Zaat (The Blood Waters of Doctor Z.)

Director - Don Barton

Cast - Marshall Grauer, Dave Dickerson

Country of Origin - U.S.

Discs - 2

MSRP - $19.98

Distributor - Cultra

Reviewer- Bobby Morgan

The Film: 4/5

 

Disgraced ex-Nazi mad scientist Dr. Kurt Leopold (Marshall Grauer) has exiled himself to a Florida backwater community where he labors night and day in his grungy laboratory working on a formula that can mutate humans into fish people and greatly enlarge the local aquatic wildlife. Once he perfects the serum Leopold makes himself his first test subject. As a result he changes into a beastly walking catfish (played by Wade Popwell in a really cheesy monster suit) and sets out to take revenge on the scientists who scoffed at his crazy ideas and spread his biological horrors across the community in an attempt to reshape the human race in his image. When the monstrous creature starts attacking random townspeople as well local sheriff Krantz (Paul Galloway) and intrepid marine biologist Rex (Gerald Cruse) launch an investigation. Realizing that they alone are no match for whatever is out there terrorizing their bucolic burg Rex calls for help from the Inter-Nations Phenomena Investigations Team (INPIT). INPIT sends agents Martha Walsh (Sanna Ringhaver) and Walker Stevens (Dave Dickerson) to assist in the hunt for the monster, but they must act fast because the horrific thing that once was Dr. Leopold is seeking a mate with which he will spawn a race of killer fish people to conquer the world.

 

To quote a great philosopher, Zaat is one special kind of idiot. Best known for its more lurid alternate title The Blood Waters of Dr. Z (under which it was shown - and thoroughly ripped a new one in the comedic sense - during the tenth and final season of Mystery Science Theater 3000), Don Barton’s crazed exploitation gem Zaat finally comes to DVD and Blu-ray fully restored to its original sun-baked, man-in-cheap monster suit glory. Filmed in and around the city of Jacksonville, FL, Zaat looks to be itself a mutant hybrid of movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon (the set used for Dr. Leopold‘s lab had previously been seen in the Black Lagoon sequel Revenge of the Creature), Horror of Party Beach, and even Ed Wood’s immortal Bride of the Monster (complete with a Dr. Vornoff-like madman who makes pompous speeches that just ooze pure Wisconsin’s finest). But Barton’s film, which he also wrote from a story by Ron Kivitt and Lee Larew, stands out from the hundreds of Z-grade monster-on-the-loose epics for several reasons: First of all, most of the scenes with the monstrous catfish man take place in broad daylight, rather than take advantage of the cover of darkness to conceal the monster suit’s readily apparent flaws. Then there is the monster itself, not so much a mindless aberration only interested in death and mayhem but rather a thinking creature fully capable of carrying out its diabolical plans without being overcome by murderous urges. Everything the Leopold monster does is part of a carefully orchestrated, multi-tiered strategy, as half-baked and goofy as it may seen, and in a strange way it makes sense: Step 1 - change into mutant catfish man and infect local aquatic wildlife with deadly mutagen, Step 2.…., Step 3 - profits!

 

While not exactly an all-out exploitation spectacle Barton does toss in some splashes of bright red blood (ah, the days when stage blood looked so fake it seemed real to us gorehounds) and a few shots of a woman in a bikini who becomes integral to the plot later on. But that isn’t what distinguishes Zaat from its drive-in creature feature brethren. This movie has a weird, comforting ambience to it that makes it an enjoyable watch even during the potentially boring stretches. Credit that to the sharp cinematography by Jack McGowan (including some beautiful underwater photography) and the strange sound design consisting of electronic music, folksy tunes, and a blaring score of library tracks that sound lifted from a 1950’s alien invasion movie. Although we see Leopold in human for most of the film’s first twenty minutes the only dialogue spoken in that time is the mad scientist’s rambling interior monologue. It isn’t until the sheriff and Rex are introduced that we finally see characters speaking on screen. That was a pretty bold move on Barton’s part, opening his cheap and cheesy monster mash with a nearly silent twenty minute sequence. The only filmmakers who tried such methods in the past were Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood). Barton also makes effective and extensive use of stock footage of aquatic life, but he can’t resist filming cutaways of catfish crawling and flopping around on dry land, a by-product of Leopold’s evil serum perhaps. The acting is forgettable but it is what is, just a dash of seasoning on Zaat’s inspired lunacy. It’s all in service of the oddball plot, and that also includes the hippy-dippy musical number.

 

The disc is dedicated to the memory of Popwell, who passed away in 2006.

 

Audio/Video: 4/5

 

For a four-decades-old B-movie shot on a miniscule budget Zaat looks fantastic in this restored version that took the better part of a decade to come to fruition. The picture and sound quality have been given a sparkling digital makeover. The film has been restored to its original 1.78: 1 widescreen aspect ratio, enhanced for 16: 9 televisions, from an original 35mm print. McGowan’s cinematography looks as good as it probably did on the screen back in 1972. The sun-kissed daytime scenes are bursting with vibrant colors and there’s not a trace of murk to be found in the well-lit night scenes. The underwater photography looks the best of all; watch this on a hot summer day and you may get the sudden urge to go for a quick dip. The disc’s two-channel Dolby Digital English soundtrack gives great volume and space to the fascinating sound design and the loopy dialogue scenes; Dr. Leopold’s deranged narration (“They think I’m insane! They’re the ones who are insane! Oh my friends of the deep! This day, this very day, I’ll become one of you! My family! And together we’ll conquer the universe!”)  is given a cavernous echo that makes it sound like it bubbled up from the darkest recesses of an unhinged mind. All in all a first class restoration that reminded me of the stellar clean-up jobs you’d often find on Something Weird’s DVD titles.

 

Extras: 4/5

 

Cultra’s generous selection of bonus features kicks off with a fun and informative audio commentary featuring director Barton, writer Kivitt, and actor Galloway moderated by film historian (and Zaat superfan) ED Tucker. The quarter have a ball reminiscing about the strange production and the various hurdles they encountered. Many great behind-the-scenes stories are shared.

 

Most of the other extras came from Tucker’s personal collection. We get a 35mm theatrical trailer that looks almost as good as the restored film, original television spots, and four minutes of silent outtakes set to music from the film. An 8-minute animated photo gallery features production photos, lobby cards, posters, and newspaper ads.

 

One of the highlights of the disc is a radio interview with Tucker and the late Popwell (11 minutes) conducted around the time of Zaat’s 35th anniversary, and it’s quite a listen. The bonuses close out with a minute-long “Before and After Restoration Demo” that compares the original 35mm print with the Blu-ray transfer.

 

The Blu-ray also comes with a region-free DVD that has the same quality transfer and extra features as the Blu-ray and a postcard that has the original movie poster art on the front.

 

Overall: 4/5

 

Zaat is pure B-movie nirvana, a cool and fun little treasure from the days where men could wear rubber monster suits and chase after babes in bikinis for no sane reason whatsoever with unbridled abandon. The movie has been given an immaculate upgrade in picture and sound quality and the disc is packed with sweet bonus features that any fan of watching Saturday afternoon marathons of goofball monster movies on local UHF stations will enjoy. This Blu-ray is a true labor of love that I highly recommend.