Say this about the villain of Zaat: He’s organized. A vengeful mad scientist played, at first, by Marshall Grauer, he keeps a “to do” chart on the wall of his basement lab. That includes a list of enemies (complete with photographs) and a rigid schedule that features entries like “self-transformation.” That’s a crucial item, too. While Grauer—who helpfully provides explanatory voiceover to the many, many tedious scenes of the bad guy taking care of business in his lair—seems fairly malevolent in his human form, he’s even better equipped to cause harm after transforming himself into a lurching man/fish hybrid. Though he looks a bit like a giant sea horse, he, as before, maintains a rage for order, helpfully crossing out tasks that have been performed before moving on the next item. Today: self-transformation. Tomorrow: Destroy Florida.
Shot on a tight—to say the least—budget by a group of industrial filmmakers in Jacksonville, Florida, Zaat was released in a handful of Southern theaters in 1971, then more or less forgotten until it became fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the late ’90s. It’s the kind of movie that calls out for the MST3K treatment: It’s terrible and it has a lot of dead patches that beg for quipping. Those same qualities, however, also make it fun to watch on its own. Lovingly, if inexplicably, restored for a DVD and Blu-ray release, it plays like a monster movie made by people leaning hard on a half-assed rubber suit and vague memories of The Creature From The Black Lagoon. As the scientist (played as a monster by the much taller Wade Popwell) creates chaos, a stereotypical Southern sheriff (Paul Galloway) and a black scientist (Gerald Cruse) whose race does not go unnoted by the locals team up and try to figure out what’s happening. Then a team of—well, two—jumpsuit-clad government agents (Dave Dickerson and Sanna Ringhaver) show up to help.
If any of those names look familiar, you probably lived near Jacksonville in the early ’70s. Zaat is, to say the least, a piece of regional filmmaking, but that’s part of its backwards charm. The sets and locations have little dressing and the actors are clearly on holiday from local theater. The premise, too, comes from the local news, inspired in part by the invasive walking catfish species that started to appear in Florida in the mid-’60s. Director Don Barton, making his feature debut and swan song all at once, has no sense of pacing and, apart from some decently shot underwater scenes, little in the way of technical savvy. The atrocious-looking monster just kind of wanders around town, staring in windows next to dusty air conditioners, scaring people, and making the occasional kill when not working on his apocalyptic master plan to turn all humans into fish. Then, for no apparent reason, there’s a musical number from a bunch of Jesus-loving hippies and a fleeting appearance from a pushy reporter who utters these immortal lines: “Sheriff, sheriff, this is the most sensational story I've ever covered. A vampire ape, that’s what it was, wasn’t it sheriff?” It’s awful. And awfully charming, too. The film deserves the grade at the end of this review, but fans of bad movies should grade it much higher.
Key features: Plenty! TV ads, a trailer, a radio interview with Popwell, and an audio commentary in which several participants fondly recall their adventures in horror moviemaking the way most people talk about a vacation they took long ago.