Tom Hanson: The Man Who Attempted to Catch THE ZODIAC KILLER (1971)

Jacob details one of exploitation cinema's strangest bits of extreme hucksterism.

AGFA is releasing The Zodiac Killer on Blu-ray this month. Get the Blu and see if there's a Drafthouse screening in your area

Like many DIY exploitation eccentrics, Tom Hanson sounds like a bona fide maniac on paper. A former fast food king (he owned 60 – 70 Pizza Man restaurants in the Southern California region, on top of managing A&W and Chicken Delight joints), Hanson entered the movie biz while his dough and cheese flagships were sinking. An actor-cum-delivery expert, Hanson worked on half a dozen lo-fi exploitation projects with production associates like Anthony Cardoza, who helped bring female biker pictures like Hellcats (’68) to life for Newton P. Jacobs’ notorious Crown International.

Having become associated with numerous gangs while putting in time on Cardoza’s productions, Hanson attempted to finance one of his earliest scripts, a girl gang joint called Revolt of the Mamas; setting up shop in an office right next to Raquel Welch’s while meeting with Deep Throat (’72) actresses during pre-production. But this jack of numerous trades decided to scrap that project and jump into a story that was not only ripped straight from the headlines, but also sought to make its own by capturing the notorious Zodiac Killer.

As Hanson told it to Temple of Schlock:

“…I was trying to make films and I knew getting into the business was gonna be tough, and I knew when you make low-budget movies they’re usually junk, because it’s hard to get above that. So I thought I’d take a shortcut. I shot Zodiac for about $13,000. Nobody got paid anything. I shot it with the intention of bringing it up to San Francisco and four-walling a theater, which I did, with six guys to set a trap and catch that son of a bitch. I was gonna catch him and use that for the end of the film, and I thought that would then launch me into making other films with a few more bucks and doing it right. When you’re trying to break through and get something done, and you’ve got no money, and it’s not exactly Gone With the Wind, you’ve gotta try and do something, y’know?"

You’ve gotta try and do something, y’know? If there’s a more succinct explanation behind most exploitation endeavors, this author has yet to read it. However, Hanson delivered on his promise of attempting to nab the serial murderer upon completing The Zodiac Killer in ’71, setting a trap for the madman by promoting a “contest” revolving around his film’s release. Zodiac had already written several letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, taunting the cops, Paul Avery, and other journalists to just try and catch him. So, Hanson talked Kawasaki into donating a motorcycle to the movie’s premiere, and every ticket buyer had to fulfill a strange request before entering the Golden Gate Theater on April 7, 1971:

“Everyone who bought a ticket got a little yellow card they would fill out that said ‘I think the Zodiac kills because…’ In the lobby on the second floor, I had a display built that didn’t look like there could be anybody underneath it. The motorcycle was on top of that, and the box was there to drop yellow cards in…”

The box office attendants followed strict orders to not give any audience member more than one contest card, and there was a volunteer beneath the display, checking the handwriting, who would signal to the other sting participants waiting in the wings if he received a sample of significance. One of Hanson’s associates almost died during a showing because he became trapped in a freezer while anticipating his cohorts’ high sign. Theater management wasn’t aware of the operation, as Hanson didn’t want to alert the Zodiac, should the killer come waltzing into the theater, hoping to see their crimes dramatized on screen for the first time*.

As we all know now, Hanson was not successful in his attempt at completing the movie with a real-life capture of its subject, but The Zodiac Killer itself is a ramshackle mix of melodramatic restaging of true events and relentless weirdness, as his version of Zodiac worships Satan in the basement of his modest home while pet bunnies stare off into the middle distance. It’s a remarkable bit of old school hucksterism that’s totally worth a watch for grindhouse aficionados, both because of its audacious backstory and the picture’s commitment to mental oddity.

As for Hanson, he continued to work in film, directing the amazing drive-in crime opus A Ton of Grass Goes to Pot the very next year (’72). Following his entertainment days, Hanson also claims to have invented a cure for one of the leading killers of human beings, while also revolutionizing the way we eat:

HANSON: There’s been about a hundred times guys have called wanting me to write a book, because I’ve done some other pretty hefty things. I invented a cure for cancer about 35 years ago.

TOS: [Pause] Come again?

HANSON: Yeah. Well, you’re eating tender meat all over the world today because of me.

Tom Hanson – Zodiac Hunter, medical and meat tenderization innovator. He does it all, ladies and gentlemen.

*The Zodiac Killer predates Dirty Harry’s “Scorpio Killer” by six months.