Directed by: Don Barton
Written by: Ron Kivett and Lee O. Larew (story) and Don Barton
Cast: Gerald Cruse, Paul Galloway, Dave Dickerson, Sanna Ringhaver, Marshall Grauer, Wade Popwell
Described as a "Sought after 70's Cult Classic" making it's first High Definition appearance on DVD and Blu-ray, I was a bit surprised that I didn't know anything about Zaat. But, as I started watching the film, I realized I had seen it on Mystery Science Theater 3000 under its alternate title, The Blood Waters of Dr. Z. As the residents of the Satellite of Love felt it was worthy of lampooning, I'm sure most genre fans are wondering why Zaat got the Hi-Def treatment rather than some other, more deserving movie. But you should watch the actual film, as it's a perfect example of "gleefully stupid" cinema (I wrote that in my notes on the film), a movie that shouldn't work, yet manages to be a lot of fun.
The film's opening 10 minutes contains an overly long inner dialog, as mad scientist Dr. Kurt Leopold (Marshall Grauer) lays out his evil scheme for viewers (fortunately, the movie doesn't turn into another Beast from Yucca Flats). Thanks to his formula ZAAT, Leopold plans to turn himself into a human/catfish hybrid (played by Wade Popwell, wearing a monster suit that will elicit giggles out from most viewers), then mutate the walking catfish into gigantic monsters and let them wreck havoc on surface dwellers.
Leopold's scheme doesn't go unnoticed by Rex (Gerald Cruse), an African American marine biologist, and the local sheriff, Lou (Paul Galloway), who's following Rex around for some reason. It's interesting that Lou never acts like a stereotypical redneck Southern sheriff toward Rex. While Lou does treat Rex like some overeducated Yankee, and Rex does seem a little nervous around Lou in the beginning, the film steers clear of any racial attitudes (aside from one resident using the "N-word"). It might be a stretch to credit the screenwriters for injecting a bit of social commentary into the film, but Lou's attitude towards Rex is surprising for a '70s film written and shot in Florida.
Anyway, Rex catches a glimpse of the mutated Leopold and, realizing that monsters are out of his league, calls INPIT (Inter-Nations Phenomena Investigations Team) for support. And soon enough, agents Martha Walsh (Sanna Ringhaver) and Walker Stevens (Dave Dickerson) show up, just like Scully and Mulder — except in bright red jumpsuits and driving a RV with the agency's logo on the side, as subtlety doesn't seem to be part of INPIT's protocol.
Meanwhile, Leopold has taken a break from mutating fish in order to kill the scientists that ridiculed his theories and create a mate out of a shapely blonde camper. After she dies during the procedure, he targets Agent Walsh to be his fishy companion. But before he can mutate her, Leopold must deal with his sudden craving for blood. Of course, any viewer of low-budget films has a pretty good idea of what happens at the end, but the script pulls a surprise and concludes on an unexpected and rather downbeat note.
I'm not saying Zaat is a classic, but I can understand why the film has enough of a following to warrant a DVD release. It's a solid, well-shot feature that suffers all the shortfalls of an ultra-low budget, but manages to be quite enjoyable.
The script was inspired by news reports of the ecological threat of "walking catfish" decimating lakes in Florida at the time. It's obvious the film planned on having gigantic versions of the fish wreak havoc on land, as that's central to Leopold's plan for world domination. In fact, alert viewers will notice a quick shot of a walking catfish knocking over a scale model fence. Perhaps the film was too far into production for the script to be revised once the giant monster angle was dismissed, but this creates some rather puzzling moments. The best example is when the entire town is evacuated, which makes sense if you have giant catfish rampaging down the streets. But with only a human/catfish hybrid roaming about, you'd think most residents would grab their guns and organize a posse.
The acting is what you should expect for a film like this and, as I mentioned earlier, the monster suit is very silly looking. And the film does drag during the final act, as our heroes spend a lot of time tracking the monster, as well as padding out the running time. Still, the film looks bigger in scope than you'd expect, as the city of Jacksonville (where Barton's industrial film studio is located) and the surrounding towns provided the filmmakers with access to the surrounding springs, city streets, private homes and even the local Marineland as locations. The results are an interesting mix of expensive looking sets loaded with cheap, cheesy-looking props and some stunning shots in pristine springs and wilderness areas.
The High-Def transfer is amazing. The picture is crisp, the colors are brilliant and the underwater shots look terrific. Sure, a few blemishes remain, but the film looks beautiful. I only watched the DVD version (the film comes in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack), but I'm not sure how the Blu-ray could look any better.
Extras include the original trailer, television spots, outtake footage, a radio interview with Wade Popwell and Ed Tucker, an extensive photo gallery (including shots from the Jacksonville 40th anniversary screening) and a commentary track with Barton and Galloway.
I need to pass along a word of warning to fans of drive-in movies and cult cinema. If you're looking for blood and boobs, search elsewhere. Barton was aiming for a family audience. Blood is shed, but it's minimal. And the closest thing to onscreen nudity is Agent Walsh behind a shower curtain and Agent Stevens not wearing a shirt while in bed. The film's lack of exploitation elements could account for its popularity, as I'm sure many of the adult fans caught this film during a family outing to the local drive in when they were kids.
As I said, I wouldn't consider Zaat to be a classic, cult or otherwise. But once you accept the limits imposed upon the filmmakers by the budget, the film is a lot of fun and perfect for curling up on the couch one Saturday morning while still wearing your pajamas and snacking on a bowl of sugary cereal.
I think the MST3K version was in black and white, if I remember correctly. Is this one color?
"Another great thing about being 70,000 light years away from the nearest Starfleet vessel is that once we finally get back to Earth, we can makeup bullshit stories. Off the top of my head: 'We met Amelia Earhart,' 'We singlehandedly eliminated most of the Borg fleet' or 'Paris and I turned into giant pink lizards and mated.'"