Monday, September 14, 2015

The Zebra Killer (1974)

         Hang loose, dear readers, because things are about to get confusing. This schlocky police saga was originally released as The Zebra Killer, though the story has no connection to the infamous “Zebra Murders” that took place in San Francisco around the time the film was made. Additionally, the movie has been released under myriad different titles, including Combat Cops, The Get-Man, and Panic City. By any name, this picture is barely passable. Produced on a meager budget and suffering from ugly cinematography during extended nighttimes scenes, the movie also features a clumsy performance by James Carroll Pickett as the villain, who comes across like a comedic exaggeration of a psychopath. Another problem is the turgid storyline, which wobbles between generating weak suspense and relying on overly informative expositional scenes. Cowriter/director William Girdler, who later made a handful of enjoyably loopy horror flicks, can’t seem to decide whether he’s making a slam-bang actioner or a taut thriller. What saves this highly problematic movie from itself is an assured leading performance by Austin Stoker, who subsequently starred in John Carpenter’s first proper feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Stoker cuts s strong figure in The Zebra Killer, all confidence and swagger with an appealing touch of vulnerability. He plays Lt. Frank Savage (yes, that’s really the character’s name), a streetwise cop investigating a series of bewildering murders.
          A killer identifying himself in crime-scene notes as “Mack” slaughters seemingly unrelated people, planting a bomb in a station wagon one evening, pushing someone down an elevator shaft the next, and so on. (To confound potential witnesses, the killer, who is white, wears an Afro wig and blackface makeup while committing crimes.) Once revealed, the killer’s motivation is neither provocative nor surprising, but the point of a picture like The Zebra Killer is to generate pulpy excitement rather than intellectual stimulation. Girdler tries a little bit of everything, from chase scenes to kidnappings to shootouts, in order to keep blood pumping through the movie. He also veers slightly into the realm of blaxploitation, especially during a sequence featuring D’Urville Martin as a pimp. Set to a repetitive funk soundtrack, The Zerbra Killer is quite rotten in terms of production values and story. Nonetheless, the picture was made for the undemanding grindhouse audience, and in that context, it’s adequate.

The Zebra Killer: FUNKY


William Blake Hall said...

The specific name Frank Savage gets around. An Air Force general named Frank A. Armstrong was the inspiration for Gregory Peck's character Frank Savage in the 1949 movie Twelve O'Clock High. The name Savage was meant as a tribute to Armstrong's Cherokee roots. When the movie inspired a Sixties TV show, Robert Lansing stepped into the role of Frank Savage. When it comes to macho names, I think Humphrey Bogart deserved an early Oscar for not busting out laughing every time the 1947 movie Dead Reckoning required him to identify himself as Rip Murdock.

Peter L. Winkler said...

And then there's Bogart's character's name in "In a Lonely Place:" Dixon Steele, or Dix Steele, as he's called by other characters throughout the film.