Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Zodiac (2007)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Zodiac (2007)

In director David Fincher's lengthy yet taut crime-drama thriller (with a script by James Vanderbilt), his sixth feature film - it was a follow-up to some of his previous films, including the serial killer thriller Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and Panic Room (2002). Fincher's very authentic, labyrinthine, complicated film, spanning 22 years from 1969 until 1991, was mostly a police procedural with fascinating characters - similar to the method taken in Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men (1976) and Oliver Stone's JFK (1991).

There have been numerous true-life (and dramatic) exposes about serial killers, including (to name only a few) Dirty Harry (1971) (inspired by the Zodiac case), Spike Lee's Summer of Sam (1999), Monster (2003) and The Hillside Strangler (2004). Fincher's Zodiac was the only one notably backed by a major studio.

The actual Zodiac killer was involved in the shootings or stabbings of at least (probably more) seven individuals in four different attacks in the late 1960s, in the vicinity of San Francisco in Northern California. In three cases, the attacks were on couples, and in some cases there were survivors. The Zodiac became infamous for sending cryptograms and threatening letters to newspapers, notably the San Francisco Chronicle. He also took credit for other crimes (that he may or may not have committed), including the Cheri Jo Bates murder in Riverside in 1966 and the highway abduction of Kathleen Johns in 1970.

The film meticulously followed the case (and Robert Graysmith's dogged and obsessive investigation also), in terms of sets, shooting locales, and costuming. Forensics experts and private investigators were hired to research the facts and study handwriting samples. There were references to the killer's interest in treating victims as prey, due to his mention of the short story The Most Dangerous Game, also a 1932 film.

The Zodiac's warnings first came in a letter to the newspaper ("This is the Zodiac speaking"), along with an encrypted note demanding that his missives be published or else he'd threaten with a larger killing spree - later, he said he would shoot out the tires of a school bus and then "pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out."

Although the random acts of violent manslaughter were often portrayed off-screen, there were a few scenes of the Zodiac's killings told with graphic detail, with the pained reactions of his victims (and the subsequent detailed discussion of their deaths by authorities). These were among the five killings the police felt sure that the Zodiac committed.

  • the opening blood-chilling sequence depicted the first two murders on the fourth of July, 1969 in Vallejo, CA; Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes) and Mike Mageau (Lee Norris) were in their car in a quiet park parking lot late that night. They were just "sitting, listening to music, talking". They noticed that they had been followed by a dark car from Mr. Ed's, but then it abruptly left. Mike asked Darlene: "Is that your husband?" - which she denied. She tried to reassure an increasingly-nervous Mike: "It's nothing."
The Blood-Chilling Murder of Darlene and Mike In a Car
  • but then, the car returned, parked behind them, and a mysterious hooded figure stepped out and shone a bright flashlight in their faces. After Mike joked: "Man, you really creeped us out," the killer raised his weapon (a 9 mm Luger) and began firing - the couple's bodies were riddled with bullets. The deaths were extreme, with spasms and spurting blood. Although the figure walked away, he returned and unleashed more bullets into the limp bodies - but Mike survived
  • in another equally horrifying, realistic sequence in broad daylight, another couple was picnicking by Lake Berryessa in Napa - law student Bryan Hartnell (Patrick Scott Lewis) and Cecelia Shepard (Pell James). A man dressed in black (with a zodiac symbol on his chest) approached with a gun, and demanded: "I want your money and your car keys." Bryan politely bargained with the man:

    "We're not gonna do anything, okay? We're gonna cooperate. Just tell me what you want us to do. You're welcome to everything I have. If there's anything else I could do for you? Maybe I could write you a check? Okay, I could give you my phone number. You know, I might be able to help you even more than you might think..."

  • then, the intruder ordered Cecelia to tie up Bryan, with rope that he provided. He came closer and threatened: "I killed a guard escaping from prison in Montana...I'm not afraid to kill again." He then tied Cecelia's hands behind her back, and told them: "I'm taking your car and going to Mexico." A knife (at close-range) was repeatedly plunged into Bryan's back, as his hog-tied girlfriend screamed and watched in horror next to him. Then, she was also knifed and twitched as she cried for help and died (reportedly, the "boy lived, the girl didn't" - with eight stab wounds to the back).
  • another murder was the shooting execution of cab driver Paul Stine (Charles Schneider) on a Presidio Heights street corner, after an aerial view of the taxi motoring through San Francisco at night. At the corner of Washington and Cherry, the Zodiac passenger committed the crime (one shot to the back of the head) while on a talk radio program (on the soundtrack), voices discussed the Zodiac phenomenon.
  • the main crime reporter for the Chronicle in the case was neurotic, cocaine-using, hard-drinking, self-destructive, chain-smoking Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), both flamboyant and ineffectual, and two dedicated SFPD lead homicide detectives:
    • Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), an attention-seeking, hot-shot Inspector
    • Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), who ran into procedural delays, bungling, and miscommunication which hampered efforts
  • the Zodiac case ran into numerous bureaucratic snags and was officially unsolved
  • the SF Chronicle's editorial cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal in the film), was also an author about true crimes (including two best-selling books about the Zodiac killer). After the official police case grew cold, the unassuming, Boy-Scout like, naive Graysmith began to obsessively conduct his own investigation. Although he found circumstantial evidence that couldn't be substantiated, he named Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch in the film) as the chief suspect

[Note: Allen was reluctantly cleared in 1971 by the police's own handwriting expert (Philip Baker Hall).]

  • in the film's most tension-filled scene that ended up in the basement of an old house, during the course of his investigation, Graysmith was speaking with Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), and voiced his belief that the Zodiac may have been Rick Marshall, a silent-film projectionist. Vaughn was Rick's co-worker who played the organ at the same silent movie theatre. Graysmith hypothesized that Marshall had drawn some film poster advertisements that matched the Zodiac's handwriting.
  • Graysmith panicked when Vaughn corrected him - Vaughn had drawn the ads ("Rick didn't draw any posters...Mr. Graysmith, I do the posters myself. That's my handwriting."). Creaking from upstairs floorboards caused Graysmith to fear death: "Are you sure there's nobody else in the house?" He backed up and fled upstairs to the kitchen door, that he found locked - causing more suspense in the sequence when he turned to find Vaughn behind him. The door was unlocked, and Graysmith fled into the rainy night
  • at the end of the film in a chilling scene, set in 1983, Graysmith stood face-to-face with the suspected killer, Arthur Leigh Allen, in a Vallejo Ace Hardware store, where he was employed as a sales clerk

The Sequence of the Attack on the Couple at Lake Berryessa in Napa

One Suspect: Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer)

Chronicle's Cartoonist and Crime Author Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) Questioning Vaughn

Graysmith with Vaughn:
A Tense Basement Sequence with Tremendous Suspense

Graysmith Cornered in House by a Locked Door!

Robert Graysmith Standing Face to Face with Suspected Zodiac Killer Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch)


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