Zaat (1971) *1/2

Directors: Don Barton, and Arnold Stevens

Staring: Marshall Grauer, Paul Galloway, Gerald Cruse, and Sanna Ringhaver

Runtime: 1h 40m

Categories: Gill-Men, and Mad Science

No art is truly original; not even the looniest of outsider artists can claim to have no influences. Of course, some creators are better at making these ideas their own than others. A mashup is probably the most primitive way of going about it, simply grabbing bits and pieces from all over and assembling them as something new. It certainly appeals to any child that was lucky enough to play with legos growing up. Occasionally, mashups can produce something greater than their respective parts. Pity the poor soul that considers Hamlet worthless because all Shakespeare does is “combine Greek tragedy with Danish folklore.” Unfortunately, today’s work is no Shakespearian tragedy. Indeed, it exemplifies the main danger of reckless combination: sometimes you just wind up with a disorganized mess. Zaat draw inspiration from sources as disparate as In the Heat of the Night (1967), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Frankenstein (1931), and seemingly (though I cannot confirm this) the early works of horror auteur Jean Rollin. What we get is a film considerably less impressive than any of those component parts. Consequently, the only joy that comes from Zaat is examining the different influences deconstructing the film. Needless to day, this doesn’t make for compelling entertainment.

The film begins with a title card bereft of all extra diegetic music. So the audience is left sitting there, reading the title for a good couple of seconds before any music cues in. This is a bad sign in and of itself, but the omens of shoddy filmmaking only grow stronger from there as we cut to stock footage of marine life while a narrator praising their deadliness and prowess. The narration belongs to Dr. Kurt Leopold; a sort of bargain basement Dr. Joseph Mengele figure. He’s a former Nazi war criminal turned later-day Frankenstein. The only difference is that neither Victor Frankenstein nor Joseph Mengele was obsessed with fish, and Kurt Leopold is adamantly convinced of the superiority of marine life. In fact, Leopold is so smitten with fish that he wants to become one (I can’t help but feel like this goes against some of the tenants of fascist racial supremacy, shouldn’t Leopold already think he is a member of the master race already, without splicing in fish DNA?). Obviously, Leopold is not exactly playing with a full deck. He even goes so far as to shout out “They think I’m insane! They’re the ones who are insane!” in the film’s first few minutes. Not exactly a sure sign of mental health.

Despite a lack of funding and proper facilities (the dean of his former university was unwilling to keep funding such patently ridiculous research) Leopold has perfected a technique for turning man into fish-man, and he’s ready to test it out with himself as the first subject (of course). At least in Leopold’s case, his limited resources excuse his reckless lack of rigor to a certain extent. The experiment is, surprisingly, a great success and Leopold emerges from the tank as a full-fledged gill-man (that looks a bit more like a pig than any species of fish I’m familiar with). That’s just the first step though, say what you will about Leopold’s sanity but his ambition is still fully intact. The ultimate goal of his plan is the complete conquest of the universe. If something is gonna stop him in his quest for galactic domination, it won’t be want of planning: Leopold has mapped out his evil plan in detail on a gigantic (it is bigger than a full-grown man), circular chart in meticulous detail.

It’s amusing how petty this plan for galactic conquest begins too, because as soon as Leopold has transformed himself into a gill-man the next step on the chart is revenge against those the mad doctor believes have harmed him. First up in the Dean of his former university who denounced his theories as insane, and scientifically unsound. This is fair enough, after all Leopold’s new gill-man body is proof enough that the dean didn’t know what he was talking about (at least with regards to it being scientifically unsound; he was definitely right about it being crazy). After that though, Leopold’s vengeance project turns absolute ridiculous. The second man on his hit list is a medical supplier who gladly sold animal test subjects to Leopold, but refused to give him a human to experiment on. Why Leopold thought an otherwise reputable merchant would have the spare slave hanging around for medical experimentation shows that he was already insane long before he drew up his convoluted circular plan/graph or transformed himself into a fish-man.

It’s at this point that the film starts to incorporate elements from In the Heat of the Night (1967), with marine biologist Rex and Sheriff Lou Krantz standing in for Mr. Tibbs and Bill Gillespie respectively. Granted, this is going to be a considerably less well-written paring than the one in the more famous film, moreover it’s going to put the racism that is central to their relationship on the backburner for reasons I cannot even begin to understand. Why even bother ripping off In the Heat if Night (1967) if you aren’t even going to attempt to do justice to the racial angle of the film? That’s like ripping off Rocky (1976) and leaving out the training montage! Initially the pair is only working together to deal with an outbreak of lungfish that are causing damage to the local ecosystem (not the sheriff cares about the delicate balances of nature, it’s just his constituents won’t shut up about the damn pests). Rex is dragged into the murder investigations only when the local medical examiner cannot figure out what manner of creature killed the two men (though as always, he’s quite confident that it’s nothing human). Thus begins the hunt for the gill-man we know to be Dr. Leopold. Rex quickly realizes that he’s in way over his head and calls in assistance from a pair of federal agents (who are also lovers, which is highly unprofessional to say the least): Martha Walsh and Walker Stevens.

Meanwhile, Leopold’s plan for galactic conquest hits another snag. The next stage of his plan called for him to capture a beautiful woman, and transform her into a gill-woman. Once that was done he could begin his process of repopulating the earth with a new breed of fish/human hybrids that will promptly replace man as the dominant species. Leopold manages to capture a woman camping not far from his laboratory, but she promptly dies before she can be successfully transformed. Leopold responds by trashing his own lab in a fit of directionless rage more commonly seen in teenagers than Nazi war criminals. Seriously, this can’t be the first test subject that Leopold has killed. When he’s done sulking, he quickly discovers that Rex, Sheriff Krantz and the others are on the hunt for him. It would be another disappointment for the mad doctor, if he didn’t realize that Martha Walsh would make the perfect gill-woman bride.

Zaat is just too slow for it’s own good. In retrospect, it should have been a warning when the film began with fifteen minutes of nature stock footage and dull narration for Dr. Leopold. Unfortunately, this snooze fest was the film putting its best foot forward, as the rest of the film is somehow even more boring than the introduction. We see the woman that Leopold eventually abducts hanging around her campsite several times doing not much of anything, before the doctor finally moves in and nabs her. What’s worse, is that there is a delightfully unhinged monster movie lurking somewhere beneath all this filler. It’s a shame that Zaat is way too padded and slow to be much interest to anyone.

The monster suit is curiously out of place, almost as if it was commissioned for a movie about an entirely different sort of monster. For starters, the creature’s face bears an unmistakable resemblance to a warthog, rather than any of the fish that Leopold says inspired his new form. For another thing, the joints of the suit are all disguised with tuffs of fur, and last time I checked fish don’t have any fur. Was there some god-awful movie about a boar-man whose funding (wisely) backed out at the last minute? Did directors Don Barton and Arnold Stevens by their monster suit for a song? It would also explain why (despite looking almost nothing like a fish) the monster suit is comparatively well made.

The film ends with what I would like to believe is a homage to the French horror director Jean Rollin. The film ends with Walker appearing to gun down the gill-man, and Walsh being saved from being transformed into a gill-woman herself. Instead of a happy moment where the normal, young lovers are reunited though, we see Walsh walk off into the surf after the possibly dead Leopold, Walker begging her to stop. It has all the marks of Jean Rollin’s movies, the tragic love story, the quiet gray beach, and the somber beauty. Too bad it doesn’t make any damn sense! Up until now Walsh has shown no attraction or even compassion for the monster. Still though, there’s enough there to indicate that directors Don Barton and Arnold Stevens might have been referencing the great French horror filmmaker. The only problem is that before very recently Rollin’s work were all but unavailable in the United States, and the director has always been fairly obscure. What’s more, Zaat was released in 1971 before all but three of Rollin’s films: Le Viol du Vampire (1968), La Vampire Nu (1969) and Les Frission Des Vampires (1970). Thus, it seems likely that the similarities between Zaat and Rollin’s films are just coincidental, a byproduct of a filmmaker not wanting to give his film a conventionally happy ending, but not having enough know-how to write a genuinely tragic story.

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