Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Zaat (1971)

Marshall Grauer as Dr. Kurt Leopold
Wade Popwell as The Monster
Paul Galloway as Sheriff Lou Krantz
Gerald Cruse as Marine Biologist Rex
Sanna Ringhaver as INPIT Agent Martha Walsh
Dave Dickerson as INPIT Agent Walker Stevens

Story by Ron Kivett and Lee Larew 
Screenplay by Don Barton and Arnold Stevens

Directed by Don Barton and Arnold Stevens 

Lots of people who know me are aware that Mystery Science Theater 3000 helped shape my sense of humor and my love of B-movies. A few years ago, I first saw their episode of this movie, under the title of Blood Waters of Dr. Z and it became one of my favorite episodes. Produced by the Barton Film Company, who did a lot of commercials and industrial films, which is definitely noticeable with this movie, in Jacksonville, FL, Zaat is a creature feature that director Don Barton decided would be easy to make on a tight budget and still get into theaters. Lee Larew and Ron Kivett came up with the sci fi/horror plot after reading an article in a Florida wildlife magazine about the environmental threat of walking catfish. 

I got the Blu ray of Zaat for Christmas last year and I thought it'd be a perfect film to start off this blog with and holy shit, did it not disappoint. For those who watch MST3K, you know that they had to cut down the movies featured on the show for time, so I finally got to experience the full, uncut film. Without Mike and the bots, it's pretty jarring, because this movie is full of long stretches of silence, mainly the scenes of the monster walking around.

The movie starts off with stock footage of sea creatures and we hear our main character, ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Kurt Leopold's inner monologue about how he plans to use his formula, Zaat, to transform people into walking catfish people. The first twenty minutes are a bit slow, because while we do get some of that sweet inner monologue, these scenes of Leopold in his lab are mainly him walking around with a dead-eyed, miserable look on his face. It's revealed that he was laughed at by his colleagues and that they wanted nothing to do with the Zaat formula. He has drawn a chronological wheel and in each month, there are his further plans to conquer the world. He starts off by using Zaat on himself, spraying some red liquid into his tank and then lowering himself into it by using a gurney and he is then transformed into a catfish monster. I'd like to point out that the monster suit has no articulation in the face. He just has a stone look on his face for the rest of the movie.

Wade Popwell plays Leopold in his monster form for the remainder of the movie. Popwell is the MVP of the film, because as we see in several shots, he visibly trips on something or momentarily loses his footing. I assume Popwell couldn't see very well in the suit, if at all. If you watch the bootleg version of the film on Youtube, which is of the laserdisc transfer, you can see some shots of Popwell in the full monster suit, but with tennis shoes on, because the film was shot on open matte. Little details like that and the slow pacing add to the bizarre charm of this film.

He just wanted to be comfortable.

After transforming himself, Leopold's acts of revenge begin when he goes to a river and releases some of the smaller walking catfish into it and then he takes a spray bottle of Zaat and squirts some of it underwater. Anytime Leopold accomplishes a task on his wheel, he crosses it out and after this particular one, he crosses off the state of Florida as if he's saying that after releasing a few catfish into a river and a few squirts of Zaat, he's conquered Florida. It's one of the biggest laughs I got out of the film. 

We are then introduced to Lou, the town's sheriff and Rex, the town's marine biologist, who are getting calls about people who have seen a fish-like monster walking around town. Lou is your typical monster movie sheriff, where he thinks the weird things going on in the town are just made up until towards the end of the film when he randomly reveals that Leopold had wanted to experiment on people. So they call in some scientists from INPIT, Martha Walsh and Walker Stevens. They begin to investigate and find some contaminate in the river, so they analyze it. 

Leopold then decides to murder a couple of his former colleagues, who we see pictures of on his wheel. Leopold finds his first colleague out fishing. He overturns his boat and kills him and just so that we know it's the colleague, the film flashes back and forth between the picture of him and as he's being murdered by Leopold. The same thing happens again when Leopold murders his second colleague, this time the victim is in his home, reeling his fishing pole. So I guess this is the film saying that the sea creature loving Leopold also wants to kill them, because they're both fisherman as well.

The monster decides he wants a mate, as he spies on a bikini-clad girl on a shore. The movie doesn't explain much of what the monster's motives are, so you have to piece together what's going on. But we see another flash to Leopold's wheel and this time it's a drawing of a lady catfish monster. So he kidnaps the girl and takes her back to his lab. He injects her with Zaat and lowers her into the tank and she dies partially transformed. A couple of noticeable things in this scene are that the actress plugs her nose before going underwater and then, after she is brought up from underwater, her eyes are closed, but are then open in the very next shot. Leopold then dissolves her body in some sort of liquid.

Rex and the INPIT agents set up a net near a location that Leopold has been spotted at and they capture him, which leads to a fight scene between the monster and Stevens. You can audibly hear Wade Popwell's grunts and growls from inside the monster suit during this scene. Both the monster and Stevens are injured and Leopold gets away. He returns to his lab and decides that his next attempt at a mate will be agent Walsh, which he draws a sketch of and the film once again flashes back and forth to shots of the sketch and the character.

Then we get to my favorite scene in the film. Leopold goes into town and breaks into a pharmacy. There are long shots of him walking down the street. At one point, he stops, holds his side where he was injured, while his inner monologue says, "UNNNGH, THE PAIN!" Instead of setting up different or clever angles to show the monster, there's just long, wide shots of him walking around. The industrial filmmaking definitely shines brightest in these types of scenes. He breaks into the pharmacy, opens a couple of cabinets, drinks some medicine, angrily trashes the place and then leaves.

It's such an odd little scene that doesn't really accomplish anything other than being entertaining to watch. Well, I guess that can be said for a lot of scenes in this movie, especially the one that follows just a few minutes later.

On his way back to the lab, the monster comes across a random teenage couple and he kills the boy. We then cut to Sheriff Lou in his vehicle as he hears a scream. We think that he's going to drive over to the couple that was terrorized, but he drives over to a building and finds a group of hippies playing religious music. He sits down and listens to them play, nodding approvingly, not to the beat, though. The hippie playing the acoustic guitar is Jamie DeFrantes, who wrote the songs for the film and with that discovery, it makes sense why this scene is even  in the film. It has to be because the filmmakers knew DeFrantes could play guitar and they wanted a scene of him playing it. The scene then gets weirder, as Lou leads all of the hippies down the street, while DeFrantes is still playing and singing and someone is playing the flute. Lou leads them to the jail and has them all go into a cell, saying they'll be safe there. Is the movie saying something about society in the 70s? Is the flute player the pied piper and the hippies are the rats that are being lead into the jail? Or is it just because they knew DeFrantes could play guitar and this was the only scene they could think of to have him in? The scene comes out of nowhere and we never see these hippies again.

It's at this point, that the film just goes off the rails. Lou reveals that Leopold is probably the one behind all of this. The way he tells Rex and Stevens this is baffling. It'd be like if I said, "You know, I saw my neighbor digging a hole in his backyard and he had a bunch of bags full of body parts that he threw in there. I think he might be a serial killer." And before you decked me in the face for not telling you sooner after there being months of missing person cases, I'd say, "Well, I just hadn't thought of it until now."

Leopold kidnaps Walsh. Lou, Stevens and Rex go after Leopold. Stevens finds a random buggy that can  travel on land and water and I love the action music playing whenever it cuts to Stevens in the buggy going incredibly slow in the water. He decides to then ditch it and go across some water with a gun. He's attacked by a snake and his leg is injured, so he slowly makes his way to Leopold's lab. Lou fights Leopold as he returns and is killed. Leopold injects Walsh with the serum, but the experiment fails, because Rex saves her as Leopold flees to the ocean. But Walsh seems like she's mentally transformed, because she follows Leopold and Stevens can't get her out of her trance. So after this hour and a half of low budget schlock, they attempt to end it ambiguously. 

Zaat is pure B-movie bliss. Its lack of proper filmmaking, style and substance is what makes it such a fascinating film to watch. The longer the film goes on, the more bizarre and stupid it gets. After a certain point in the film, nothing really matters in the plot anymore and your're just along for the rest of it, hopefully having an enjoyable time.