In recent years, there has been a strong interest in true crime cinema with a number of biopics made of various serial killers and spree killers. These have included the likes of Ed Gein (2000), Dahmer (2002), Nightstalker (2002), Ted Bundy (2002), Gacy (2003), Monster (2003), Evilenko (2004), The Hillside Strangler (2004), Starkweather (2004), Karla (2006), Lonely Hearts (2006), Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield (2007), The Alphabet Killer (2008), B.T.K. (2008) and Drifter: Henry Lee Lucas (2009). The genre took a big boost after the awards-acclaim received by Monster.
The Zodiac comes from director Alexander Bulkley, who had previously only made the short film Suspects in the Murder of Miss May (1999). Subsequent to The Zodiac, Bulkley has worked as a producer on quirky independent animated shows like Moral Orel (2005-8), Robot Chicken (2005 ) and Titan Maximum (2009).
It is not known if Alexander Bulkley put The Zodiac together quickly in an effort to steal the lead on David Finchers more high profile production, which had been announced for several years. (The two films ever share cast members in the person of Philip Baker Hall). At best, The Zodiac acts as a primer for revision of the basic facts of the case in anticipation of Finchers Zodiac. You certainly have to complement Alexander Bulkley and his brother Kelly for having researched the Zodiac case and in replicating the details and crime scenes with a degree of detail that approaches David Finchers obsessive fanaticism. We even see The Zodiac in a theatre watching The Most Dangerous Game (1932) at one point.
The main problem with the film is trying to make The Zodiac case into a narrative. As is more evident in the David Fincher film, the case was spread out over several law enforcement jurisdictions, meaning that there is no investigator who stays throughout the story. While Fincher took the viewpoint of cartoonist Robert Graysmith who later conducted his own amateur investigation and wrote two books about the case, Alexander Bulkley takes the point-of-view of one of the Vallejo County detectives. However, Bulkley is at a loss to turn this into much in the way of interesting drama. Justin Chambers detective briefly follows a suspect but this peters out into a false lead. We also get the impression that his son (Rory Culkin) is on the verge of breaking the Zodiacs cypher but Bulkley then goes with the historical account of what happened and we are left wondering why the film spends time following Culkin around when this subplot leads nowhere.
The major problem with The Zodiac is that, while Alexander Bulkley has done an admirable case of replicating the detail of the Zodiac case, he does so too well to make an interesting film. The film fades out after the shooting of taxi driver Paul Stine at San Franciscos Presidio Heights and on the final image of police cars following school buses after The Zodiacs threat to shoot one of them. Unlike Fincher, Bulkley keeps to the canonical victims and does not elaborate into any speculated victims. Nor does he follow up the trails of letters and games with the media that The Zodiac played for several years after that. Unlike Fincher, Bulkley does not seek to provide a solution to the case or name a suspect. The upshot of this, at least in terms of a thriller, is a film that sets up a mystery but leaves it with no solution, answer or even speculation as to who was behind it.
Alexander Bulkley also shoots the film in the dullest way possible. Even though The Zodiac did attain a sporadic cinematic release, everything takes place as though it were a tv movie shot with a bland disaffect. Bulkley gets particularly silly when he comes to his jump cuts like the scene where The Zodiac is watching The Most Dangerous Game and he keeps flickering back and forth between the film on the screen and the couple opposite. This goes into overdrive at one point when Bulkley conducts a frenetic montage of iconic images of the televised news stories of the era. Exactly why is unsure, but the upshot is pretentiously silly.