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Sunday, February 26, 2012

ZAAT -- Blu-Ray/DVD Review by Porfle

If the idea of being attacked by a giant walking catfish has ever given you sleepless nights, you may not be able to handle ZAAT (aka "Blood Waters of Dr. Z"), a 1972 indy horror flick made on a shoestring in and around Jacksonville, Florida.  But if thoughts of catfish simply make you hungry, and you don't have anything more exciting to do for the next hour and a half, then this good-natured, pleasantly boring little fish story should go down pretty easy.

The film opens with stock footage of various predatory fish as we hear mad scientist Dr. Leopold (Marshall Grauer) chuckling to himself about his scheme to take over the universe by creating catfish people.  Like a poor man's Vincent Price, he gloats:  "They'll have fish a size they've never seen before...walking fish!  Heh, heh...they'll like human flesh."

After the exciting main titles sequence, which shows the doctor slowly making his way from the ocean shore to his laboratory in the basement of an abandoned building, we see his decades-long experiments reach fruition when he injects himself with a special formula--"Z, sub a, and A, sub t"--and climbs into a water tank.  (The sight of him removing his shirt and pants is probably the most horrifying thing in the entire picture.)  What emerges from the tank is Zaat, an eight-foot-tall human catfish. 

Played by 6'8" actor Wade Popwell in a suit which consists of mounds of painted silicon over a scuba outfit and an oversized monster head, Zaat then begins his reign of terror by swimming around in Silver Springs (where Tarzan and the Creature From the Black Lagoon once frolicked) spraying radioactive waste out of a squirt bottle.  The color photography of the monster moving about these crystal-clear waters is actually quite nice. 

Director Don Barton stages a pretty cool attack sequence when Zaat stumbles upon one of the scientists who once ridiculed his experiments, overturning his fishing boat and killing him and his family.  Later, he kidnaps a woman camper (Nancy Lien, who looks terrific in a yellow bikini) and unsuccessfully tries to turn her into his catfish bride.  These and a few other acts of violence fail to generate much fear--Zaat is such a goofy-looking and clumsy creature (Popwell couldn't see too well in that big monster head and frequently stumbles over things as he galumphs around just trying not to fall over) that my main reaction was to feel sorry for him.

Meanwhile, the typical "comical redneck sheriff", Sheriff Krantz (Paul Galloway) and a young marine biologist named Rex (Gerald Kruse) are checking out some watery fauna when two agents show up from INPIT (Inter-Nations Phenomenon Investigations Team) just in time to get in on the monster action.  Blonde cutie Sanna Ringhaver and studly hero-type Dave Dickerson supply the film's cursory romantic element as the mismatched foursome try to track down Zaat before he can kill again.

While we may laugh at much of ZAAT's dumber dialogue and visuals, at least it's an earnest attempt to be a real monster movie and doesn't poke fun at itself with a lot of coy self-awareness.  The film's only deliberate humor comes from Sheriff Krantz and his gangly deputy, especially in a curious sequence in which the sheriff, Pied Piper-like, leads a ragtag group of hippie Jesus freaks down the street to jail (for safety from the monster) as one of them croons an earbending folk song (he inflicts the titles tune upon us as well). 

Even Zaat himself is only the second funniest thing about the movie.  The hands-down funniest has to be the sight of actual walking catfish flopping around on a miniature set that makes THE GIANT GILA MONSTER look like JURASSIC PARK. That aside, the notion of Barbie and Ken INPIT agents on the "weird science" beat in their specially-equipped RV is pretty comical in itself.

Technically, the film has little to be ashamed of for such a low-budget effort.  Direction and editing are well-done, while the photography and lighting, especially in the nighttime and underwater scenes, look pretty good for a drive-in flick that just turned forty.  None of the actors do an outstanding job (although Galloway is pretty good) but they're not really too awful, either.  With the abduction by Zaat of the female INPIT agent for the purpose of turning her into his mate, the story builds to a surprisingly somber finish that shows some imagination. 

The 2-disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Film Chest's Cultra and HD Cinema Classics labels is in 16x9 widescreen and standard Dolby audio.  Spanish subtitles only.  Extras consist of a genial cast and crew commentary, outtakes, trailer and TV spots, a before-and-after restoration demo, and a radio interview with Ed Tucker and Wade Popwell.

As with other "so bad it's good" cheapies, your reaction to ZAAT will depend entirely upon whether or not you decide to like it.  Some will find it unwatchable, while others have already embraced it as a beloved cult film.  Although actual excitement and suspense are non-existent, I found it so pleasant to watch in its own easygoing way that it rarely becomes painfully boring.  But it really did make me hungry for some catfish.  

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