What’s black and white and makes you red all over? Why it’s The Zebra Killer. This embarrassing little gem was made back in a time when PC didn’t stand for politically correct or personal computer. William Girdler, the King of Kentucky fried filmmaking, serves up a race baiting exploitation film about a black-faced serial killer and the renegade black cop trying to track him down. It’s Shaft meets The Zodiac Killer, but worse.
In Louisville a killer (James Pickett) is on the loose. He’s got no modus operandi, he leaves mysterious notes, and the only witness swears the guy is black. Lt. Frank Savage (Austin Stoker) and his partner, Marty Williams (Hugh Smith) are on the case. Salt and pepper, ebony and ivory, you can call them what you will, just expect them to play by the rules. Lt. Savage is so black that he refuses to smoke cigarettes because they are white and while Williams has a vanilla complexion it doesn’t both Savage. In fact, Savage tells his partner that he’s got soul and that he’s starting to think Williams is really a brother. It’s about the most touching moment you’ll find in the film, but it’s still as awkward.
Why Savage has to tell his partner that he feels he is black is harder than figuring out why the killer disguises himself in blackface. I suspect that the notion of a crazed black killer on the loose in Louisville was supposed to be a side story to this film, at one point the film was also known as Panic City, but Girdler does nothing to establish a sense of panic in Louisville. In fact, most of the exteriors of downtown Louisville are vacant of people, as if everyone left town for the weekend. No one seems to care that there is a killer on the loose, no one but Lt. Frank Savage and he only seems to care because the killer has kidnapped his girl.
The mysterious killer is really no mystery. Girdler doesn’t hold his cards hard to his chest. It’s not long before he reveals our black-faced killer to the audience and within the first few minutes of the film some cops are already starting to wonder if maybe the killer isn’t a caucasin. “No black man ever killed like this,” decries one white police officer as Lt. Savage rolls his eyes in disgust. That sentiment is felt throughout the film. With the element of surprise tossed aside, Girdler spends the rest of the film playing the race card.
Girdler, a young white southern male, known for films such as Asylum of Satan, Three on a Meathook and Abby,the blaxploitation version of The Exorcist, could be easily mistaken as a racist. Probably, more misunderstood and confused, than flat out racist, Girdler does make his hero a black police man forced to deal with racial intolerance on the streets and from within his own police force, but then he undermines his hero. Lt. Savage is very slow to put together all very simple clues given to him by the killer. One could defend Savage’s slowness by saying that Girdler needed to keep the story suspenseful, leaving us to wonder when the police will figure out who the killer is, but we already know. Girdler just forces to watch and wait as Savage puts the pieces together. To complicate matters, Girdler takes the time to show us Savage and Williams enjoying a nice dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Not a racist statement in and of itself, but man does it feel wrong. Maybe Girdler was just supporting a home grown fastfood chain and maybe a lot of black cops do eat at KFC, but when you consider all the race heavy lines being slung around in this film, a dinner in KFC suddenly seems politically incorrect.
I have never been a fan for political correctness. Politically correct films are boring. They play it safe and when they misfire it’s not worth noticing. When a politically incorrect film misfires, it’s like a cannon going off. You have to take notice. That’s why I like politically incorrect films, they never stop to surprising me with the sort of topics and subject matter they attempt to tackle. When a misguided white male from Kentucky decides to capitalize on the growing blaxploitation market, by making a volatile film with a black hero and a white villain you see someone who thinks they have found a way to eat their cake and have it to. I certainly don’t think Girdler was trying to stir up trouble between the races. He portrays white people, not just the killer, but almost all of them, as being rather nasty and often down-right racist. Lt. Savage is no better. He too can be just as quick to insult the color of someone’s skin. Black or white, no one in this film comes out looking too great. Everyone is pretty rotten, but their words lack sentiment. None of the actors feel comfortable with their racially charged lines. The lack of reality leaves you feeling like the dialog is coming not from the characters, but from William Girdler himself. Feeling as such, you start to wonder what sort of message the director is trying to communicate with this film.
Solving that mystery is march harder than figuring out who is the Zebra Killer.
Don’t expect this title to come out on video anytime soon. If you want a copy I’d suggest checking out Shocking Video.