“I am waiting for a good movie about me. Who will play me [?] I am now in control of all things.” These were the last words of the Zodiac killer, sent to the San Francisco Chronicle on 24 April 1978. While questions linger today as to the authenticity of this final letter, it suggests the killer’s own understanding of his celebrity.
Zodiac was one of America’s first mass-mediated serial killers. He wrote many letters to local newspapers and television stations in the Bay Area, taunting officials and terrorizing citizens. And when authorities publicly doubted the source, he would reply with more details of the killings, and demanded his letters be published in multiple daily newspapers. He left corpses in locations where they would be found, often leaving clues, and even left some victims alive to tell the story.
The Zodiac also sent the news media cryptographic messages, insinuating that when they broke the code, they would know who he was. But there was no identity or “reason” to be found in those ciphers. When the killer disappeared in 1978, only his press record remained. Alexander Bulkley’s The Zodiac chronicles the killer’s emergence in Vallejo, CA, from his first murder on 20 December 1968, through to his gradual move towards San Francisco in the fall of 1969.
The film details the public confusion in dealing with such a savvy killer, shaping the story as a crisis within the nuclear family. Local Vallejo cop Matt Parrish (Justin Chambers) is handed the case by Sheriff Frank Perkins (Philip Baker Hall). As Matt continues to turn up nothing, he becomes increasingly distant from and sometimes violent towards his own family. He begins ignoring his son Johnny (Rory Culkin), who is the only one to see the connections between the Zodiac and astrology (which is, shall we say, a bit unbelievable).
Matt also becomes embittered against his wife Laura (Robin Tunney), who reminds him of his community’s fears, challenging him to solve their predicament. As the investigation founders, Matt returns home one night to a locked front door. Previously there was no reason for folks in Vallejo to lock their doors; it was a “safe” place. This enrages Matt and he instructs Laura to leave the door unlocked. Alas, his desire to return to “normalcy” only underlines that he is not understanding the impact of the Zodiac.
After the first killing, Laura asks Matt, “You think this guy came in from the city?” In her mind, suburban America could not have produced such a monster. This sentiment is echoed later by Johnny’s girlfriend Bobbie (Shelby Alexis Irey): “Of all of the places in the world, why did he have to come here?” But the Zodiac wasn’t the violence of urban America come to the suburbs, but rather a perversion of “values” at the core of suburbia that made its way into the city.
Desperate for a fresh angle, Matt interviews a psychotherapist in the hopes that he might offer some new insight. The shrink talks about how the killer is “obviously intimidated by his male victims,” probably the “victim himself” of some abuse. The doctor also thinks the killer had a “difficult relationship with his mother.” These pat guesses don’t get to any sort of reality for the Zodiac: we know it and Matt knows it.
The only answer we have is the media fact of the Zodiac. He’s the model for fictional thrill-killing, media-obsessed characters like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000) and Mickey and Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers (1994). The Zodiac so altered our consciousness that we can now easily imagine a serial killer with no motivation other than achieving a public spectacle.
And so the film, another instance of such mediation, ends without resolution. The Parrishes are devastated, as is Vallejo, and the killer simply moves on. The film’s closing epigraph sketches out what’s to come, but that only rubs in the fact that the Zodiac has never been captured. Nearly 30 years later, the Zodiac, like all symptomatic monsters, might return.