Color, 1971, 99m.
Directed by Don Barton
Starring Marshall Grauer, Wade Popwell, Paul Galloway, Gerald Cruse, Sanna Ringhaver, Dave Dickerson
Film Chest (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Six years after a killer jellyfish man stalked the sunbathing residents of Florida in the astonishing Sting of Death, the Sunshine State was terrorized once again onscreen six years later by a killer catfish guy in Zaat, a singularly cheap and ridiculously entertaining mad scientist offering from one-shot director Don Barton. The film became something of a lower-tier drive-in staple under a variety of titles (including Hydra, Attack of the Swamp Creature and Legend of the Zaat Monster) before achieving immortality of a sort as one of the more popular Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes under the title Blood Waters of Dr. Z. Whatever you call it, well, it’s certainly an unforgettable experience.
For reasons left vague, the megalomaniacal Dr. Kurt Leopald (Grauer) has decided to show the scientific world how superior he is by engineering a formula that turns people into fish monsters. Of course, he decides to prove that by testing it on himself and transforming into a big, green, scaly creature with catfish DNA. Embarking on a murderous rampage and trying to sire more of his kind via the local female population, he becomes the target of an investigation by a biologist (Cruse) and the local drawling sheriff (Galloway), as well as a couple of government agents (Dickerson and Ringhaver) from a paranormal investigating unit called INPIT. Can they stop this marine menace before humanity falls prey to thisfishy fiend?
Anyone with a fondness for Doris Wishman nudist camp films or early H.G. Lewis gore flicks will definitely get a kick out of Zaat, which manages to surpass those directors for head-scratching weirdness in similar palm-studded locales with that same vibrant, almost psychedelic color scheme complete with scorching reds and glowing blues. Watching rubber suit-clad actor Wade Popwell stomp around shores and swimming pools and smearing his bloody paws all over various cast members is far more entertaining than it should be, and the reams and reams of loopy narration from the increasingly insane scientist is just the icing on the cake. Not surprisingly, almost no one involved with the film went on to do anything… but really, how could they possibly top this one anyway?
Film Chest has established itself as an interesting, enthusiastic company over the past year releasing dual-disc Blu-Ray and DVD editions of some pretty wild cult titles you’d never expect to get the HD treatment including Poor Pretty Eddie, Carnival Magic, Dementia 13, and The Terror. By now collectors have a pretty idea of what to expect from one of their releases: lots of crazy extras, eye-popping colors, and loads and loads of noise reduction till any natural film grain and fine detail like pores, fabric textures, and individual hairs is obliterated from the screen except in tight close ups. It’s still light years ahead of the TV and video versions floating around, of course, but don’t expect anything even close to razor sharpness here. The scrubbing isn’t as severe as Dementia 13, but it would be nice if they’d still dial it back a few notches so you can actually see the hairs on the actors’ heads. As mentioned before, the color here is pretty stunning across the entire spectrum; there’s something about that film stock in low-budget American horror films until the early ‘70s that creates a garish, almost hypnotic palette unlike anything else in cinema, for better or worse. The standard lossy Dolby Digital mono track is included here with optional Spanish subtitles (“Escorpion poderoso. Bestia peligrosa del oceano!”).
Both the Blu-Ray and DVD also come with an audio commentary by Barton, Galloway, Ron Kivett (monster costume creator), and moderator/fan ED Tucker. (Yep, his first name is all caps.) They cover everything from the barrage of marine stock footage (from Florida’s Marineland, natch, including a hilarious opening montage with droning narration) and numerous anecdotes about the scuba-assisted monster costume, which got heavier throughout the shoot due to numerous repairs and lots of water soakage. Also, don’t miss comments like “This great big pinwheel you see here is actually the monster’s version of a calendar.” You also get the original theatrical trailer, 75 seconds’ worth of TV spots, almost four minutes of random (and very red-looking) monster footage outtakes, an eight-minute photo gallery (posters, stills, and convention appearances), a radio interview with Wade Popwell and ED Tucker, a before-and-after restoration demo (which in this case looks mostly like adjusting the chroma and black levels, since the film appeared to be in pretty darn good shape in the first place), and a nice little postcard insert you can mail to the astonished relative of your choice.