The case of the Zodiac Killer–who murdered five people (that we know of) in Northern California in the late 1960s, and whose identity still remains a mystery–has fascinated filmmakers ever since his reign of terror began. This is partially because of his methods, partially because of his direct contact with investigators among the police and media, and partially because he was never caught. He was never even positively identified, which means, for all we know, he could still be alive today. Thus the Zodiac’s macabre history has gripped the imaginations of artists for decades, either with direct interpretations or tales and characters inspired by him.
In fact, it may just be a strange coincidence, but the latest movie to feature a killer patterned after the Zodiac–Matt Reeves’ The Batman, in which Reeves reinterprets classic Bat-villain the Riddler as a psychotic yet methodical murderer who likes leaving coded messages–is arriving exactly 15 years after director David Fincher’s epic overview of the Zodiac case. Simply titled Zodiac, Fincher’s film was released on March 2, 2007 and was the last major Hollywood release before Reeves’ superhero thriller to address the legacy of California’s infamous and still unsolved mystery.
But there have been a number of films and TV shows that referenced the Zodiac over the last 50 years, everything from a 1971 porn movie called Zombie Rapist (we know, ugh) to several episodes of American Horror Story, Criminal Minds, and Riverdale, among others. But along with Zodiac itself, only a handful of major motion pictures have really drawn inspiration from the real-life story and perhaps echoed the chilling nature of the true Zodiac killings themselves. With Fincher’s movie on our minds and The Batman out this week, let’s take a look at the killer’s legacy on pop culture.
Dirty Harry (1971)
The first of five films starring Clint Eastwood as tough-as-nails San Francisco detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan, Dirty Harry puts Eastwood up against a murderer who chooses random victims around the city, including a woman swimming in a pool and a Black child. The killer, who goes under the name “Scorpio” (yes, a zodiac sign), even hijacks a busload of schoolchildren at one point, an action that the real-life Zodiac threatened to take but thankfully never acted upon.
Whether you agree or not with the rather fascist viewpoint of the film–that modern laws are incapable of defending society against heinous criminals–there’s no doubt that Dirty Harry remains a gritty crime thriller very much of its time. “Scorpio” is played chillingly by a young Andy Robinson, later of Hellraiser and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame, and the character is loosely modeled after the Zodiac, who was still theoretically active at the time of the film’s release. In fact, the serial killer may have been responsible for the disappearance of a nurse the year before, and didn’t send his final letter to the media until 1974.
There’s even a scene in Fincher’s Zodiac–we don’t know if it actually happened or not–where Detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who’s investigating the Zodiac killings, tries to watch Dirty Harry in a theater and has to leave.
Exorcist III (1990)
Long hailed as the only one of several follow-ups to The Exorcist worth a damn–not to mention a fine, unsettling horror movie in its own right–Exorcist III focuses on Lt. William Kinderman (George C. Scott), a supporting character in the original film who takes center stage here. The Georgetown detective begins investigating a series of grotesque, religion-themed murders that are similar to those committed by the so-called Gemini Killer 15 years earlier. Yet not only is the Gemini himself dead, but the killings also lead Kinderman back to another case–the possession of Regan MacNeil from the first film.
Directed by Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, who adapts his own novel (titled Legion), Exorcist III is a film full of quirks, red herrings, and odd character notes. It also works remarkably well as a slow-burning, atmospheric chiller. Like the Scorpio killer from Dirty Harry, the Gemini takes his name from the zodiac and the clues he leaves at his murders certainly seem to have been an inspiration to Blatty.
Even the eventual discovery that behind the Gemini lurks an evil supernatural entity that can leap from body to body is almost a metaphor for the long list of suspects who have been fingered at one point or another as the Zodiac. Blatty links all this back to his original Exorcist in compelling fashion, painting a picture of an all-encompassing evil that reminds us of the words of Father Merrin: “There is only one.”
David Fincher’s second directorial feature, which followed the misguided and misconceived Alien 3, remains one of the finest combinations of horror and police procedural ever committed to film, and vastly influential on scores of both inferior and effective imitators. Yet Seven itself owes a great debt to the mythology surrounding the Zodiac Killer, even if it was initially influenced by screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s time living in New York City as a struggling writer.
Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt are the two cops–one a weary, cynical veteran, the other a young, impulsive hotshot–who are put on the case of a killer who is staging macabre murders patterned after the seven deadly sins. As he would do with the cops in Zodiac 12 years later, Fincher portrays his detectives as men who are pushed to the brink of madness by the almost supernatural web that the killer spins, all while the murderer taunts them with clues and messages.
While Seven’s John Doe (Kevin Spacey) has a motive for what he’s doing and allows himself to be captured as part of his plan–something that certainly never happened with the Zodiac–both the fictional killer and the real-life one seem as if they’re here from another, darker world, passing judgment on us in ways we can’t begin to understand.
David Fincher’s masterful combination of psychological suspense and riveting procedural remains the final cinematic word on the subject of the Zodiac Killer as it reaches the 15th anniversary of its release. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt fashion an immersive, information-heavy but still dread-suffused mystery in which their main characters–several dogged cops (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards), a burnt-out reporter (Robert Downey Jr.), and an obsessive newspaper cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal)–all begin to show signs of damage as their probes hit one wall after another.
The filmmakers finger Arthur Leigh Allen, the only suspect ever named by the police in the case, as the Zodiac and the film tilts heavily in favor of that outcome, but even then Zodiac fucks with your mind even more, replacing a definitive resolution with an open-ended sense of unease that lingers long after the film is over. Whether you agree with their conclusions or not, the movie is a massive well of lore about the killer and a genuinely brilliant document of a time, a place, and a still-baffling enigma.
The Batman (2022)
Forget Frank Gorshin’s giggling yet still oddly menacing Prince of Puzzlers from the old Batman TV series or Jim Carrey’s “this goes to 11” living cartoon interpretation of the same basic template. The Riddler in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, and played by Paul Dano, may wear a costume, but his olive green terrorist-like mask and military jacket are a far cry from the neon lime bodysuits worn by both his predecessors. This is as radical a reimagining of Edward Nashton/Nygma as we’ve ever seen, and it fits the somber, funereal Gotham City that Reeves has created for his epic.
The Riddler here is a hybrid of John Doe and the Zodiac, throwing out a plentiful amount of clues and ciphers while making the morbidly staged tableaux of his victims part of his riddles (there’s a bit of Jigsaw from Saw in there too, although The Batman pushes up against but doesn’t cross its PG-13 line). Dano even dons glasses similar to those displayed in a famous police sketch of the Zodiac, but he’s a bit more like John Doe in what drives him to commit his ghastly crimes.
The Riddler exists to root out the rot at the heart of Gotham City, the kind of motivation to which the Zodiac never alluded–but what the Zodiac and the Riddler do share is an unsettling need to communicate their pathology to the world. Whether it’s as a cry for help or a weapon of psychological mass destruction is the ultimate riddle for each.
The Batman is out Friday, March 4, in theaters. Zodiac is streaming at Amazon Prime Video and other outlets.