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Blu-ray Review: Zaat – Prime ’70s Cheese Gets an HD Upgrade

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There’s just something about Florida-made horror/sci-fi flicks that you can’t resist. In 1965, the great William Grefé brought us bad movie lovers the immortal Sting of Death, which depicted a man scientist’s foray into mania by turning himself into a giant walking jellyfish with a desire to kill. In 1971, another an aspiring auteur by the name of Don Barton made a film just as ridiculous and just as enjoyable: Zaat — the tale of an entirely different mad scientist (and former Nazi, naturally) who transforms himself into a giant walking catfish with a desire to kill. Big difference.

While Zaat may not benefit from several Neil Sedaka musical numbers like Sting of Death does (seriously, it does), Zaat also finds time amid the (ahem) “horror” of it all to interject a hippie musical sequence; a surrealistic moment (with some fine singin’ to boot) that is so out of place and bizarre that it even scares the film’s monster away once it comes across the traveling commune! The songwriter of the aforementioned performers’ ballad (Jamie DeFrates, who also co-wrote the incidental score) also contributed to the movie’s opening credits theme about sargassum (!) — which is just as epic in its awfulness (and thus, good).

Zaat opens with a lengthy look at (stock footage) aquatic predators, to wit the movie’s mad scientist in question rants deliriously about them, and how he will soon join them. Portrayed by one of the greatest performers to ever awkwardly shuffle across the screen (most of the cast and crew in this cult classic never went on to do anything else, and it’s easy to see why), Dr. Leopold (Marshall Grauer) soon tinkers with some equipment in his abandoned Florida marine lab, padding out the beginning of the film tremendously before changing into a monster.

From there, the bulky creation (played by Wade Popwell) of a minuscule budget lumbers through land and sea in order to execute those who called him crazy (um, I think they had just cause for such accusations) and anyone else who might get in his way or tick him off for whatever reason. He also attempts to turn a kidnapped sunbather into a mate, but fails. Meanwhile, a white backwoods sheriff (Paul Galloway), a black marine biologist (Gerald Cruse), and two “Inter-Nations Phenomena Investigations Team” (INPIT) agents in red jumpsuits (Dave Dickerson and Sanna Ringhaver, the latter of whom has an almost-nude shower scene) search frantically for the movie’s creature (not to mention plot).

Zaat is one of those so-bad-it’s-good moving pictures that has a great deal of hilarity going on for itself. The colorful lab sequences are a dream come true for those of us who always wanted to construct our own mad scientist sets as kids, while the bad acting and amateur electronic soundtrack (some familiar stock music plays in certain parts as well) correspond joyously. Zaat also has several of the most truly inept heroes ever. Dave Dickerson’s character not only tries to track the monster down in an Amphicat, but somehow manages to stall the amphibious vehicle. From there, he is bitten by a water snake, crawls right past the creature in the woods, and still can’t shoot the monster with a rifle (with a scope) when it’s only a few feet away. Classic stuff.

Not surprisingly enough, Zaat — which was released on videocassette back I the day as Hydra and Attack of the Swamp Monster(s) — showed up in an edited-down form on Mystery Science Theater 3000 under the alternate title, Blood Waters of Dr. Z, wherein the film was not only heckled mercilessly, but succeeded in introducing the homegrown horror flick to an even larger audience. Fans of both the MST3K version as well as the unedited original will want to check out the beautiful new transfer that the collective genii of Film Chest, CULTRA, and HD Cinema Classics have released here.

Boasting some truly gorgeous colors throughout, the presentation of Zaat here is positively stunning. Unlike previous releases by Film Chest/CULTRA/HD Cinema Classics, Digital Noise Reduction doesn’t seem to be as heavily into play here (which is a relief)

Some of the film’s darker scenes don’t have a tremendous amount of depth to them, but the rest of the movie looks better than ever. The HD transfer is dedicated to the memory of the late Wade Popwell (who passed away in 2006), citing him as “the nicest monster we ever knew” by the creators of the film, who have obviously worked hard in restoring this guilty pleasure. Additional efforts have gone into play to bring us a number of special features, which include an audio commentary from director Don Barton, co-writer Ron Kivett, actor Paul Galloway, and is hosted by historian/archivist/huge fan ED Tucker. The track is a fun one, and is basically just a group of old friends getting together, but it isn’t scene-specific, as it sounds as if Tucker’s guests literally phoned it in.

Kivett and Tucker also provide a number of other rarities, including several television spots, an extensive gallery, and an audio-only 2001 radio interview from a Jacksonville station with Wade Popwell and Tucker for the film’s 30th anniversary screening (the movie was purportedly “lost” for thirty years in Hollywood). Also on-hand is a Theatrical Trailer (which doesn’t appear to have been reconstructed like the ones on Film Chest/CULTRA/HD Cinema Classics’ releases of Dementia 13, The Terror, and Poor Pretty Eddie), and a before and after restoration comparison. But it doesn’t end there, kids! Film Chest/CULTRA/HD Cinema Classics’ release of Zaat is a Blu-ray/DVD combo (the DVD is Region Free), and even includes a collectible postcard depicting the film’s artwork.

In short, Zaat is an excellent campy masterpiece, and Film Chest/CULTRA/HD Cinema Classics’ issue of the cult favorite is a wonderful one (without a doubt their best to date; I can’t wait to see what else they can dig up and rescue from obscurity in the future).  Highly recommended.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
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