More Questions Than Answers
Without a doubt, The Zebra Killer ranks as Girdler's most elusive movie project. It's also one of his most interesting efforts. Filmed sometime in 1973, its history is sketchy at best. Until recently, some of Bill's closest friends and colleagues weren't sure if Zebra Killer saw release.
Pat Kelly says Zebra Killer was shot as a midnight movie quickie. According to interviews with Girdler circa 1974, Zebra Killer was filmed before Abby, but it might not have seen a wide release until afterwards. Girdler claimed that Zebra Killer was Mid-America's debut film project (Studio One released the first two movies).
Bill also gave credit to a group of investors in Chicago for bringing Zebra to life. Phillip Hazelton (Bucktown) chipped in as executive producer. Another investor might have been Arthur Marks, who brought us Detroit 9000 and Monkey Hustle. Strangely, Marks' name is omitted from the credits in advertisements for Panic City and Combat Cops, but his name appears on early adverts featuring the Zebra Killer title.
Of all Girdler's Kentucky films, none capture the sights and sounds of 1970s Louisville quite like Zebra Killer. I spotted the Red Barn restaurant from the air when my plane landed in Louisville. Girdler's own studio and Settle Moving and Storage are clearly visible in the film. Local tourist curios like the steamboat "The Belle of Louisville" are prominently featured. Heck, I even noticed that the fried chicken fast food joint where Marty stuffs himself stands in the parking lot of Bill's studio.
It's also interesting how Zebra Killer boasts so many once and future Girdler players. Kissinger and Picket are the most obvious. Some others worth mentioning are Madelyn Buzzard (She played Becky in Three on a Meathook; she's a hooker in Zebra), Mike Clifford as the cop, D'Urville Martin WEARS THE SAME PIMP SUIT in Sheba Baby, Austin Stoker starred in two more Girdler features, and Hugh Smith was a seasoned Girdler veteran in front of the cameras and behind the scenes.
Most remarkable are the cameo appearances from writers/producers Gordon C. Layne and Mike Henry. Both men contributed heavily to Abby as well.
Gaping Plot Holes
Zebra Killer contains more plot inconsistencies than any other Girdler movie. The most glaring of which is the lack of relationship between Mac and Savage. It is implied throughout the movie that Mac knows Savage from somewhere, and he holds a grudge against the detective. It is also implied that Mac's score to settle has something to do with Milton Alexander Crowder's trial. However, it is NEVER STATED what Savage did to earn Mac's contempt. The obvious conclusion is that Savage was the arresting officer in the Crowder case.
As I mentioned in the summary, there are a number of scenes which seem like they were designed to be placed elsewhere. The whole "Big Man" sub-story is muddy at best. The passage of time throughout the film is all over the place - one moment it's daytime, the next it's night.
And, uh, Mac only killed nine of the 14 people on his list. But he said he was finished after the judge and Savage. The computer says nine of the victims were local. Was he flying somewhere to kill the other five people? Why didn't Savage try to warn them that Mac could be coming?
I've read rumors that say a slightly longer version of Zebra Killer was censored by four minutes. No information is available to substantiate such claims at this time. Pat Kelly has stressed how quickly Zebra Killer was shot and edited, so I suspect that the majority of plot problems stem from that fact.
Incidentally, Zebra Killer was originally advertised as a PG-rated movie, but it was actually released with an R-rating under all of its titles.
Glimmers of Genius
Despite the plot issues, a number of sequences in Zebra Killer are especially innovative. The scene where Mike Henry's family is blown up at the Red Barn Restaurant is extremely tight. It begins with Mac's crosshairs focused on Henry. The viewer thinks Mac is going to shoot him. But in reality, Mac is using the scope in place of binoculars. Then Henry's family enters the car. A few lingering shots on the adorable children inject a sense of dread into the scene. The viewer is led to believe that there's something wired to the ignition which will cause the car to explode. But when Henry turns the key, nothing happens. After the ignition fakeout, Henry picks up the package, which finally wipes out the happy family.
Another noteworthy scene is the one in which Pickett babbles to Frank's lady before having his way with her. It's a genuinely creepy implied rape sequence. Mac rants about slicing open black people, yet he's struggling with his own sexual attraction to Frank's lady. So what does he do? He applies his blackface makeup and throws on an Afro wig before raping her. Wow.
The 'murderer in blackface' twist is remarkably well managed throughout. Honestly, the first time I saw Zebra Killer, I didn't recognize James Pickett until he removed his wig. Before the identity of Mac is revealed, Girdler does a good job of keeping Mac subtly hidden in the shadows, showing little more than silhouettes of his form.
The whole 'finger snap' Mac sound element is also used to very good effect.
James Pickett Rocks
James Pickett's Zebra Killer scenery chewing is simply unforgettable. He makes you love, fear, and utterly detest Mac. Mac is racist, sadistic, homicidal, yet hopelessly damaged to a point where you feel sorry for him. His crimes are sick, but clever. Even Savage gives Mac props at one point.
Pickett plays the perfect madman. He has a lot of gem material to work with. Mac cackles like a hyena, shakes like a Tourette's syndrome patient, weeps like a child - and often, he does so all in the same scene!!! Girdler fan or not, if there's one reason to track down a copy of The Zebra Killer, James Pickett is it!
Frank Savage: The World's Crappiest Cop?
Despite Austin Stoker's best efforts, Frank Savage would go down in history as the lousiest policeman ever committed to film if more people knew about this movie. After reading Michael Clifford's account, you know that the Louisville Police Department helped this film immeasurably. And throughout the movie, you sense that you're hearing REAL police speak and these are REAL police locker rooms. Everything seems very real. Except Frank Savage.
I'm not sure if you're supposed to get the impression that Frank is burned out from too many years on the force or not, but that's how he comes across. I think Girdler wanted Frank to be super smooth, fast-talking and tough. Instead, he's wholly unprofessional and insufferably cocky - to the point where he bunks up and misses obvious clues. His coworkers are infinitely more astute than he. Frank adds little to the investigation - sometimes it seems like his sole responsibility is to arrive at crime scenes so he can act like a jerk, toss out a few one-liners, and then go grab a drink.
The following is a brief list of some of Frank's unacceptable actions:
- He turns down help early on, when it's obvious he and Marty aren't getting anywhere with the case.
- He steals a smutty magazine from an informant.
- He intimidates an unarmed pimp with a loaded gun.
- He urges his partner to falsify charges against the pimp.
- He casually dismisses a potential witness because said witness is a bum.
- He decides to make sweet love to his lady instead of studying case files. This after ducking out of work early.
- Even though Creason tells Frank he doesn't think the killer is black, Savage keeps frisking/looking for black suspects.
- Savage NEVER runs a computer check on the clue Mac offers until the end of the movie. In fact, he conducts NO independent research whatsoever!
- He doesn't send anyone to check up on the battered policewoman who guarded his lady. In fact, he TAKES NO ACTION when he hears that Mac has abducted his ladylove.
- When he learns of more murders AND is told his lady has been raped, what does he do? He goes on a drinking binge while still on duty.
- He's a smarmy, disrespectful bastard - even when he's totally WRONG.
- He roughs up an innocent, unarmed citizen who asks for a match. Does Frank say he's sorry? HELL NO!
- He fires a lethal shot at the sniper, who did not point his weapon at Savage. Frank aimed to kill, not to incapacitate (though the dude did deserve it).
- HE SHOOTS AT HIS OWN PARTNER BY MISTAKE!! MULTIPLE TIMES!!!
- He doesn't call for backup when he finally figures out that the judge is next on Mac's hit list. The judge DIES and Mac ESCAPES as a result.
- He won't shoot through an airplane window when granted the chance to take down Mac, but he will gladly fire upon combustible drums of fuel moments later.
- He goes out of his way not to kill Mac at the end, to such a flagrant degree that he lets Mac fire a bullet at his lady. Why fart around NOW when Frank was so trigger happy with the sniper earlier that same day? He shot the sniper (and Marty) without hesitation.