The first murder has already occurred -- murders, actually, as we spy a black man with a huge afro exiting the scene of the crime and vacate the area post haste when he hears the approaching police sirens. The carnage that greets Detective Sgt. Frank Savage (Stoker) and his partner, Marty “Junior” Wilson (Smith), is pretty grisly; a Richard Spechtian type massacre as three nurses have been raped and murdered, all either slashed or strangled. There was one survivor, however, who managed to hide under a bed and is now en route to the hospital for surgery. The killer also left a cryptic note, identifying himself as Mac, who promises this is only beginning, saying that’s one down with 13 to go. And either the killer is really bad at math or our detectives have already missed a really big clue, there.
Since all they can do is let the forensics team process the scene and wait for the only eye-witness to recover for an interview, Savage and Wilson return to headquarters, where they get a tongue-lashing from the Chief of Police (Brooks), who has no love for the brash Savage and wants this brutal case solved, like, yesterday. Meanwhile, the killer (Pickett) is already zeroing in on his next victim, spying on a family of five at the BBQ Barn. And so, he watches as they return to their car and find the wrapped box he left for them, which the father curiously picks up and shakes, triggering the explosives inside, taking out him and his entire family in the ensuing detonation. That makes two down with 11 to go. Again, some bad math there.
Finding no connection between the nurses and the dead family, and baffled by the drastic change in Mac’s MO, which destroyed most of the evidence, all Savage can do is go to the hospital to “rap” with the surviving victim. Asked if he’s there to talk to her because he’s black, Savage answers that, no, he’s there because he’s the best. But all the witness can say for sure is the killer was black, too, had a wicked laugh, and gives a general description of height and weight and hairstyle. And so, Savage and Wilson hit the streets and check in with their informants, which goes nowhere fast.
Apparently, the killer is too smart to hang out with that kind of crowd but they all encourage the cops to catch this bastard as soon as possible. And then this interlude ends with the report of a fight in an alley, where Savage and Wilson find a group of prostitutes in revolt, putting a massive beatdown on their nattily dressed pimp (Martin). Both detectives fire several shots into the air (!) to calm them down and get to the bottom things. Of course it involves economic decrees from higher up the food chain, but the pimp clams up and will say no more about the “Big Man” in charge until he talks to his lawyer. Savage obliges by putting him in the same paddy wagon with his hostile harem for a long ride to headquarters where he can call his lawyer -- if he makes it there in one piece.
Meantime, Mac’s latest victim is discovered at a construction site, beaten to death with a sledgehammer. Initially thinking they nabbed a suspect at the scene, turns out it was just a Foster Brooks level drunk, meaning he’s also worthless as a witness. Thankfully, the forensic team comes up with their first big clue, finding some black wig fibers under the fingernails of the first victims. Savage also pieces together that all of the victims were killed by tools of their own trade -- the nurses slashed to death with a scalpel, the father of the family blown up was a contractor who worked with explosives, and the last victim worked in construction, explaining away the killer’s drastic changes in method.
But that barely has time to register with their Lieutenant (Kissinger) before they get a report of another body and another note; a farmer outside of town was found decapitated with an axe, leaving Mac with nine to go. And so, with an apparent serial killer on their hands, and still no real connection between the victims, the Lieutenant nearly breaks the case wide open, asking if they’re sure the killer is black because he has never known a black man to kill like this before -- stress on the “black"...
From October of 1973 until April of 1974, the city of San Francisco was plagued by a rash of random and seemingly unmotivated hit-and-run shootings, where the killer simply walked up to someone and shot them. In all, 15 people were killed in cold blood while 8 others managed to survive the attacks with no rhyme nor reason to whom or where as the assaults took place all over the city. These murders caused a widespread panic, as people tried to stay in groups or avoided going out at night altogether. And as tourists avoided the city an increased police presence was ordered but there was very little evidence to go on except the killer used a .32 pistol and was black but the physical descriptions by witnesses were all different, meaning they were dealing with multiple killers or copycats. A special task force was assembled to solve the case, and since they were given the “Z” frequency on the police band they became known as the Zebra Task Force and their case became known as the Zebra Murders.
This task force came under some fire for fear mongering and racial profiling -- all the descriptions of the suspect(s) were black and the victims were all mostly white, stopping and questioning nearly 500 citizens who matched the multiple descriptions in the first weekend alone, giving them a Zebra Check card to show the police if they’d been questioned already. And as the investigation deepened, some felt the total number of victims actually ranged between 75 and hundred. The case finally broke open when a man who matched one of the descriptions came forward and confessed, saying he never killed anyone but was a witness while others did. A simultaneous raid nabbed seven more identified suspects, which was whittled down to five due to a lack of connecting evidence, who referred to themselves as the Death Angels, which caused a firestorm of media coverage, which painted them as radical black Muslims who were trying to start a race war. All five men were eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Elements of the Zebra Murders would serve as the basis for The Zebra Killer (1974), the latest feature for the up and coming regional film entrepreneur, William Girdler. Girdler hailed from a rather prominent Louisville, Kentucky, family, where he developed a compulsion for two things: movies, and a near crippling obsession with a premonition that he would die at the age of 30.
After a hitch in the Air Force, Girdler came back home and teamed up with his best friend, J. Patrick Kelly, and formed Studio One. And while they initially focused on commercial production, Girdler always had the itch to make a movie. And so, in 1971, he managed to borrow around $50,000 and followed his dream with Asylum of Satan (1971), a H.G. Lewis pastiche of gore, rubber props, and Satanists running amok in mental institute, where they try to achieve a virginal sacrifice in a bid for immortality.
Girdler would follow that up with Three on a Meathook (1972), which is a wonderful title, sure, but a pretty terrible film, though the gonzo ending almost makes the effort of sitting through this gory, Ed Gein inspired snore-fest worth it. Almost. (The trailer is fantastic, the film … not so much.) Both films only garnered a limited theatrical release but Girdler would take his two films to Hollywood to show what he could pull off on such minuscule budgets.
He did find some interest at American International, which would soon bear fruit when he switched genres, dumping horror for the burgeoning blaxploitation market, beginning with The Zebra Killer -- released under several titles ranging from Combat Cops, The Get-Man and Panic City, where he took the notion of a black serial killer and spun it around, whose secret identity and true motive for his killing spree isn’t quite clear yet as we watch Mac spy on Savage as he meets up with his lady, whom we’ll just call Lady (Rogers), since Girdler, who wrote the script, never even bothered to give her a name (-- the credits just refer to her as Frank’s Lady). What follows is a rather embarrassingly blind and shameless grope at the chess scene from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), to the tune of a Peaches and Herb romantic ballad minus the Peaches and who the hell knows if that’s really Herb, which mercifully ends when the couple abandons the dinner table for the bedroom.
Moving on, Mac heads to a fancy high-rise hotel, where his latest victim works as a maid. And after he assaults her in a bathroom, he stuffs her in a laundry trolley and wheels her toward the stairwell, asking the terrified women if she remembers him. She doesn’t until he asks if he looks like his old man, and then the quarter finally drops for the victim as she recognizes him just as he shoves the hamper down a long flight of steps, killing her. Here, Mac gets a little sloppy and is nearly caught by a security guard, leading to an extended chase and shoot-out, with the killer barely avoiding capture by the massing authorities, jumping into a river and swimming past a tightening dragnet. Once safely back in his hideout, Mac removes his disguise, revealing a crazed Caucasian in blackface, who takes up a photo of an older man, flips it over, and crosses another name off the list. And the last name on that list? Frank Savage.
At police headquarters, Savage receives a call from Mac, who is completely out of his disguise but still in character. Here, he patronizes Savage, and then lays a not so veiled threat against Lady before hanging up. And so, while Savage sets up a police detail to watch Lady, Mac is back in disguise and assaulting his next victim, dropping more hints, identifying the terrified man as a foreman of a jury before he throws him down an elevator shaft. He then switches disguises and, posing as a deliveryman, bluffs his way into Lady’s apartment, takes out the protection detail, and kidnaps Lady. Once she’s bundled off to parts unknown, Mac calls Savage again, bragging how he’s halfway done with his countdown and the detective still has no clue who he is. Taking pity, he offers one clue, just a date: November 18, 1971.
And before he hangs up, he tells Savage that Lady says “hi” and promises to take good care of her. Now, you’d think after his girlfriend is kidnapped Savage would start tearing up the city to find her, right? Nope. Instead he goes for a walk to clear his head and accost random strangers in the street.
Meanwhile, back at his hideout, Mac gloats over his captive, asking her to solve a riddle for him: if someone does something wrong because he has to, he asks, should that make him feel guilty or proud? And why, if this person is taking so much pleasure in what he does, does he feel so much pressure to reveal who he really is? It’s also pretty obvious that Lady’s restrictive captivity is *ahem* noticeably arousing our psychopath. And as we fade to black, it’s not hard to imagine what happened next.
Meanwhile, the worst cop ever still isn’t looking for his girl. Nope. He’s too busy practicing his karate at a dojo. And as he and Smith shower up afterwards, they get into a heavy philosophical debate over whether the job they do is worth it or not. When asked why he sticks with it, Savage has no answer. Back at headquarters, they get word that Mac’s latest victim has been found in Dallas; a stewardess, who suffocated to death inside an airtight container the killer mailed out of town.
So, the killer is still out there killing people, his kidnapped girlfriend is still out there in the hands of said killer, but Savage doesn’t want to hear or think about any of that right now and heads to a bar instead to drown his sorrows (-- the call of ‘worst cop ever’ still stands), where he winds up sitting right beside Mac. Wilson brings word that another victim has been found, a lawyer, crushed under a bookcase. Savage takes this in stride and goes for another walk, not knowing Mac has followed him and taken to the rooftops with a rifle. And as he draws a bead on Savage I’m not really sure if he missed him on purpose, hitting the poor ticket taker in the theater booth behind him, or if she is on his list of victims, too, or just extremely unlucky. Regardless, the killer is long gone and all Savage finds is a shell casing.
Later that night as he sets in his apartment moping, Savage hangs up on Mac, tired of being jerked around. But when he calls back, Mac reveals another clue, another date: April 22, 1972. Mac then reveals there’s only two more people left on his list. And as the collective audience shouts “CHECK YOUR FILES” at the screen, Savage, mulling over the two dates he was given, pulls that Mac is anagram for Milton Alexander Crowder completely out of his ass; a man he arrested in November of ‘71 for murder and who was later convicted in April of ‘72. Running it all through the computer downtown, he finds out Crowder recently died in prison and all of Mac’s victims were members of the jury, the defense attorney, and the prosecutor, meaning the only two people left alive are the judge who presided over the trial and Savage.
Digging further, he finds out Crowder had three children, two daughters and a son. Pegging the son, Hector, as the killer, Savage races to the judge's house but Hector has already beaten him there. And in his usual blundering manner, Savage barges in and winds up being saved by the restrained judge, who dies in the process. (Worst. Cop. Ever.) He even only brings his kung-fu to a knife fight and loses, allowing Hector to escape. (At this point, maybe he should just write Lady off and be done with it? No. Wait. What am I saying? He kinda already did that.)
Back at headquarters, Savage is rescued from another (deserved) tongue-lashing for not following protocol and waiting for back up at the judge's house when the call comes in about a sniper holed up in a warehouse. Thinking it’s Hector, after expressing their true feelings for each other in a ‘get a room already’ sense, Savage and Wilson hatch a plan that successfully flushes the sniper out -- only it isn’t Hector, who calls in later, demanding a private plane, a pilot, and plenty of fuel to get him out of town. And if all of his demands are met, he promises to tell Savage where Lady is. (Who? Oh, yeah. Her.)
That night, at the airport, things go smoothly enough until Hector gets on the plane but then smugly refuses to say where Lady is as he orders the pilot to take off. But the enraged Savage takes the field in his car and cuts off the runway. A firefight erupts, Wilson is hit in the leg, and Savage winds up chasing Hector, all, the, way, back to his hideout where he intends to kill Lady but Savage, after missing him constantly, finally shoots him dead on the porch steps. He frees Lady and they walk, all, the, way, back to the airport, where he turns his huge gun over to Wilson, who is so doped up on morphine he barely registers this as he loaded onto an ambulance, but I do believe this means Savage has quit the force. (Thank god.) He then promises Lady a long vacation -- a vacation that will have to wait just a bit, turns out, because apparently Wilson had the keys to the car.
William Girdler wore many hats when making films, serving as producer, director, writer and composer. And you can definitely see a learning curve as his films got exponentially better as he gained more experience and bigger budgets. AIP would back his next two features, Sheba Baby (1975), starring Pam Grier, and Abby (1974), his blaxploitation rip-off of The Exorcist (1973), which brought a lawsuit from Warner Bros. that found it yanked from theaters -- but not before it had turned a profit on the investment.
His biggest hit was probably Grizzly (1976), another knock-off where a giant man-eating bear subs in for a giant shark in a national park that refuses to close its gates during tourist season, which was followed up by the eco-disaster flick, Day of the Animals (1977), which is worth it for the scene where Leslie Nielsen goes nuts and wrestles a bear to the death in the rain. This led to a deal with Avco-Embassy for his next feature, based on Graham Masterson’s whackadoodle novel, The Manitou (1978), where a fetus grows out the back of a woman’s neck, which harbors the spirit of an ancient Native American medicine man hellbent on sending civilization back to the stone-age. And with that, Girdler had apparently arrived in Hollywood. Alas, that premonition of his death came true as the filmmaker was tragically killed in a helicopter accident in the Philippines while scouting locations for his next feature. He was 30 years old.
While still trying to find his cinematic voice, the most critical mistake Girdler made in a long list of transgressions in the making of The Zebra Killer is Lady being kidnapped by Hector way, way, way too early in the film. The startling lack of urgency on Savage’s part once she has been captured is mind-boggling at first, then maddening, and finally laughable.
"I'm sorry, Who are you again?"
Conceived as combination of John Shaft and Dirty Harry Callahan, Frank Savage is a bit of a mess as a character. Everyone harps on how good a cop he is despite the near terminal lack of evidence to back this up as he constantly moans about how he wants to quit. Stoker appears to have the chops to back all this up, so most of this falls on the script that tried to make the character too much only to wind up with essentially nothing. This squanders some genuine chemistry between Stoker and Smith, adding some unexpected weight to a few scenes, especially the quieter moments when Savage and Wilson banter back and forth and poke holes in all the racial tensions.
Speaking of, the film is also salted by the liberal use of many N-Bombs; but for every positive step forward it then falls back as it seems to be trying to fight stereotypes by only reinforcing them. James Carroll Pickett does better as the maniacal villain, who appears to be based more on the Scorpio killer from Dirty Harry (1971) than a Death Angel. Kind of a poor man’s Michael Shannon, his performance is rather riveting even though the film never really explains why he chose the blackface disguise -- unless he’s trying to become the man he hates the most, which opens up a whole ‘nother can of psychosis. I mean, take a look at that disturbing scene when he’s spilling his guts to Lady, as her constant moaning and helplessness arouses something sinister in him. Totally confused, claiming up is down and black is white, before he can do the deed Hector must smear on his make-up and don the afro wig before throwing himself on top of his captive. GAH! The implications! And GAH! Again.
Moving the setting from San Francisco to his hometown of Louisville, Girdler managed to raise the cash to make The Zebra Killer from several sources, including blaxpo pioneers, Phillip Hazelton [Bucktown (1975)] and Arthur Marks [Detroit 9000 (1973) and Monkey Hu$tle (1976)]. He also reached out to the Louisville police department, hoping for some technical advice. Thinking it would be good publicity, they agreed, allowing the use of their HQ and squad cars and real policemen as extras, and they, in turn, reached out to other public works departments, who also agreed to pitch in, essentially giving Girdler free run of the city.
Despite all the help, The Zebra Killer is still a mess. There’s a few ambitious flashes of what was to come. Girdler really had a keen eye for locations and set-ups, and some of his injected humor works really well in a few throwaway bits. Still, the film is plagued by nonsensical subplots -- the pimp rebellion, the Big Man’s arrival, and even the shoot-out with the sniper; and his transitions are kinda clumsy; the day for night shots are terrible; and his designated hero would rather steal porno magazines, hang out in a bar, practice his karate, or wolf down some KFC then work the case or find his girlfriend, which results in a sleazy curiosity that’s probably for Girdler completists only. Thankfully, Girdler’s finest hours, though tragically cut short, were still ahead of him.
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The Zebra Killer (1974) Mid-America Pictures :: General Film Corporation / EP: Philip Hazelton, David Sheldon, Arthur Marks / P: Mike Henry, Gordon Cornell Layne / D: William Girdler / W: William Girdler, Gordon Cornell Layne / C: William L. Asman / E: Henry Asman / M: Jerry Styner / S: Austin Stoker, Hugh Smith, James Pickett, Charles Kissinger, Valerie Rogers, Tom Brooks, D'Urville Martin