This past week, the San Francisco media blew up over the woman who claimed her stepfather was the Zodiac serial killer. It made sense then that this week’s column would explore David Fincher’s 2007 film, Zodiac, which is based on the two Zodiac books by Robert Graysmith. Obviously, the Zodiac is still headline news despite the Bay Area’s underlying skepticism.
Much like the real (and, in some counties, ongoing) police investigation, Zodiac never lands on a real killer. The movie vacillates between two main suspects–and no, Guy Ward Hendrickson is not one of them. The hunt for the serial killer derails the lives of the people obsessed with him, whether that means a destructive obsession or a burnt cynicism.
Fincher captured the movie mostly on digital media, but he left the murder scenes for film. The scenes are highly stylized and choreographed, with glistening CGI blood replacing the standard red syrup. You could say he obsesses over this scenes, fantasizing over the bloodbath the Zodiac left at his crimes. With such little action elsewhere in the plot, these moments stay with the audience: we’re instructed to remember the violence the killer inflicted on many innocent victims.
On the other hand, Chron crime reporter Paul Avery spirals into substance abuse and life on a houseboat. He’s disenchanted and tired. “Do you know,” he says, “that more people die in the East Bay commute every 3 months than that idiot ever killed? He offed a few citizens and wrote a few letters and he faded into footnote.”
Except that he never did. Hollywood has had a field day with the Zodiac killer, whose confirmed murders concentrated mostly in the Bay Area. Fincher’s movie even references Dirty Harry, whose Scorpio killer fictionalizes the Zodiac, and Bullitt, whose title character was reportedly based off lead detective David Toschi. Drug-induced cynicism or not, this was a terror that San Franciscans and the rest of California refuse to forget.
The case is closed and unsolved in San Francisco, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t still have hope. The media frenzy over Deborah Perez’s story proves the other side of the Zodiac coin: destructive obsession.
As SF Weekly is apt to point out, the Examiner went a bit far in its design supporting the Perez story. With a front page that screamed “ZODIAC KILLER TO BE NAMED,” the Examiner fell hard for Perez’s press gimmick. To be fair, SFPD reported it will look into her claims, but it’s almost a hard fact on the SF blogosphere that she punked the media pretty bad. Skeptical, yes, but people were at least genuinely interested in what she had to say until she also claimed she is JFK’s illegitimate child. Why, oh, why does our fair city attract the crazy?
Both Perez and this week’s movie reveal the loose thread in San Francisco’s sweater. Pull it, and you’ll unravel all sorts of obsessive minutiae, folklore, and scrapbook memories of the Zodiac’s impact. The Chronicle even has a whole special section of the Gate cornered off for the Zodiac, complete with PDFs of Avery’s front page stories from the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Although Fincher fingers Arthur Leigh Allen as the best fit for the killer in Zodiac, he ultimately suggests that there will never be closure from the largely circumstantial evidence surrounding the case. San Franciscans would still very much like to believe that justice will be had, and this past week proved that our media will eat up any solution that’s offered. Perhaps that’s more of a comment on the state of newspapers today, but to a greater extent it speaks to the media’s obsession of and surrender to the Zodiac mystery that continues to haunt California today.
Starring San Francisco is Appeal culture reporter, Christine
Borden’s, take on the city’s cinematic past to illuminate today. Have a
locally-set film you’d like to see featured? Tell her at firstname.lastname@example.org.