David Fincher’s Zodiac is at its best when it uses the power of the screen to dramatize the horror and brutality of the Zodiac Killer’s killing spree in the 1970s.
I consider the depiction of the Lake Berrysea attack to be the film’s strongest scene. The scene where Robert Graysmith flees from the cellar as he hears steps above is a close second.
The horror in the scene is in the powerlessness of the two victims. Held at gunpoint, they have no choice but to listen to the demands of a hooded man. Horror films rely on excessive gore and creative murders to engage the audience. Unconventional deaths and weapons are used to shock the audience into jumping or grimacing at the violence on the screen.
In this scene, all we have is a pistol. It gives the Zodiac Killer all the power he needs to impose his twisted fantasies on this innocent couple. He does not need to shoot it. The threat of violence is enough to subdue them.
Fincher could have chosen to show us the backs of the the victims being pierced by the giant knife of the Zodiac Killer. We could have seen blood splattering all over the place. Instead Fincher keeps us on the faces of the couple. They do not lose their humanity as the attack occurs. And that is why this scene works so well.
In your traditional horror film, humanity is stripped from the victims. We want to see them smashed, bashed, sliced, and crushed in crazy new ways. The killer becomes the hero. We root for them. How are they going to dish out the pain? Much like how we turn our heads as we drive to see the aftermath of car crashes, we watch horror films to see blood and gore. We want those stupid people to get what is coming to them.
Take this scene from Jason X.
Does anyone care about this blonde as her face is frozen and then smashed to pieces? We aren’t supposed to. She’s attractive but the lure and appeal of this franchise is the murder of attractive young teenagers. She is killed and then thrown away unceremoniously. She becomes an object for the audience’s blood lust.
These two films are wildly different in execution and concept but that is why I am comparing and contrasting them. They do both have the same job of trying to engage the audience using horror.
To go back to scene from Zodiac, Fincher does not give the audience a chance to turn the Zodiac Killer into a hero. The sound of the knife entering and exiting their bodies is terrifying. It’s unnerving to watch the couple’s reactions to the attack. No score is played underneath the attacks. The events play out like they did on September 27th, 1969. All we hear are the sounds of nature, the knife stabs, and the screams of the victims.
If one is to succeed at horrifying the audience, they must allow the victims of violence to retain their humanity.