ZZZZAAT: On the Somnambulistic Pleasures of the Atomic Monster Catfish

“Nothing at all like the walking catfish… but beautiful!”

RHS: Morlock cousin Paul Gaita steps up this week for a review of the new DVD/Blu-ray combo pack of ZAAT!  (aka BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z). I know what you’re thinking… what the what?!

Don Barton’s ZAAT (a.k.a. BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z/HYDRA, 1972) combines the milk-sugary, nostalgic pleasure rush of an old-fashioned creature feature with the tranquilizing soma bliss of a powerful anti-anxiety drug. Ostensibly a Wronged Scientist’s Revenge film with a dash of ’70s-topical Nature Gone Amuck fears, ZAAT’s trance-inducing pace and hypnagogic sound-score (bubbles, undersea moans in a Moebius-like loop), combined with the already disorienting aesthetics of amateur regional filmmaking, induce a narco-dream state in both veteran horror movie fans and first-time viewers that is at once immensely bowl-of-mashed-potatoes satisfying and deeply confounding.

For the better part of ZAAT’s first third, Marshall Grauer staggers, ashen-faced, through a junk-strewn laboratory while alternately muttering apocalyptic V.O. warnings and mooning over the lethal capabilities of various sea creatures in his best Sir Graves Ghastly tones. Mocked by the scientific community for his ideas about aquatic domination, Grauer decides to avenge his reputation with a plan that can be charitably described as roundabout: he bathes himself in his secret formula – Z-subhead-a-subhead-a-T, or Zaat – and transforms himself into a giant walking catfish in order to eliminate his enemies and mutate the world’s undersea population for good measure. The resulting creature (Wade Popwell) more resembles an overgrown version of the squat, trumpet-beaked alien in J. Piquer Simon’s POD PEOPLE (1983), with a dash of QBert and EEGAH! (1962) to boot, than anything remotely like a catfish, but Grauer is not one to quibble about details. With a tiny red spray bottle in one mottled mitt, he swims clumsily through the Florida bywaters (played by the underwater displays at Florida’s Marineland and Silver Springs, former lairs of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, 1954) and spritzes his radioactive mutagen with slow but deliberate finality. Nothing much comes of this plan, but the repeated sight of the shaggy, shambolic Grauer-fish struggling mightily to not drown in his cumbersome monster suit and pull the trigger on his spray bottle with hands the size of sewer grates eventually attains an awkward but undeniable lyricism, not unlike watching a half-eaten ham sink to the bottom of a fish tank.

After consulting his massive, hand-drawn pie-chart-cum-master-plan, the Grauer-fish decides to move on to a more grass roots world takeover plan by kidnapping local women in order to breed a super race of not-quite-catfish-monsters. This brings about the attention of the law (Paul Galloway), a cornpone sheriff with a gun fetish and no compunction about referring to an African-American biologist (Gerald Kruse) on the case as “boy.” A pair of jump-suited agents from INPIT (Inter-Nations Phenomenon Investigations Team) also arrives in a camper tricked out with a small department store’s worth of sound equipment. Again, very little comes of any of this, which is just fine, as it allows the viewer to sink deeper into their seat of choice (or the floor) and soak in the sight of the Grauer-fish looting and consuming the contents of a drug store or a folk music interlude with verses that seem to multiply with cellular rapidity. Eventually, the whole affair comes to naught, as it seemed destined to do from its first frame: the Grauer-fish, bloodied but unbowed, stumbled into the Florida surf, still spritzing as he plunges beneath the waves. The female half of the INPIT team follows him in – to fulfill his propagation dreams? To drown herself? Who can tell? The waves roll on and on, and the fish groans and bubbles boil on the soundtrack. Why ruin the dream?

It can be safely said that if, after completing WAVELENGTH (1967), Michael Snow had been tapped to direct for AIP, the end result might have resembled ZAAT. The avant-garde suggestion carries further than a simple joke, though; at times, ZAAT resembles the ‘60s and ‘70s output of George and Mike Kuchar, especially in its emphasis on the grandiosity of Grauer’s scheme and the banality in which it’s executed. There’s a circumlocutory but nonetheless connective line between the Kuchar’s threadbare paeans to Hollywood, and their own miserable, failing attempts to reproduce it in their parents’ Brooklyn apartment, and Barton’s film, which possesses the blueprints for a classic monster movie, but has neither the time nor energy nor feet of film to properly carry them out. Like the Kuchars’ enthusiastic but hapless heroes, Grauer has the hot-boiling desire to take over the world and repair his reputation, but absolutely no means to do so – he’s a pasty-faced, shuffling Timothy Carey lookalike in a janitor’s outfit (over two pairs of underwear) living in a leaf-strewn bunker filled with, to put it plainly, crap. The sluggishness with which he executes his Zaat attack is exactly how one might expect a nebbish of his vintage to do – it takes him almost 20 minutes to simply get out of his laboratory, much less begin to carry out his pan. The effect of covering such ineffectual puttering for so long is nothing short of narcotizing, but the familiarity of the cinematic tropes – scientific gewgaws? Check. Rubber monster suit? Check. Panicked citizenry? Check — that lay limply throughout the movie keep the viewer in a state of anticipatory stasis. Maybe something will happen that will resemble a movie. Or maybe it won’t. Either way, ZAAT is a deadweight dream, a Lovely Sort of Dopiness that plops itself on one’s plate and simply asks to be consumed without judgement. It’s the least one can do.

Cultra’s DVD/Blu-ray presentation is remarkably high-wattage for such a low intensity feature. Director Barton, an ornery Galloway and writer Ron Kivett are featured on a commentary track that details the film’s highs and lows (more of the latter than the former), while the late Popwell is interviewed on a Morning Zoo-style radio show from Florida. Original trailers and TV spots are included, as well as a smattering of outtakes and a photo gallery distinguished by the film’s numerous title changes and promotional campaigns, not the least of which had Popwell (or another unlucky soul) caged in the monster suit outside a theater before a gawking throng of onlookers.

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0 Response ZZZZAAT: On the Somnambulistic Pleasures of the Atomic Monster Catfish
Posted By JeffH : March 9, 2012 5:06 am

I gotta see this one-sounds like a frackin’ great movie to invite friends over for your own pseudo-MST3K party. Hokey smoke-this sounds incredible!

Posted By JeffH : March 9, 2012 5:06 am

I gotta see this one-sounds like a frackin’ great movie to invite friends over for your own pseudo-MST3K party. Hokey smoke-this sounds incredible!

Posted By Shuvcat : March 9, 2012 8:12 am

It was actually featured on MST3K already.

Posted By Shuvcat : March 9, 2012 8:12 am

It was actually featured on MST3K already.

Posted By swac : March 9, 2012 12:49 pm

There used to be a post-punk band locally (okay, Truro, NS, which is close enough) called ZAAT. Not sure where they got a chance to see this though.

Here’s their kind of annoying website (I’m even in one of the pictures of a show at a Truro youth club, about half-way down where the guitarist is leaning over the crowd and screaming his head off): http://www.freewebs.com/zaat/

Posted By swac : March 9, 2012 12:49 pm

There used to be a post-punk band locally (okay, Truro, NS, which is close enough) called ZAAT. Not sure where they got a chance to see this though.

Here’s their kind of annoying website (I’m even in one of the pictures of a show at a Truro youth club, about half-way down where the guitarist is leaning over the crowd and screaming his head off): http://www.freewebs.com/zaat/

Posted By Juana Maria : March 9, 2012 3:21 pm

Swac: You’re right it is a kinda annoying website! It looks like little kids threw it together and I really mean that. It makes me feel old commenting like that. I too have watched MST3K, I don’t remember the episode when they featrured this gem, but I can be sure my brother and his best friend did!! They got me into it too. My family narrates lousy movies with silly remarks and say:”We’re just like those robots on that show!” HAHA!! Fond memories. This movie looks like a hybrid of “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Fly”(any version). How about a write up on the movie,”Sssssss” starring Strother Martin & Dirk Benedict. I saw that only once on Syfy(before the change in spelling) years ago. It was unforgettable. There is another spooky movie starring of all people Hugh Grant:”the Lair of the White Worm”, I remember it being very scary, but I can’t be too sure how scared of it I would be now that I’m older.

Posted By Juana Maria : March 9, 2012 3:21 pm

Swac: You’re right it is a kinda annoying website! It looks like little kids threw it together and I really mean that. It makes me feel old commenting like that. I too have watched MST3K, I don’t remember the episode when they featrured this gem, but I can be sure my brother and his best friend did!! They got me into it too. My family narrates lousy movies with silly remarks and say:”We’re just like those robots on that show!” HAHA!! Fond memories. This movie looks like a hybrid of “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Fly”(any version). How about a write up on the movie,”Sssssss” starring Strother Martin & Dirk Benedict. I saw that only once on Syfy(before the change in spelling) years ago. It was unforgettable. There is another spooky movie starring of all people Hugh Grant:”the Lair of the White Worm”, I remember it being very scary, but I can’t be too sure how scared of it I would be now that I’m older.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 9, 2012 8:45 pm

Yes! Zaat! That movie is a local legend ’round these here parts. A good portion of it was shot right here in Jacksonville, Florida.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 9, 2012 8:45 pm

Yes! Zaat! That movie is a local legend ’round these here parts. A good portion of it was shot right here in Jacksonville, Florida.

Posted By tdraicer : March 9, 2012 11:39 pm

The real question: should one have one’s atomic monster catfish blackened or fried?

Posted By tdraicer : March 9, 2012 11:39 pm

The real question: should one have one’s atomic monster catfish blackened or fried?

Posted By dukeroberts : March 10, 2012 12:48 am

Definitely fried, with hushpuppies and grits on the side.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 10, 2012 12:48 am

Definitely fried, with hushpuppies and grits on the side.

Posted By Tom S : March 10, 2012 1:00 am

I’m planning reveeeeenge on my friends

Posted By Tom S : March 10, 2012 1:00 am

I’m planning reveeeeenge on my friends

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 10, 2012 3:36 pm

I saw this a couple years ago on TCM Underground. It was sooo bad I couldn’t finish it. Why does this get Blu Ray dvd treatment and real movie gems are still awaiting such treatment?

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 10, 2012 3:36 pm

I saw this a couple years ago on TCM Underground. It was sooo bad I couldn’t finish it. Why does this get Blu Ray dvd treatment and real movie gems are still awaiting such treatment?

Posted By Eric H. : March 10, 2012 5:16 pm

The part of the this film I get the most enjoyment out of is that the doctor’s (who is a Nazi, was that mentioned here?) plan is for either universal or galactic domination, I can’t remember which. Rather amibitious either way!
I have to differ with some commenters who say this is a waste of a blu-ray release. I have serious admiration for labels that risk effort and money on this sort of film. Shout! Factory in particular I am in awe of for their Roger Corman Presents series. No film deserves to be lost.

Posted By Eric H. : March 10, 2012 5:16 pm

The part of the this film I get the most enjoyment out of is that the doctor’s (who is a Nazi, was that mentioned here?) plan is for either universal or galactic domination, I can’t remember which. Rather amibitious either way!
I have to differ with some commenters who say this is a waste of a blu-ray release. I have serious admiration for labels that risk effort and money on this sort of film. Shout! Factory in particular I am in awe of for their Roger Corman Presents series. No film deserves to be lost.

Posted By odger reebert : March 10, 2012 10:57 pm

* I recently spent a few months in Mexico & you often see TV commercials for an o-t-c drug called “ZAAT”, which stuck in my memory because it’s such a bizarre name for a pharmaceutical … (Apparently it’s the Mexican equivalent of NoDoz caffeine …) … The word sure doesn’t sound Spanish so who knows, now I’m thinking maybe a scientist down there saw the film & thought “Aha! That must be how the monster got so peppy!!” … Or something like that …

Posted By odger reebert : March 10, 2012 10:57 pm

* I recently spent a few months in Mexico & you often see TV commercials for an o-t-c drug called “ZAAT”, which stuck in my memory because it’s such a bizarre name for a pharmaceutical … (Apparently it’s the Mexican equivalent of NoDoz caffeine …) … The word sure doesn’t sound Spanish so who knows, now I’m thinking maybe a scientist down there saw the film & thought “Aha! That must be how the monster got so peppy!!” … Or something like that …

Posted By Paul Gaita : March 10, 2012 11:10 pm

@Odger: The last word I would use to describe the Zaat monster would be peppy.

Posted By Paul Gaita : March 10, 2012 11:10 pm

@Odger: The last word I would use to describe the Zaat monster would be peppy.

Posted By oosik75 : March 11, 2012 11:39 pm

Went through some old issues of “American Cinematographer” from 1972 awhile back and one of them had an article about the making of “ZAAT”. Was taken aback as to why they would feature an obvious loser destined for the drive-in graveyard in an otherwise top-grade trade publication.

Posted By oosik75 : March 11, 2012 11:39 pm

Went through some old issues of “American Cinematographer” from 1972 awhile back and one of them had an article about the making of “ZAAT”. Was taken aback as to why they would feature an obvious loser destined for the drive-in graveyard in an otherwise top-grade trade publication.

Posted By ED Tucker : March 13, 2012 2:16 pm

The DVD / Blu-Ray combo pack of this film is something fans have been waiting for for years and I highly recommend the limited edition version available from http://www.zaatmovie.com which includes an autographed photo. American Cinematographer featured ZAAT back in the 70′s as part of a special issue on the Florida film scene at the time. The movie utilized a number of pretty well known technical people from the day and Barton Films was already well known in the industry for producing high quality industrial films. That particular issue is sought after among fans and can usually command a few $$$$ on eBay.

Posted By ED Tucker : March 13, 2012 2:16 pm

The DVD / Blu-Ray combo pack of this film is something fans have been waiting for for years and I highly recommend the limited edition version available from http://www.zaatmovie.com which includes an autographed photo. American Cinematographer featured ZAAT back in the 70′s as part of a special issue on the Florida film scene at the time. The movie utilized a number of pretty well known technical people from the day and Barton Films was already well known in the industry for producing high quality industrial films. That particular issue is sought after among fans and can usually command a few $$$$ on eBay.

Posted By Paul Gaita : March 14, 2012 7:13 pm

Thanks for the link, ED, and nice work on that commentary.

Posted By Paul Gaita : March 14, 2012 7:13 pm

Thanks for the link, ED, and nice work on that commentary.

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