"ZAAT" (1971)
      [Posted by: Lisa Scherer, April 23, 2010, 1:41 pm ]

Studio: Barton Films     
Starring: Marshall Grauer, Wade Popwell, Paul Galloway, Gerald Cruse, Sanna Ringhaver, Dave Dickerson
Directed by: Don Barton
Rated: PG
Running Time: 100 minutes

Synopsis: Sad-sack mad scientist Dr. Leopold uses his radioactive secret formula to create giant walking catfish and to transform himself into a powerful catfish/human hybrid in order to terrorize the town, kill his enemies, find a mate and live happily ever after underwater.

Lisa Scherer

At first glance, this story is a familiar one: A mad scientist intent on revenge transforms himself into a powerful monster and then terrorizes the town, killing his enemies and anyone who gets in his way. In ZAAT, however, there's a twist: A lonely, lovelorn loser in human form will still be a lonely, lovelorn loser in monster form. Especially if that monster is a dorky catfish/human hybrid. (No, that's not a typo. I meant to say catfish. Really.)

The relaxed pace of ZAAT is evident from the opening scenes of soothing underwater footage of fish and other aquatic life set to a man's monotonal monologue praising "sargassum, the weed of deceit" and promising the sharks -- whose cunning he admires -- that "together we'll conquer the universe". After a few minutes too many of that, the camera follows a pale, frumpy, dumpy middle-aged man as he slowly meanders around...on the beach...near a building...down and back up in an empty swimming pool...then around some more...and finally into his lab. There are two compelling reasons for not fast-forwarding through this part of the movie: the opening credits appear during these scenes, and there's an intoxicatingly addictive bizarre folk song playing as the man strolls along. Stalking through the sargassum....planning revenge on your friends!...

The man on a walkabout is the lonely, lovelorn loser himself, Dr. Leopold (Marshall Graver). He's spent decades holed up in his lab doing ichthyological research centered around walking catfish and developing some sort of radioactive chemical compound. "The formula they all laughed at...Z sub A, A sub T...my little gem...ZAAT!" Angry about opposition to his research, Dr. Leopold has decided to put ZAAT in the local bodies of water to create giant walking catfish who will wreak havoc on the townsfolk. Because catfish are so cool, Dr. Leopold also injects himself and takes a dip in the ZAAT vat, thereby transforming himself into ... into ... into something that looks like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and ALF. He's pleased, however, thinking "Nothing at all like a catfish! But it's beautiful." as he admires himself in the mirror.

After consulting his elaborate seven-year-master-plan-of-destruction chart wheel (picture a vertical game-show wheel hand-written in crayon), Catfish Guy (Wade Popwell) is off to spray the world with ZAAT, to kill those big mean bosses who wouldn't let him perform his experiments on humans, and to kidnap an attractive woman to be his mate. Hey, even Catfish Guy needs love! (I found it hilarious, however, that beauty was his main criteria for a mate, because after a dunk in the ZAAT vat, Mrs. Catfish would be just as homely as he.)

After one brief shot of giant catfish roaming the countryside, ZAAT puts that storyline on the back burner, with only brief mentions by the sheriff about reports of big catfish causing damage around town, and instead concentrates on the escapades of Catfish Guy. After each successful kill, CG returns to his lab to check that person's name off of his To Do List wheelchart. (Very organized, Catfish Guy.) Sadly, his first attempt at creating a Catfish Wife out of a blonde woman in a yellow bikini is not so successful.

Meanwhile, back in town, Sheriff Krantz (Paul Galloway) and marine biologist Rex (Gerald Cruse) -- or as the racist sheriff calls him, Boy -- have called in Agent Mulder and Agent Scully of The X-Files for assistance. Oops, I meant to say they called in Agent Stevens and Agent Walsh of the Inter-Nations Phenomenon Input Team (INPIT). Wearing "scientific-looking" orange jumpsuits similar to what prisoners wear today, INPIT Ken (Dave Dickerson) and INPIT Barbie (Sanna Ringhaver) use their advanced technology (like the amphicat, an amphibian dune buggy) and their informational resources to track Catfish Guy's whereabouts and to learn of his shady past using radioactive materials for research back in WWII.

A few chase scenes, a murder or two, some racists remarks by the sheriff, a musical interlude with a bunch of hippies, lots of shots of Catfish Guy walking around, some so-so acting, bits of scientific mumbo-jumbo, and multiple wardrobe changes by the fashionable INPIT Agent Barbie later, ZAAT comes to its somewhat ambiguous ending, which I won't spoil for you here.

ZAAT, also known as Blood Waters of Dr. Z, also known as Attack of the Swamp Creatures, also known as Dr. Z., also known as Hydra, also known as Legend of the Zaat Monster, -- good grief, this movie has about as many names as INPIT Barbie has outfits -- is the very definition of a schlock movie. The monster is silly, INPIT Barbie's acting is bad and there are a couple of easily-spotted bloopers...but the vengeful mad scientist theme is universal, the underwater footage (shot at Silver Springs) is interesting, and the INPIT technology and the black-man-as-hero motif were forward-thinking for that time. And then there's that weird-ass hippie song that I can NOT get out of my head.

And that, as they say, is ZAAT.

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