Local Classic Horror Film "Zaat!" Tonight at 5 Points!

October 28, 2009 5 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Tonight the Five Points Horror Film continues with one of the cheeziest awesomest horror films ever to be cranked out locally. Zaat! Check it out. For Bonus points, go by Fans and Stoves and see the Ronnie Land Zaat! original in the front window.

Zaat, also known as The Blood Waters of Dr. Z or Hydra, is a 1975 cult movie that gained significant exposure when it was used in an episode of movie-mocking television series Mystery Science Theater 3000 in May 1999.

The film begins with Nazi mad scientist Dr. Kurt Leopold in his lab, where he has lived alone for about twenty years. He is comtemplating about his former colleagues' laughter at his formula (described as "ZaAt" — read Z-sub-A, A-sub-T — but which he simply calls "Zaat"). His formula can turn a man into a walking catfish. He injects himself with the serum. He proceeds to climb into a basket above a tank of Zaat and lowers himself in. After a few minutes, a man-sized catfish-human hybrid creature climbs out of the tank, looks in the mirror, and remarks that it is beautiful what he has done to himself.

His first act of revenge on society that he feels has wronged him is to release several smaller walking catfish around the town's lakes and river (filmed in the St. Johns River near Green Cove Springs, FL), an annoyance to the townspeople. He then releases Zaat into the local water supply, rendering many of the townspeople ill.

Matt Soergel of the Times Union wrote a peice about Zaat


So what if the readers of a popular movie Web site, IMDb.com, voted it the seventh worst movie ever made? So what if the wiseguys on "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" mocked it mercilessly?

"Zaat," the movie, has proven to be as hard to kill as the Zaat monster itself, a giant radioactive walking catfish-man who threatened vast swaths of Northeast Florida some 38 years ago.

No one was safe from its sharp claws, and that included lovebirds, boaters, a girl in a bikini, long-haired hippies and a comely international agent the Zaat monster wanted as a mate - the better to fulfill his twisted dream of turning the entire world into a wasteland fit only for giant radioactive walking catfish-men.

And catfish-women.

Jacksonville's Don Barton and colleagues dreamed up "Zaat" in 1970, hoping to make some money from the creature-feature craze. That didn't work out, though their modest tale had a decent run in drive-ins and theaters throughout the Southeast.

So Barton closed the books on "Zaat" and went on with life, figuring the movie was safely stuck in the past.

Was he wrong.

"Zaat" will be screened Wednesday evening as part of the 5 Points Theatre's week-long Horrorfest. And if you miss that, you can stay up until 2 a.m. on Oct. 31 and catch it on Turner Classic Movies.

This is one fishy story that just won't die. Turns out enough people love it for all its quirks and foibles; it's hard, after all, not to take to a movie where the watery creature can be seen, briefly, wearing tennis shoes.

Barton and crew filmed "Zaat" in one brisk and beautiful month, at Marineland and Rainbow Springs, in Green Cove Springs and Switzerland. It was February 1971. A long time ago.

Yet here it is, 2009, and people still want to talk to him about his monster.

The genial Barton, now 79, admits that at one time that perplexed him. "I had no idea there would be any ongoing or renewed interest," he says.

Paul Galloway, 86, finds it kind of funny, too. He was a Jacksonville firefighter and part-time actor when he played "Zaat's" dogged country sheriff, a good guy who meets a bloody end in the final act.

"There's a group of people that follow that kind of film; they say this is the kind of thing we like, which proves that ... well, I'm not knocking the film. I think it was the best that could be done with what we had."

'You got a lot of monster'

The first thing R. Land ever typed in eBay's search engine was four letters long: "Z-A-A-T."

He was searching for any trace of the movie he loved. He was 13, he figures, when he saw "Zaat" at a Northside drive-in in the '70s. He became obsessed. Probably because it was set in Florida, his home, around the water he loved, and probably because it had a charge that was both subversive - those hypodermic needles used by its mad scientist (Marshall Grauer) and sexual - the monster does seem fixated on beautiful women in various stages of undress.

Land is an artist in Atlanta now, and he loves "Zaat" so much that he's seen it many dozens of times. He and his friends quote dialogue from it. Catfish often show up in his art.

Land understands the camp appeal of "Zaat." But to him, there's more to it than that. "It's real. It's my favorite movie," he says. "I find myself loving it for ways that have nothing to do with how campy it is."

He even set up a theater screening of "Zaat" in Atlanta earlier this year for the city's "real hard-core monster-movie-loving population." It was packed, a hit. Barton and his wife, Shirley, the stars of the night, stayed well past midnight to mingle with the appreciative crowd.

Ed Tucker, meanwhile, talked his parents into taking him to see "Zaat" in Ocala when he was 6. He couldn't resist it. Not after seeing that ad with a gigantic catfish chomping on the legs of an unfortunate woman in a bikini.

He later struck up a friendship with Barton, and in 2001 set up several sold-out screenings in Jacksonville. A film historian and horror buff, he wrote the cover story about "Zaat" for Scary Monsters magazine.

Tucker, now 42, explains his enthusiasm: "For a 1971 film, you got a lot of bang for your buck," he says. "You got a lot of monster on the screen. I can't think of any film before or after that has as much monster."

It lives

The Zaat monster's goopy scales are still intact, its green fur still resplendent. It lives, comfortably, in the garage of Don and Shirley Barton's home of 45 years, where they raised nine children. The creature is 7 feet tall if you stick its head back on top. A car won't fit on that side of the garage, not with the monster looming there.

It's been a part of their lives ever since Don Barton got an itch to make a full-length movie. His company, Barton Films, was doing well with commercials and training films, but he had wanted something more. One day he read about walking catfish in National Geographic.


An employee, Ron Kivett, took it from there. He started work on a screenplay and even helped come up with the costume, transforming a gigantic wet suit into something that looks vaguely like a giant radioactive walking catfish-man. With green fur.

The head - prominent snout, glassy eyes, ruby-red lips - was the crowning touch.

Wade Popwell, a 6-foot-5 federal employee, answered a newspaper ad for a big man who could swim in a monster movie (acting ability not required).

"The most heroic guy I ever worked with," says Barton of his friend, who died a few years ago. It wasn't easy walking in that heavy suit, much less swimming in it with weights attached, but Popwell was up to the task.

By early 1971, they were ready.

Barton directed and produced, hiring a professional film and sound crew from Miami. Most of his actors were new to film, as in they'd never acted before. The congregation of First Baptist in Green Cove Springs fed them and provided willing extras. And singer Jamie DeFrates, who still gigs in Jacksonville, enlisted his hippie friends to play long-haired Jesus freaks, whose music soothes both the country sheriff and the catfish monster.

They all worked fast. There were lots of one-take scenes.

"Zaat" met its budget, about $50,000, though the cost of making prints and getting it publicized drove that to $75,000.

Barton and his investors didn't come close to getting their money back. One big problem: Prints of "Zaat" were locked away after its national distributor went into bankruptcy. "I learned a lot about the movie business," he says ruefully.

Over the next couple of decades, though, versions of the film did made it out to the public, under names such as "The Blood Waters of Dr. Z," "Attack of the Swamp Creatures" and "Legend of the Zaat Monster."

Most were unauthorized, people just hoping to cash in on Barton's monster. So after Tucker, the lifelong fan, reached him, Barton decided to reclaim "Zaat" for himself. He made copies for sale on video and DVD and started talking about the monster again.

Now he ponders the movie's last scene, where the wounded monster slips into the ocean at Marineland, followed shortly by his zombie-like, semi-human bride.

It's a downbeat finale, open-ended. Very early '70s. Very cool.

"The question is: What becomes of them?" Barton says. "I would like to be able to bring that back to life. That's my goal right now: to do a 'Zaat' sequel."

He chuckles.

After all, the monster still lives, just a few feet away, out in the garage. Ready to strike again, green fur and all.