ZAAT!, also known as The Blood Waters of Dr. Z, is a 1971 “creature feature” made in my home state of Florida. The film was brought to life by a group of industrial filmmakers from Jacksonville’s Barton Films, who decided to take a chance on producing a feature length film. The company’s owner, Don Barton, made the decision to make the film a “monster movie” as he believed that such films would be cheaper to make, while still possibly earning a few dollars at drive-ins.
In the film, a mad scientist… the most reliable type of scientist, if you ask me… devises a plan to seek vengeance upon the world, for who knows what reason, by turning himself into a half-human/half-catfish hybrid, best served with cole slaw, fries, and your choice of cornbread or hush puppies. The film opens with the man’s inner-monologue, discussing the plan and his reasons for bringing it to fruition, but mostly just features him talking to fish and looking lonely. Kinda like Aquaman on the “SuperFriends” cartoons.
This is followed by a fairly pessimistic, but completely meaningless, folksy rock theme song that plays over the film’s opening credits. The song was presumably contributed by some small-time Florida bar band desperate for exposure by any means available. Sort of like a crappy Sister Hazel, or maybe just Sister Hazel. You know, if they had more than one song.
After the credits thankfully end, our mad scientist friend and his inner monologue return to provide more overly drawn-out, but not particularly cohesive, details of the transformation process he has devised. Lasting more than 15 minutes, this whole opening sequence takes far too long, and may be more than enough to drive many viewers away. Why lie? It’s really quite painful to sit through. However, as our mad scientist friend frequently sounds exactly like another well-known mad scientist, Futurama‘s “Prof. Hubert J. Farnsworth”, I’ve found that by closing my eyes and picturing that character delivering the speech instead, these scenes become much more amusing and, dare I say, tolerable.
The transformation is completed and mostly successful. Mostly. You see, even our madman quickly notices that what he has become does not resemble a catfish in the slightest, meaning that his entire diatribe was total bullshit and a complete waste of our time. Seriously? Fuck this guy!
Thankfully, the film soon changes focus, at least somewhat. After watching the creature douse the water supply with a chemical that mutates the aquatic life, but never actually impacts the plot, we are introduced to the local sheriff, as well as a wildlife officer who has been investigating reports of walking catfish. They are soon forced to also investigate a murder after our monster kills a family who were out for a day of fishing.
Dr. Z continues picking off citizens in rather unspectacular fashion. It’s worth noting that no matter how many people the creature kills, not one of these victims can “play dead” convincingly. Naturally, these mysterious deaths anger the community, with townsfolk taking their frustrations out on the police department. This scene also features an “extra” who, for no discernible reason, decides to make an extremely racist comment towards the sheriff, a white man. While the actor playing the wildlife officer is a black man, his race has absolutely no relevance to the plot of the film. So, this “comment” is just an inexcusably disrespectful way to bring the matter to light. As the film takes great pride in its Florida origins, this is also a shameful sentiment/mentality for the state to be associated with. Then again, it’s Florida. We’ve undoubtedly done way worse.
Two government researchers are called in to verify the existence of the “fishman formerly known as Dr.Z”; one is an attractive Southern girl with long blonde hair, while the other is some guy who sorta looks like Gil Gerard. Meanwhile, Dr. Z begins stalking another attractive, young blonde woman who has been camping near the spring that he calls home. Z soon abducts the woman, getting in more than a few prolonged “inappropriate touches” in the process, and subjects her to the transformation process in the hopes of creating himself a mate. Hey, even fish-people can be superficial perverts!
The transformation fails and the young woman is killed, forcing our killer catfish to “settle” for another woman. In this case, it’s the female researcher that has been tracking him. Wandering through streets lined with run-down buildings, the creature continues its killing spree, fatally slashing a teen couple on his journey. The creature does spare the lives of a group of hippies gathered to sing songs and just generally loiter inside an abandoned building. It’s only at this point that I begin to find the monster’s actions unacceptable.
While peeping a window, Fishman watches Gil Gerard and his potential mate “hook up” for some implied off-camera sex, leaving our poor beast bastard to wander off broken-hearted and, presumably, still horny as a dolphin. (Dolphins are freaks! Look it up!) Thankfully, we are spared having to later watch him battering his fish stick as he cries himself to sleep.
Eventually, the sheriff inexplicably remembers that a mad scientist lives in the town, one who often spoke publicly about his desire to turn people into fish. This leads to a search of the man’s laboratory, which was also widely known throughout town. Coincidentally, and more than a little conveniently, this is around the same time that Dr. Z has kidnapped the female researcher, and is carrying her through the swamp, back to his lair.
The film ends in rather surprising fashion, but that doesn’t mean that it makes a whole Hell of a lot of sense. Then again, so little of ZAAT! does, so this probably shouldn’t be seen as a disappointment. The whole damned film should arguably be seen as a disappointment, but there is no need to single out its ending.
The “monster” was played by Wade Popwell, a local actor who was primarily hired due to his also being a scuba instructor, thus making him capable of handling the film’s multiple underwater shots. Performance-wise, Popwell is about as capable an actor as most scuba instructors, although (to be fair) he’s not given much to do besides occasionally grunting and trying to avoid drowning. The remainder of the cast, comprised of local actors, give respectable performances. Well, at least while stunts aren’t involved.
However, even with a miniscule budget, what should be the film’s biggest draw proves to be its biggest failing. Simply put, the creature costume is atrociously bad. Looking like something a kindergartner drew, the creature is a laughable mesh of faux green fur and what almost looks to be paper mache (but clearly isn’t with as much as it’s submerged in water) and only manages to intimidate through sheer audacity.
While it’s this same low-budget, Southern-fried hokeyness that has endeared the film to some viewers over the years, ZAAT! is still a hard film to recommend. Floridians may enjoy seeing what their state (or, at least, parts of it) looked like 50 years ago, but for that, I’d just as soon recommend any H.G. Lewis or William Grefe film. Fans of vintage drive-in cheese may also find some entertainment in the film as well.
However, for most, ZAAT! will only serve as a testament that Florida’s legacy of being bassakwards began long before all those “Florida Man” memes. Knowing Florida, we’ll find a way to be proud of it!