Sunday, October 1, 2023

Living Hell of Ulli Lommel: THE ZODIAC KILLER (2005)

Oh holy shit, what have we gotten ourselves into? Ulli Lommel has had an amazing career out of making terrible movies that keep making money in spite of the almost no discernable talent. Sure someone, probably Ulli himself, might claim that he indeed had an auspicious start with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and even briefly moved into making a couple of successful low-rent horror movies, but cratered into a mad grab for cash that dumps all but the pretension of filmmaking. Even the worst dishwasher can work at a great restaurant for a while. Sound harsh? I have met a lot of genre movie fans over the years, across the US and overseas, and while many, if not most, have seen some of Lommel's work, not one of them could be considered a fan. Lommel benefited greatly from the insatiable demand for VHS and DVD content and as such was able to churn out staggeringly cheap "movies" for the DVD era that were little more than home movies shot with a cheap video camera in homes or public places. But to sell these ramshackle videos, you need a hook with which to reel in the suckers. In the late '90s, after David Fincher's SEVEN (1995) became a runaway hit and ingrained itself into pop culture, serial killer films became big business. You could argue that the low-budget arthouse hit HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986) really kicked things off leading to big studio films like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), but SEVEN was so huge that it lead to every aspect of it, including its credit sequence, influencing everything that came after it. Throughout the early 2000s we got high-profile serial killer hits like AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000) and MONSTER (2003), to a glut of indy titles like ED GEIN (2000), DAHMER (2002) and TED BUNDY (2002). Just like Leatherface is purported to have said, "what better hook to hang it on?"

In 2005 received no less than two ZODIAC movies. Alexander Bulkley's THE ZODIAC was low-budget, but aimed for legitimacy with actual film and a limited US theatrical run starting with a July 2005 German festival screening. ULLI LOMMEL'S THE ZODIAC KILLER (this is the actual title card) didn't get such honors and, after a US festival screening in March of 2005, went straight to DVD. Distributed by Lionsgate with an eye-catching cover, ZODIAC KILLER dropped the same year that SAW (2005) sold over 3 million copies in the first week of its DVD release. Lionsgate knew that they had a blueprint to vacuum money out of pockets in a booming horror market. Low-budget (or in Ulli's case, no budget), movies about serial killers who preferably torture their victims were big business and ZODIAC KILLER proved them right. Though, it certainly wasn't the actual movie that brought in all the sales, it was just the cover and title. You could have had 80 minutes of Ulli Lommel doing his laundry and that sucker would have still flown off the shelves at the time. 

I'm sure everyone reading this is at least familiar with the Zodiac Killer's brief reign of terror in the San Francisco Bay Area, from December 1968 until October 1969. The case is complicated and other murders with similar M.O.s have been alleged to be linked to the presumed single killer. No less than seven victims, six of whom were couples, are confirmed to be linked to a person who wrote cryptic letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Herald and The Vallejo Times-Herald (Vallejo being a middle-class community just north of SF) in which he took credit for the killings and what are believed to be cypher codes that have never been cracked. The solitary survivor of his attacks described him as wearing a hood and had a symbol of a circled cross on his chest. Many other cases into the mid-'70s have been thought to have possible connections, but whether they actually were the same person or a copy-cat or just some cop's fever-dream, is unknown since the killer was never caught. Considered one of the great unsolved crime cases in history, along with Jack the Ripper and B.D. Cooper, it is "solved" every year, usually in the Fall, by an amateur sleuth or retired detective and is splashed about the newspapers and social media so that we can all laugh at the absurd conclusions. It probably goes without saying, but Ulli Lommel doesn't give a shit about any of this.

Set and shot in Los Angeles (because that's where Lommel lives) and based on "his story" titled "The Nature of Evil" (which a Google search could not find any mention of) this no-budget sucker-bait outing makes the WITCHCRAFT series (1988-2016) look like A-list entertainment.

A douchebag at a rest home is loudly talking on his cellphone about needing to kill off his elderly relative in order to receive an inheritance. Unfortunately for him, she and the orderly (Vladimir Maksic) are right within earshot causing the orderly to frown with disapproval. After work, the orderly spends a long time travelling through L.A. until he finally comes upon an apartment laundry room where the d-bag is washing his clothes. The orderly, Michael Cosnick (who looks like a Mikey to me), takes out a nickel plated .45 and shoots him in the base of his spine. Are you horrified? No? Well, Los Angeles DJ's are! After what I assume is a pleasant night's sleep Mikey awakes to morning radio blaring about how this murder is "reminiscent of the string of killings nearly 30 years ago by the infamous Zodiac, a serial killer who is still at large!" Yep, you shoot a guy doing laundry and the next thing you know, you're branded a serial killer who hasn't been around for 36 years and operated about 400 miles away. I mean, you can understand why people would freak out and claim it is a Zodiac killing when there are only 71 gun-related deaths per month in 2005 Los Angeles. Makes perfect sense. The DJ helpfully goes on to inform Mikey, "you can read more about the Zodiac in Simon Vale's '70s best seller, 'The Hunt for the Zodiac'." I'll give you two guesses who plays Simon Vale, and one of them doesn't count, because it ain't David Hess.

Did I say "David Hess"? We jump to a room in which David Hess plays Mel Navokov, a forensic pathologist who is looking at some very real crime scene photos of bodies in various states of dismemberment. The reason we know he is a forensic psychologist the fact that he yells at his presumed friend Simon Vale (Ulli Lommel): "I'm a forensic psychologist, remember!?" So he's going to assess this alleged Zodiac based on pictures of his alleged victims on his laptop? It's almost as if Lommel has no idea what a forensic psychologist actually does. It doesn't take long for Mel to make an assessment: "The guy knew what he was doing... Makes ya puke doesn't it? When I get sick, I get horny!" Simon responds that when he gets lonely, he prays. These guys could kill a party faster than a visit from your parents.

Mikey easily finds a copy of Vale's book and we get one of the first, but definitely not the last, monotonous voice-overs reading the personal history of the Zodiac (here referred to as just "Zodiac" as if it is his name). That's right, detailed biographical information about a guy who was never identified. Since Lommel has a budget that starts at zero and counts backwards, he decides to use black and white footage swiped from THE BOOGEYMAN (1980) while the V.O. narrates what Zodiac did as a kid. This resonates with Mikey, for some reason, and in a desperate attempt to give the movie some sort of depth, Lommel has Mikey narrate his rambling thoughts about his desire to kill all the people who don't visit their relatives in the home where he works. Not sure how he's going to find people that haven't actually been to his workplace, but whatever. He also muses "I love old people. They need help." See? He's not a bad guy! Actually I have no idea whether that is Lommel's intent because the dialogue is seemingly adlibbed and barely coherent.

We also get long scenes of Mikey, who is apparently able to mimic the handwriting of the Zodiac flawlessly, writing letters to the police claiming to be the original killer. Additionally, we get absurdly boring scenes of Mikey killing people, like a young couple of non-actors who are looking to buy a Mercedes from some random guy in a small garage. Amusingly, the couple are shown getting shot and then shown dead in completely unnatural positions and in a way that their bodies never could have fallen. Yeah, that's me; expecting visual continuity from an Ulli Lommel movie. There is also a subplot that is introduced late in the game about a bunch of guys who sit around a dinner table wearing black hoods who are the "real" Zodiac killer. They have meetings in which they bitch about the new guy trying to take credit for their crimes and who killed which deserving person that week. Again, implying that serial killers are not entirely bad.

We get more rambling, stream of consciousness voice overs that culminate with a bizarre scene in which Mikey orders pizza. It is delivered by a girl in a black and white restaurant waitstaff outfit who Mikey just stares at for a while. Then, on the pretext of getting money to pay for the pizza, he gets a canteen filled with an unnamed knockout gas, causing the pizza girl to faint into a comfortable chair. After staring at her even more, he goes to bed and dreams that they are sitting on his bed tickling and wrestling each other. After waking up, he decides not to kill her. Riveting cinema! Lommel strains to make profound statements about how the military (in this case the US Navy, which is bizarrely specific) are state sanctioned killers. Yeah, he's got a point, but it's so tortured that I yearn for the subtlety of Monty Python's Zulu War bit in THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983). Here he thinks that he'll go into the Navy because "they kill for a reason". I'm beginning to think that Ulli doesn't have a point, just a rounded tip. We also get more of Mikey's Jack Handy-esque musings such as: "One thing I miss reading about the Zodiac is his purpose. He doesn't have a purpose." Makes ya think, doesn't it? Also, while stalking a victim, Mikey thinks "He really got on my nerves, so he had to go. If you know what I mean." No idea. He had to go home? To the grocery store? Piano lessons? What?

As if all that wasn't boring enough, we have another subplot about Vance meeting up with Mikey. Vance is trying to investigate Mikey while updating his book for a rerelease for which he is being fronted half a million dollars (welcome to Ulli's other fantasy world). It starts with letters, then phone calls, then getting a friend to hack into US Homeland Security computers and track Mikey's cell phone and then requests for dinner dates at French restaurants and invitations back to his place. Yeah, nothing creepy. For all of the stumbling, half improvised, one-take dialogue, this is the part where Lommel seems right at home, delivering his come-on lines so smoothly that you'd think he's had a lot of practice with them. Draw your own conclusions. One of the "best" moments of this squirm-inducing letchery is when Vale gives Mikey an opera DVD and a people-killing knife and gets him back to his place to feed him ice cream and make him watch REVENGE OF THE STOLEN STARS (1986)! Man, this fucker is creepy and evil!

Yep, you guessed it, [SPOILER] Smokey is the Bandit! Vale then gasses and shoots Mikey in his bathtub and we discover that he is the head of the Dining Room Table Zodiac Club. Oh and because Lommel doesn't know when to quit, we get a few tacked on scenes of Vale tying up loose ends. He sends Mikey's naked corpse in a giant Looney Tunes present to the detective on the case, who is not remotely impressed, along with a note saying that Mikey is the Zodiac. He then talks to a guy who he was interviewing for his book because his father was a serial killer. The guy really wants his father to be thought of as the greatest serial killer ever and Vale tells him that he wasn't because he was caught and executed (via guillotine!) and the greatest serial killer is the Zodiac because he was never caught and he then walks into the night. Roll credits.

Lommel puts so little effort into this rambling, dreary home-movie that it is amazing that he actually coordinated his schedule so that he could steal footage during an alleged Christmas parade and an alleged Halloween street party, where nobody is in costume except the "actors". These are cellphone-esque shots (IMDb says that this was shot with a Sony Arriflex 35, which is complete bullshit) just showing Vale following a wandering Mikey or the corpulent and aging ex-Zodiac detective Fisk (Peter Beckman), who lives with a young rockabilly wife and watches THE DEVONSVILLE TERROR (1983) in his spare time. There are no special effects outside of a tiny bit of stage blood dribbled on the victims, so Lommel resorts to pulling out footage from damn near every horror movie he's made including many scenes from TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES (1973), as well as the afore mentioned real crime scene photos. The whole thing lends a sleazy feeling that THE ZODIAC KILLER is little more than an excuse for Lommel to attempt to put the moves on the lead and make some money off of the lucrative serial killer movie market at the same time. 

It should be mentioned that this is the first in a string of 10 real-life serial killer movies (that have nothing to do with the real-life serial killers) from Ulli and his new best friend, actor/producer Nola Roeper. Prior to hooking up with Ulli, Roeper's claim to fame was AM radio in the '80s and some minor comic acting and stage roles in '70s. She has produced at least 20 of the cheapest, crappiest shot on video movies that you can imagine for Lionsgate and a whopping 19 of them were with Lommel behind the camera (iPhone?). She has small acting parts in most of them and, let's say, she does nothing to raise the value of the production. Interestingly, she took her ill-gotten gains and put them into a Hollywood event planning / party rental company that has staged events for A-list actors. Or at least so she claims.

Presumably inspired by the trail-blazing 1971 cult film, THE ZODIAC KILLER, it's hard to say whether Ulli heard about Bulkley's production and raced to make his own, or whether it was just one of those Hollywood hive-mind occurrences where you have two or more very similar movies being produced concurrently, seemingly in a vacuum, separate from each other. Seeing as how Lommel's movie probably took about a week to shoot, I'm inclined to believe the former. The most amusing thing about these completely dissimilar competing turkeys is that they were financially successful, possibly paving the way for David Fincher's unsuccessful, but surprisingly good, big-budget take on the events with ZODIAC (2007). While I'm usually all about supporting the underdog, in this case I'm glad something good came out of Ulli's gawd-awful tripe.

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