June Diane Raphael, Dermot Mulroney, Clea DuVall, Adam Goldberg, Charles Fleischer, James Le Gros, Jimmi Simpson and Zach Grenier. A bench this loaded is perhaps matched only by an Altman or P.T. Anderson cast.
The amount of detail woven into the music, sound and production design is also daunting, even by Fincher’s standards. It’s like watching a magic trick and trying to figure it out, even though there’s never a satisfying explanation. In the Kubrickian mold, detail makes the film extremely rewatchable. Everything comes in obsessive amounts, because Fincher’s trying to create a giant maze for conspiracy theorists and true-crime fans to get lost in, much as the real Graysmith and investigators did. One of the ways Fincher indulged himself was in the number of takes he allegedly did on this film in particular. Zodiac was one of the first big movies to embrace shooting on HD (though parts of the film were shot on film), so he had almost unlimited latitude to record hundreds of takes without having to worry about paying for processing. Zodiac finds Fincher really experimenting with the boundaries of digital for the first time, and it's the auteur at his most unhinged yet still in control.
So, yeah, the film is great and deserves its critical-darling status, and you should absolutely watch it once a year on the Fourth of July. The only unfortunate things about the film are that it’s not a 10-hour miniseries and I’m not sure if it passes the Bechdel Test. That said, in its defense, the movie is based on real events (though much creative license was taken) that were dominated by male egos. I’m also not convinced even Fincher could, in 2017, raise the $65 million it cost to produce Zodiac for such an anti-commercial feature film as this one. It would likely be a Netflix series if it were developed today.
Apart from the film’s artistic merits, I wanted to touch on how the Zodiac also affected Southern California, and the most alarming connection is the notorious unsolved murder of Cheri Jo Bates, the young woman who was found stabbed to death at Riverside City College in 1966. The film describes how reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) discovered that the Zodiac may have murdered her several years before the murders that most experts commonly attribute to him. This connection was made by the Riverside Police Department in 1969, though it wasn’t until 1970 that the press caught on to the Zodiac-Riverside linkage and published pieces about it. Also, here’s the typically ghoulish letter the Zodiac wrote to the L.A. Times later in 1971, in which he claimed he had killed 17 people to that point:
This is the Zodiac speaking
Like I have allways said, I am crack proof. If the Blue Meannies are evere going to catch me, they had best get off their fat asses + do something. Because the longer they fiddle + fart around, the more slaves I will collect for my after life. I do have to give them credit for stumbling across my riverside activity, but they are only finding the easy ones, there are a hell of a lot more down there. The reason I'm writing to the Times is this, They don't bury me on the back pages like some of the others. [sic]
Doesn’t this last line in particular sound like someone we all know?
To this day, whether or not Cheri Jo Bates was killed by the Zodiac — or someone else who went unknown and unpunished — is still a haunting hole (of many holes) in the Zodiac mythos. Even if it was the Zodiac, it still brings us no closer to a concrete truth. The investigation found some similarities with the Zodiac murders but not enough to conclusively link them all, at least by any real legal standards. The possibility that the Zodiac might be a Southern California native was certainly not good news for a region that would soon be terrorized by the likes of Charles Manson and then a decade later by the Hillside Strangler and the Night Stalker, among dozens of other less famous killers and rapists in that ultra-violent era.
Graysmith pleads with detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), right.
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There are other real, tenuous and outright fictional links to the L.A. area. Parts of the film were shot in Northern California, but downtown L.A., Downey, Long Beach and Westwood all were used as shooting locations, most of them playing other parts of the Golden State. George's '50s Diner in Long Beach plays a Vallejo-area fast food joint in that beautiful opening Fourth of July sequence, and Miracle Mile's Wilshire Colonnade also features prominently.
What's more, over the last five decades, many people from the L.A. area have claimed they know who the Zodiac is. In 2009, one such woman, Deborah Perez of Corona, came forward alleging her father was the Zodiac, and that she had first-hand knowledge because she used to go cruising for victims in his car as a young girl.
In 2014, L.A.-based publicist Chris Harris read Gary Stewart’s book The Most Dangerous Game of All, in which Stewart alleges that his father, Earl Van Best Jr., was the Zodiac. Harris claims he met Best once while making a documentary and that Best tacitly confessed his crimes to a stranger. No law agency was able to prove the veracity of these claims, and this is not an isolated incident. The L.A. Times estimated in 2009 that as many as 1,200 people may have officially come forward trying to legitimately assert they know the Zodiac’s identity.
The Zodiac case is maybe most famous for how many crackpot theories are out there. It's become an existential punch line. There are some fairly credible theories floating out there, too. Robert Graysmith’s book and the Fincher film are essentially fan theories themselves, as they implicate Arthur Lee Allen as the Zodiac pretty clearly and definitively, even though that suspect is dead and all hope of ever proving his innocence or guilt is gone with him.
The Zodiac Killer’s trail of information, lies and red herrings is the fundamental fabric of our lives, the perfect example of and statement on our information-addled culture. It’s about how time plus hysteria slowly choke and silence the truth. What a perfect tale for a post-everything, late-capitalist society that's falling apart.
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