Transmissions to Earth: ZAAT (1971) (aka THE BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares
This is exactly the kind of movie that inspired me to start my “Transmissions to Earth” column in the first place. I saw about ten minutes of ZAAT (then called THE BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z) on late night television when I was a kid. It was in the middle of the movie, and I had no idea what was going on. I just knew the monster was downright goofy looking. It took me a long time to finally track down a copy of this movie and watch it in its entirety. It was worth the search.
ZAAT begins by introducing us to Dr. Kurt Leopold (Marshall Grauer), who is working in a strange laboratory full of clunky, old-fashioned computers (full of flashing lights and making lots of cool weird sounds), and tanks full of all kinds of fish and assorted sea life. He speaks to us in voice-over, and, at first, I was worried this would be like one of those Doris Wishman movies where everyone talks in voice-over and no voices are actually in synch with the characters. But things go back to normal later. We only get the voice-over when Dr. Leopold is on screen.
Leopold tells us (well, he’s more likely talking to himself), that his goal is to create a new species that is part man, part fish. He was inspired by the “walking catfish” that were found in Florida at the time, fish that could slither around on land, as well as live in the water. What if such a creature were combined with the DNA of a human being? If this sounds insane to you, you’re not the only one. When this creaky old lab was originally being used in the 40s, Dr. Leopold worked there then as well, and was trying to do the same kind of experiments. When he asked to use death row prisoners as human guinea pigs for his experiments, his superiors balked and fired him. So, obviously, he wants to prove them wrong. And he wants revenge on them for halting his plans back then.
In ZAAT, the monster is not much of a surprise. We don’t have to wait through most of the movie to finally get a good look at him. This is because as soon as Dr. Leopold gives us that speech in the beginning (punctuated by all kinds of stock footage of undersea life, presumably to save money), he takes off his clothes (leaving on his oversized boxer shorts) and transforms himself into a giant man-fish. This involves injecting himself with a giant needle of green fluid, and then sticking a hose into a pool of water. Something coming out of the hose turns the water bright red (thus the alternate title of this movie, THE BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z, even though there is no Dr. Z in this movie, only Dr. Leopold), and he submerges himself in the pool. The scrawny scientist arises from the water in one of the worst monster costumes in the history of cinema (and now a different actor, Wade Popwell, is in the suit). The ZAAT monster is almost as bad as the Styrofoam and Ping-Pong ball monstrosities you can see in early Roger Corman flicks of the 50s.
And, unlike a lot of monster movies, Dr. Leopold cannot change back to his human form. Nope. Once he changes into ZAAT, it’s permanent. So he has to continue with his experiments with clunky, oversized hands and a big, bulky body. A lot of times he stumbles around. It’s kind of funny.
Zaat’s name, by the way, is actually a chemical formula: the combination of two new elements that Dr. Leopold discovered (Za and At), which are also the ingredients of his “secret formula.” How clever!
His first order of business is to track down the fellow scientists who laughed at his work. One man is fishing in a boat with his wife and kid, when Zaat tips the boat over and drowns them. Another scientist is home watching television when Zaat comes up behind him and strangles him to death. Also, his claws don’t just rip open flesh, they burn! Must be that radioactivity in the formula.
Even though the monster is big and clumsy, it takes a long time for anyone to catch on to what is happening.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Lou Krantz (Paul Galloway) has called in marine biologist Rex (Gerald Cruse) to take some tests in the area to determine why there is a sudden influx of “walking catfish,” those fish we saw earlier than can wriggle around on land. It turns out they’re also very aggressive and have been eating other fish, and bothering people, who see them as pests. Rex takes all kinds of water samples. At one point, he determines that there is a trace of radioactivity in some of the samples. When Sheriff Krantz asks what he means, Rex says “In your language—pollution.”
Meanwhile, Zaat is going around with a spray bottle spraying the ponds and lakes with some kind of weird substance. His plan is to contaminate the area and mutate all of the underwater life to be more like him. He wants to bring about an apocalypse that will get rid of all the pesky land dwellers.
Based on Rex’s findings of radioactivity, the government sends in a couple of INPIT agents to investigate. They are Martha Walsh (Sanna Ringhaver) and Walker Stevens (Dave Dickerson). They’re young and they’re hip and you can tell Rex likes hanging out with them.
Once Zaat has killed some of his enemies, he turns his attention to girls in bikinis. Because, as you ‘ll know if you’ve seen any of these kinds of monster movies, the monsters always eventually want to kidnap human women and mate with them. It’s just what monsters do, and it’s almost always what leads to their downfall.
Dr. Leopold/Zaat wants to turn a woman into a monster like him, so that they can spawn a new race of fish people to repopulate the earth when they get rid of all the humans. Since he’s only killed a couple of people so far, Leopold sure has high hopes of his plan succeeding to such a degree that he will inherit the earth. But I guess we all have to have goals. And it’s no surprise that Zaat’s goal involves sex.
Zaat kidnaps a hot blonde in a bikini and brings her back to his lab, where he injects her with the big needle and dumps her into the pool of rumbling red water. But it doesn’t work and she dies. Zaat goes nuts and starts trashing his equipment (but he can’t be doing much damage—the next time we see the lab, it’s back to normal). He then dumps the poor girl’s body into a pool of acid that turns her into a skeleton!
Back to the drawing board!
And for Zaat, it really is a drawing board. He has this giant wheel on the wall of his lab, where he writes down all his notes. It looks like a really primitive version of the WHEEL OF FORTUNE that Pat Sajak spins every night on TV. Pinned to the wheel are photos of his enemies (which he crosses out with a marker once he gets rid of them) and he draws pictures of the girls he seeks to mate with before he dumps them in the red pool (he’s actually a good artist, considering his oversized paws).
Once Rex and the INPIT agents see Zaat in the flesh, they convince Sheriff Krantz to declare a state of emergency and the lawman tells everyone in town to stay inside and lock their doors. This leads to a scene where the Sheriff finds a bunch of long-haired hippies in an abandoned building playing guitars and singing. After sitting down and enjoying their music for a spell, he leads them, like a Pied Piper, to the jailhouse where he locks them up. He says it’s to “keep them safe,” but you know he probably just wants an excuse to lock up hippies.
After Walker stabs Zaat in a confrontation, the monster later breaks into a pharmacy and gulps down antibiotics, before trashing the place (the counter holding the cash register has ads for “Pillow Cases $1.00” and “Shower Caps 11¢”). He then attacks a couple of kids making out, and after he claws up one kid, he starts drinking his blood (a new development in his evolution? Or just another way to make Zaat more creepy?)
Zaat has a thing for blondes and is soon abducting government agent Martha to become his mate. The Sheriff, Rex and agent Walker try to stop him. Of course, while hunting down the monster who took his girlfriend, Walker is bitten by a water snake and has to tie a tourniquet around his leg, making him much less of a threat to the vicious Zaat.
Zaat’s attempts to transform Martha are interrupted, but that doesn’t stop things from ending on a creepy note. I actually found the ending satisfying in an odd way.
The acting isn’t great, but the actors are a little better than you usually find in these kinds of movies. And despite the completely laughable monster costume, I found myself really liking this movie. In the version I saw, director Don Barton explains how the movie disappeared after its initial theatrical release for almost 30 years (I guess he doesn’t count the movie’s stint on late night TV under its alternate title), yet fans didn’t forget about it, and demanded it finally get re-released on video. He also says that, when it was time for his small Florida film studio to make its first feature film at the time, they decided to make a “creature feature.” A cult of rabid fans developed, which isn’t a surprise for this kind of movie.
ZAAT is not for everyone. Some of the chase scenes are a little slow, and there’s way too much stock footage of fish, but it’s worth wading through the weak parts to see Wade Popwell stumbling around in his hilarious monster costume, searching for blonde bikini babes.
© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares