“Is the monster man…fish…or devil?” The legendary 1971 low budget rural horror movie shot as ZAAT and later re-released as BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z, has been reeled out of the deep for this official Blu-ray/DVD combo from the company who gave the same honors to Al Adamson’s unforgivable CARNIVAL MAGIC.
Dr. Kurt Leopold (Marshall Grauer) is a mad scientist who looks more like a disgruntled custodian. Scorned by his peers and ostracized from the community (aren’t they all?), he decides to transform himself into a “walking catfish” by injecting himself with his own serum and dipping himself in a tank of water mixed with his own created solution. Leopold succeeds, emerging as a two-legged, moldy, scaly green fish beast (played by 6’ 8” Wade Popwell) who looks more like an art deco Christmas Tree than said walking catfish. The creature, who is still articulate enough to write and create great sketches, is armed with some kind of mutagenic compound and is bent on revenge. His first victims: a couple of easily accessible middle-aged scientists who apparently discredited him or scorned him in some way.
The monstrous Leopold, able to move about on both land and sea, not only wants revenge, but he has concocted some kind of master plan to make his kind the dominant species, so he sets out on kidnapping luscious females in the hopes of transforming them into a mate. The well-intentioned redneck sheriff (Paul Galloway) teams up with a more enlightened young biologist (Gerald Cruse), and when their sources pulled together aren’t enough, a couple of attractive lovers from a special organization known as INPIT (Inter-Nations Phenomenon Investigations Team) show up in a Winnebago, wearing orange jumpsuits, to save the day. With Leopold failing to convert his first female victim into a like-being, he snatches the female INPIT agent (Sanna Ringhaver) in the hopes that this time he might succeed in some eternal fish kissing.
Shot entirely in and around Jacksonville, Florida, this independent ecological fright flick and homage to 1950s creature features was produced and directed by Don Barton, and it remained his only feature to date (with his own company, Barton Films, he was involved mostly with commercials and training films). ZAAT sort of has the feel of one of those 1960s AIP-TV monster pictures made by Larry Buchanan, but perhaps with better pacing and better production values (those were shot on 16mm, while ZAAT on 35mm). There’s no denying that ZAAT is one of the worst pictures ever made, but as “bad” cinema goes, it’s not without campy merriment (with a game cast and crew who pretty much never did anything else film-wise) and at least the monster and his shenanigans are featured prominently throughout the over-90-minute running time.
The mutant fish creature costume was built over a wet diving outfit and the headpiece over some kind of oxygen mask, and it resembles a really shoddy Dr. Who alien (strips of green fur conceal where zippers and other things you shouldn’t see are). The cast and crew where allowed to shoot in Marineland, so at there’s a fairly impressive creepy lab setting, as well as a lot of marine life stock footage which is edited in strangely yet cleverly. The underwater scenes are passable, and the nudity-less PG rated film does have a few bloody parts, as the rampaging monster also has a craving for blood. Sanna Ringhaver and Nancy Lien as a yellow-bikinied camper who is captured underwater, carried off, and brought back to the lab by our monster, add some sex appeal. There’s a folky theme tune, a scene where a group of crooning “Jesus freaks” are escorted into jail for their own good, and cinematography by Jack McGowan, who also did Bob Clark’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and DEATHDREAM.
A hit in Southern states when first released, ZAAT was then re-released about four years later as BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z. It first saw a video release as ATTACK OF THE SWAMP CREATURE though Thriller Video when hosted by Elvira. A 30th Anniversary Limited Edition Collector's VHS was released about a decade ago, and the film was also mocked (in an abridged version) on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1999 (the episode recently came out on DVD though Shout! Factory). Covered in Famous Monsters and more extensively in a tribute article featured in Scary Monsters Magazine, ZAAT was most recently shown on TCM as part of a night of Halloween-time scare flicks.
Anyone who has judged ZAAT’s technical merits based on previous tape transfers and UHF airings will find the new HD edition quite a revelation. Uncut and newly restored, the Blu-ray transfer (which is dedicated to Wade Popwell, who passed away in 2006) looks quite terrific. Presented anamorphic in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the picture boasts crisp detail from beginning to end, with the opening yellow titles virtually popping out of the screen. Colors are bright, dark scenes are now easy to make out and grain is pretty much nonexistent, with the mono audio being crystal clear. A region free DVD is also included, carrying the same transfer and extras as its Blu-ray counterpart.
An audio commentary with producer/director Don Barton, co-writer/special effects coordinator Ron Kivett and actor Paul Galloway is moderated by film historian and one of ZAAT’s biggest champions, ED Tucker. The three remember a lot about the film’s production including the heavy monster suit and the problems it caused, getting support and participation from the locals, as well as how the film was promoted upon release. I wish Barton had gotten more into the film’s distribution (he lost control of it for a number of years), but the track is still very lively and informative in terms of behind the scenes stuff. A radio interview with Popwell (who seemed ever content to have played the monster in the film) and Tucker was conducted about a decade again upon a local 30th anniversary screening. Also included is the original 35mm trailer, TV spots, a few minutes of rough outtakes, a massive photo gallery and a before and after restoration comparison. A collectible postcard insert depicts the film’s original poster art. (George R. Reis)
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