This article interprets the obsessive procedural narrative of Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) as a self-reflexive allegory for the transition from celluloid to digital cinema in 21st century Hollywood. Drawing on Garrett Stewart’s interpretative method of ‘narratography,’ it argues that the film’s hybrid cinematography (which was shot in digital but subsequently printed on 35mm film) is crucial to understanding its unresolved, paranoid narrative. The dead-end investigations of its three main characters seek to identify the serial killer through a disparate set of media traces including cryptograms, voice recording and handwriting. Reading the Zodiac killer as a media artefact, the absent core of his ‘real’ identity is seen as an allegorical figure for the indexical aspect of the photographic image, accompanying its symbolic and imaginary meanings. I contend that the film’s historical and political contents, broadly linking post-sixties turmoil to the cynical fatalism of the Bush II-era, are underscored by a self-conscious anxiety regarding the erasure of the filmic index within digital cinema.

With its dead-end investigations and painstaking recreation of Northern California through the late 1960s and ’70s, Zodiac (2007) enacts a complex remediation of the cinematic forms of the New Hollywood period.1 Purportedly drawing on forensic facts, the film’s narrative is adapted from two non-fiction bestsellers by Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film), a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle during the notorious “Zodiac Killer” murders. The ultimately self-destructive pursuit of the mysterious Zodiac by Graysmith, as well as newspaper crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and San Francisco detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), is assiduously depicted through the ’70s and beyond. The post-1960s moment comes to be allegorised by the film’s unresolved procedural investigations as a process of paranoid meaning construction. Reverberations of the Civil Rights Movement, counter-cultural dissent and the Vietnam War, which are evoked through the film’s soundtrack consisting of popular music from the period, forms a backdrop for Graysmith’s fraying psychic state. His obsessive quest to “know” the real Zodiac symbolises a general cultural anxiety pertaining to an inability to establish a coherent historical narrative. In keeping with the common postmodern trope, such closure is perennially frustrated and the Zodiac Killer case remains open and active to this day for police departments in San Francisco and the Vallejo, Napa and Solano Counties.

Fincher’s decision to shoot Zodiac with a Viper filmstream camera makes for an apposite match between the film’s material form and its narrative.2 The efforts to represent the 1970s through digital code is comparable to the efforts of the detectives to identify the killer from an assortment of evidentiary media. The “real” Zodiac killer is the official suspect for five murders and two attempted murders, and he claimed responsibility for these crimes and dozens more in a series of cryptic letters sent to the local Bay Area newspapers: the Vallejo Times Herald, the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle. The letters threatened the indiscriminate murder of more citizens unless the papers printed a set of accompanying ciphers containing further hidden messages. Publication of these ciphers immediately elevated the serial killer’s notoriety in the public consciousness: the Zodiac killer identity was always a media product. The broad geographical spread of his murders, which took place in areas ranging all across Northern California, were exceeded by the even wider circulation of his name in mass media, particularly in newspapers and television. Given the anxious public interest generated by the serial killer spectacle, its recurring appearance in popular culture was inevitable. 1971 saw the release of both the low-budget exploitation film The Zodiac Killer and the major Hollywood production Dirty Harry (featuring a fictionalised Zodiac murderer), and the killer persists as an inspiration for films, pop songs, crime television and true crime writing up to the present day. As recently as 2014, a true crime biography claimed to know the “real” Zodiac killer.

Fincher’s vision of the killer and his milieu is heavily indebted not only to an idea of the ’70s drawn from period styles and popular music, but also a certain cinematographic idea of the era associated with “New Hollywood” cinema. As a long procedural crime drama, Zodiac is an anomalous entry in his oeuvre, eschewing the narrative fireworks of Gone Girl (2014) or Fight Club (1999), or even the lurid Gothicism of Fincher’s earlier breakthrough detective film, Se7en (1995). Zodiac’s pervasive sense of fatalism and disillusionment is shared with many of the conspiratorial and detective films of 1970s American cinema. All the President’s Men (1975), in particular, is an ur-text, with its visual allusions to the newspaper office (both feature scenes set in the San Francisco Chronicle) and its procedural narrative revealed in pieces of information gradually disseminated through audio tape, television and newsprint.



The San Francisco Chronicle offices, as depicted in All the Presidents Men (top) and Zodiac (below).

However, a more thorough account of the historic resonance between the two films is locatable at the more basic material level of their respective cinematography. Although Zodiac was shot by Harris Savides with a digital camera, it attempts to recreate the naturalistic visual tones and contrast range of Gordon Willis’ cinematography in All the President’s Men. In its particular cinematographic fascination with reconstructing the appearance of analogue film images using digital means, Zodiac explicitly imitates the naturalistic images pioneered within New Hollywood, testament to a greater anxiety regarding the end of cinema as a photographic art. As one of the first films shot in high-definition digital video, Zodiac represents a moment of transition, in which the digital video look is not only carefully erased from the film’s visual texture, but its digitally photographed, edited and enhanced images are reprinted onto 35mm prints for exhibition. The decision to do this leaves a distinct historical marker on the film as the product of a brief period where a mixture of digital and analogue means and methods were involved in the shooting, editing, distribution and exhibition of features film. The historical drift depicted in Zodiac corresponds to this uncanny cinematography, a transitional hybrid of a film whose digital images go to painstaking lengths to conceal their own immateriality.

Given the near coterminous history of serial killers and the cinema, the murderous figure makes for an exemplary subject for thinking through the implications of the material transition from film to digital cinema.3 From one of its earliest instantiations, Jack the Ripper, the serial killer has been characterised by an interpenetration of “private bodies and public media.”4 Jack’s motiveless crimes, and the “endless rituals of noncomprehension” surrounding the murders, are closely analogous to the Zodiac killer.5 In both cases, the killers sent multiple non-authenticated letters to the press, creating a mass public identity while still maintaining an essential anonymity. The consonance of “letters and bodies, word counts and body counts” is central to the modern phenomenon of serial murder and this attention to written media is crucial to the Zodiac narrative.6 Serial patterns recur across multiple material substances: the sequentiality of the murders, the repetition of the copycat killer ritual and the mass production of the newspaper press. In addition, the cinematic apparatus itself emerged from and functions through serial production. Friedrich Kittler argues that Samuel Colt’s invention of the revolver pistol is a crucial part of the “prehistory of film”, as its rotating mechanism is used as part of the cinematograph apparatus for the serial movement of photograms. 7 The remediation of the photograph within cinema, a serial flow of photograms to produce the illusion of movement, is marked by its uncanny coincidence of stillness and movement. With digital imaging this movement is instead instantiated by a flux of pixel change within the frame rather than the serial movement across still photograms. If in the former, featuring the repressed still photogram with its Bazinian “mummified” time, there is a persistent reminder of death and absence, then the digital flux of Zodiac can be seen as an appropriate (im)material base for its narrative, with its loose ends which resist closure and mysteries which persist like the undead.

The significance of the photographic ontology famously outlined by Bazin is usefully expanded upon for narrative interpretation by Fredric Jameson, in his essay on the medial conspiracy films of the 1970s. He contends that “whenever other media appear within film, their deeper function is to set off and demonstrate the latter’s ontological primacy.”8 Writing in reference to All the President’s Men, he notes the intentional use of outdated technology in order to represent the present: the detection process is undertaken entirely through typewritten text and telephone conversations, leaving out computerised and televisual technology that was available in the period. It is worth reconsidering Jameson’s hypothesis in a period of post-celluloid cinema, where the ontological premises of the indexical, photographic image have been supplanted by the code-based digital image. In Zodiac, the detection also progresses through a network of information restricted by outdated technology. The murders take place over multiple jurisdictional boundaries and law officials from each county are unable to co-operate via electronic relay. The Vallejo police do not have a fax machine, making it necessary for evidence to be exchanged via the same traditional relay medium used by the killer: the postal system. The plot is bound by automated and machinic technology from an older discourse network, eschewing the contemporary electronic media available during the 1970s. Where All the President’s Men is comprised of old media with the consequence of valorising cinema’s representational superiority to newsprint and television, the entirely digital form of Zodiac depicts a simulation not only of the older film form, but a whole body of evidence comprised of older, separable media: the letters, photographs and recorded voices which share the same analogue characteristics as the film-based cinema. However, rather than demonstrating primacy this depiction of other media signals an ontological ambivalence in Zodiac, which on the one hand is a bravado demonstration of the capabilities of the emergent digital technology but which also harbours a nostalgia for the appearance of an older, analogue film image.

The nostalgic recreation of ’70s images should be understood as more than mere retro fetishism, but a crucial formal determinant of the film’s narrative. Garrett Stewart’s method of “narratographical” reading focuses on interpreting eruptions and moments within film narratives where the cinema’s base material, the photogram, is brought into visibility or consciousness. Stewart also updates Jameson’s arguments in his account of the significance of cinematic remediation for recent “post-filmic” cinema. He describes a common trope among virtual thrillers from the past decade of the “ontological Gothic”, which represent a mutation from the traditional syndrome of paranoia plots from 1970s thrillers. The older paranoia concerning the recognition of “a former modernist totality to a closed system of unseen surveillance and control” has transferred to a general paranoiac panic about narrative causality.9 In the ontological gothic, exemplified by films such as The Sixth Sense (1999) and Vanilla Sky (2001), the film endings completely negate the prior narratives, the real paranoia coming from the fear that “there’s never been anything really there.”10 Jameson’s concern about the reifying effects that continual generic iterations of conspiracy narrative have on the textual program of cognitive mapping, the attempt to think through and figure the unrepresentable relations of capital in the world system, is confirmed in Stewart’s assessment. The “continuous equivocation of the real” in this digital cinematic trend reiterates the conception of “nothing” being there, playing out and reinforcing a disengagement with political and economic realities.11 In this generic allegory, film narrative reflects only upon its material form. The “realness” or fixity of the movie world is undermined by its narratives in a self-reflexive gesture to the opportunities available to a post-filmic cinema, which is unhindered by the indexical relation between a present world and the photograph. Where a movie such as Inception (2010) deploys digital effects to create a spectacle of this ontological fluidity, Zodiac represents a more ambivalent attitude to the historical change, at once wary of its characters’ obsessive searches for an unmediated truth, yet simultaneously nostalgic in its reverential homage to celluloid cinema.

Zodiac exhibits nostalgia from the opening movements: a retro style Warner Brothers logo is backed by the opening chords of Three Dog Night’s “Easy To Be Hard”. After a simple black-and-white title card explaining, “What follows is based on actual case files”, the film begins with a sweeping establishing shot of the Vallejo County at night, a bridge spanning the bay water with numerous vehicles moving in and out of a suburb and the night sky filled with computer-generated fireworks. The backward track of this shot segues into an eerily smooth tracking shot of a suburban street from inside a gliding automobile, framed by the car window. A subtitle appears after a few houses: “July 4, 1969 – Vallejo, CA”. Even before this textual marker, the period vehicles, clothing and houses lining the street already cue the audience to the historical period. The professed actuality signalled in the title card is immediately evident in the careful detail of the period’s visual signatures, a commitment to historical verisimilitude. However, the street itself is constructed entirely through CGI.12 Special digital effects here aren’t produced for spectacle but for a detailed historic representation that could just as easily be achieved with traditional film sets. The digital cinematography seeks to seamlessly efface itself in the task of producing a convincing depiction of a bygone era.

The vehicle pulls up to a standard suburban house as a young man closes its door and proceeds to walk toward the car window. A reverse-shot cut reveals that the driver is a young woman and not a lurking menace, as the previous shot with its undisclosed viewpoint from within the space of the cruising vehicle would suggest. The young couple drive past a crowded soda bar before stopping in a quiet carpark out of town, obviously a “make-out point”, where they are followed by a mysterious vehicle that parks ominously behind them. With shocking immediacy, a dark figure boldly emerges, shoots them both multiple times and leaves. This murder sequence of Darlene Ferrin that opens the film is constructed from numerous details taken from the actual case files, true to the title card’s promise – right down to the victim’s dress pattern, the multiple layers of clothing worn by one victim which is mentioned in dialogue reimagined for the film, and the positioning of the vehicles and murder victims. The car park setting was a painstaking digital reconstruction of the historic murder site, as the real world location had long since been built over.

Within this essentially computerised simulation of the crimes there is an embedded fragment of footage filmed in traditional high-speed film-stock. In the depiction of the murder itself, the “digital naturalism” gives way to a shot of conventionally aestheticised violence. First, a bullet travels through Mike Mageau’s neck, snapping his head back with blood spray, then another shears through the outstretched arms of Darlene as blood specks her face and exiting bullets leave holes in the car door. As a set of violent images filmed with traditional celluloid, the sequence follows familiar conventions in filmic violence, where slow-motion so frequently serves to punctuate the violent act within the narrative. For this particular flourish, Fincher returns to a notably old special effect, slow motion, rather than the digital varieties of “bullet time” created through computerised images.13 Although the frames have been digitally effected, the blood spray has been added in post-production (no squibs were used). This recourse to film for slow motion violence is the only instance of the traditional film form in an otherwise totally digital product: in a sequence where the digital is used to resemble the filmic, at the moment of climactic violence the digital is interrupted by an actual photographic image. The token film fragment introduces an allegorical significance to the opening death scene, inviting reflection upon its medial conditions.14 By marking the first murder with this material exception, solving the case becomes synonymous with a formal reconciliation between the analogue and digital materials of the film’s construction.

For the second murder sequence, slow motion is eschewed entirely for a startlingly different effect. The stabbing of Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Shepherd takes place in the day, in a valley near a lake and away from the confines of a car. Where the other two murders are sequences of realism punctuated by scenes of graphic, heavily aestheticised violence, the Lake Berryessa scene follows through on its principles that the real, or its photographic token, can be indistinguishably simulated within the digital. Like the first murder sequence, the audience’s gaze occupies an uncomfortable relation to the murder victims. In a shot which repeats the framing of the couple in the opening murder scene, from in the car looking back at an unknown figure, the woman lies down and stares at a point in a distant space beyond the camera. This momentary position is unnerving for the spectator, not yet drawn into the searching, vulnerable gaze of the imminent victim, nor able to fully cognize the killer’s identity or location, which is somewhere behind the spectator’s viewpoint. When the character’s point-of-view shot does emerge, the glimpse of the black-clad killer is only partial, disappearing down a ridge before suddenly appearing in the couple’s vicinity. The bargaining and tying up of the victims proceeds unchecked to their stabbing, all the more horrifying for its unremitting commitment to a naturalist aesthetic and logic. This time there is no punctuation of the violent moment, no musical soundtrack or slow motion.



The uncanny backwards gaze at the Zodiac killer.

The action unfolds entirely within the digital naturalism rather than reverting to the slow motion, photographic depiction of the traumatic moment. The clear, bright lighting for the scene is a notable point of contrast between this murder sequence and the darkly lit executions placed either side of it in the narrative. Rather, the bright valley places crucial visual emphasis on the great spread of the Californian geographical setting. In the first sequence we see the sprawling Northern California counties connected by long freeways, cars moving from these intermittent landscapes into the suburban streets and finally to the isolated car park. For this Lake Berryessa sequence the murder takes place outside the automotive topos, moving off road and away from the geometrical strictures of suburban streets and diner car parks depicted in the opening. The small ridge where the couple lie together is curiously truncated from the greater valley and highway. The spatial contouring provides a ground for the uncanny trick effect of the Zodiac killer’s “jump cut” approach to the victims. At first he is standing too far away to be identified correctly, and then suddenly he is all too close to escape from. The intermediary space is occluded by the severe dip between the hill and the highway. Even though the murder takes place in the open air, the killer takes time to scrawl his provocation to police and the media on the side of the victim’s car door. The collusion of public and private spaces that Mark Seltzer identifies as a central nexus in the production of serial killing is replicated in the symbolic and spatial function of the automobile, which is prominent in all three of the murders depicted in the film. Additionally, the sprawling locations involved in the murders, which traverses multiple Northern Californian counties and through urban, suburban and rural spaces, correlates to the wide sprawl of information relating to the Zodiac case and its slow circulation through mid-twentieth century technology.


The San Francisco streets constructed through CGI.

Unlike the first two sequences, the Stine murder takes place in the thick of San Francisco’s urban centre. The topographical view of the city tracks a single vehicle through its rectilinear geography, a visual perspective which relies on anachronistic twenty-first century satellite technology: images which have become familiar in techno thrillers of the past decade. The vehicle makes a turn around the corner, and instead of accurately imitating the tracking of a satellite broadcast, the camera swivels in an identical and uncanny movement, keeping an unnerving synchrony with the vehicle. The car remains in the same position relative to the frame, jarring the audience out of the familiarity of the satellite viewpoint and reminding us that we are actually watching an artificially naturalised image of the past, where the camera can place the viewer anywhere in its reconstructed space. A similar effect occurs in a later shot – a swivel from the same overhead viewpoint over the Golden Gate Bridge that would be impossible to capture with an actual camera. Another sequence depicting the long passing of time as conveyed by the construction of the TransAmerica Pyramid in time-lapse is an even more elaborate effect. This entirely digital shot imitates a kind of naturalism achieved by actual time-lapse photography, with the skyline modulating from sunshine to cloud, and from day to night. However, the speed of the building production is asynchronous with the speed of weather change. Its effect is impressionistic, as months of construction in the foreground are imposed over a few days’ changes in weather patterns in the background. These small scenes or parts exemplify the unreconciled dualism within the digital naturalism that the hybrid cinematography is producing for the film as a whole, where nature can be reproduced realistically as a visual effect rather than ontologically redeemed by the indexical signature of the photochemical image.


The digital time-lapse depicting the construction of the TransAmerica Pyramid.

The fixation on a missing indexical image that informs the cinematography of Zodiac also motivates the film’s narrative, where the Zodiac killer himself is an absent core. Without the legal and veridical confirmation of forensic evidence, the kind of indexical physicality that grounds the identity of the Zodiac as a real person, his presence in the film for other characters is entirely an assembly of media traces. This absent core in the narrative is a structural analogy to the film’s material conditions, an anxious register of the absent film photogram within the post-filmic, digital cinema. The scenes which feature actual encounters with the killer are presented as obscure figurations of the older cinematographic image, an effect of light moving through the background. In the two crime sequences where his body appears within frame it is as a figure of darkness. In the first instance he emerges from the night as a shadowy outline of a body, coming to visibility as the light beam from a torch and then the burst of an extended firearm. In the second instance, the black-clad body contrasts boldly against the extremely bright, light-filled day in Lake Berryessa. It is alluding to the play of light, the work of cinematography as the trace of light which bounces off the object-world and is emulsified in the photographic object: the physicality which is absent from the film’s encoded visuals.15



Zodiac figured as light contrast.

The absent photogram is self-consciously presented as a structural gap in the film narrative where the investigation is hampered by a lack of photographic evidence. In Friedrich Kittler’s conception of the twentieth century discourse network, the three primary separate media have fundamental properties which correspond to Lacan’s three registers: sound (the real), film (the imaginary) and writing (the symbolic).16 With this schema in mind, highlighting how the film parses the case’s evidence through these different kinds of media shows how questions of ontological primacy are negotiated within the film’s narrative. With the absence or unreliability of first-hand witnesses and only partial DNA records, the case’s main leads become an exercise in reading or decoding the letters sent to the San Francisco newspapers. However, prior to any denotative or connotative meanings found in the text, or of any figurative importance read from the killer’s evocation of the idea of “zodiac”, the detectives are most interested in the very shape of the signifiers. The written evidence – letters read as images – becomes a surrogate for the lack of visual or sonic evidence. In the same way that the digital images are themselves formed and imagined in response to the disappearing real implied by the photographic image, the detectives are searching for the real beneath the confusing symbolic (cryptograms) and imaginary (psychologising narratives) leads produced by his letters. By subordinating these other levels of meaning to the purely indexical value of the handwriting, the investigation confirms the primacy of the photograph over the symbolic function of the written word.

The tension between the written word and the image also features in a sequence late in the film, in which Robert Graysmith follows Bob Vaughn, an organ accompanist for a local cinema, to his remote home with the hope of identifying Rick Marshall, a former projectionist and co-worker of Vaughn’s, as the killer. In a film attentive to the interrelation between every medium, this particular sequence constitutes the most self-conscious meditation on the traditionally filmic material base of cinema as not only a nostalgic, fetishistic token of the past, but one which has begun to disappear entirely from the present. The sequence distinguishes itself with an immediate tonal shift from the sober pace of the procedural to the heightened tension of a conventional thriller. The night scene features heavy rain as Graysmith arranges a meeting spot in front of a retro movie theatre before following Vaughn’s back to his suburban home. Already the dramatic rainfall and mysterious scenario suggests a turn to Hollywood tropes typical of the genre films that Vaughn’s retro cinema would replay. The walls of Vaughn’s old house are adorned with posters of classic Hollywood films – including Key Largo (1948) and Conquest (1937) – and on the way to the kitchen Graysmith is seen glancing at a pile of old film reels accumulating dust on a shelf. He asks Vaughn about The Most Dangerous Game (1934), a film which has already functioned as a clue for the investigation based on an allusion in the Zodiac’s first encrypted message to the press, referring to humans as “the most dangerous game of all”.

Moving down to the house’s basement to verify the playing date for the film, Graysmith stops and remarks ominously, “Not many people in California have basements.” The classic Gothic topos of the basement, filled here with old boxes of film canisters in a kind of graveyard for the celluloid film, is a vertical, subterranean space unlike the sprawling, open Californian geographical spread of the Zodiac case.17 However, cinematic signs of the Zodiac are quickly forthcoming. Firstly, in conversation with the film buff, Graysmith notes the shared initial between the Zodiac killer and Count Zaroff from Dangerous Game. Then, as Vaughn unravels a strip of celluloid for examination, the close-up highlights the encrypted presence of Zodiac’s visual signature in all celluloid prints, as the intersecting cross and circle of the film’s leader. Hoping to match the handwriting on old promotional posters from the movie theatre to a piece of physical evidence backfires on Graysmith, as Vaughn reveals that he, and not the suspect Rick Marshall, wrote them. In a sudden panic, the detective flees the distinctly cinephilic scene, ending his attempts to identify the Zodiac through this particular instance of old writing. The celluloid cinema is reduced to its bare materiality in this graveyard, as an old sign writing medium that is lost from its historic referent. Unable to assist with solving the Zodiac puzzle, the celluloid reels remain only as pieces of pastiche or nostalgic collection for the obsessive cinephile.



The encrypted presence of Zodiac’s visual signature on an old celluloid print.

Given that the real zodiac killer can only be known as a set of media artefacts or traces without a conviction, the two final scenes of the film conclude the narrative by way of an imaginary certification in lieu of real, forensic proof. Graysmith’s certainty that the Zodiac is in fact Arthur Leigh Alan, based on convincing circumstantial evidence, leads him to meet the suspect in person. He is found working in a hardware store and the two exchange eye contact. It is a satisfactory means of closure for Graysmith, who earlier confesses that he must “know” – to “look him in the eye and know that it’s him.” The epistemological certainty of an unmediated gaze is a logical endpoint for an investigation comprised of a multitude of mediated, contradictory evidence. Graysmith’s trail begins with a letter and encrypted message and ends with an intuitive visual identification of the killer. The subsequent scene seems to confirm his belief. It cuts forward in time to the late 1980s, where new detectives show a lineup to one of the surviving victims, who positively identifies Leigh as the killer from a picture. Graysmith’s imaginary conclusion is backed up by an identification based on photographic likeness.

However, in a final twist, this narrative conclusion is sharply discredited by the closing title card, a bookend to the film’s opening image. This informational frame, in keeping with case files, informs us that forensic evidence based on prints taken from the Stine murder scene disproves that Leigh is the Zodiac. In this concluding moment, the film resembles the “ontological Gothic” described by Stewart, where an anxiety regarding narrative certainty is expressed in such twist endings which radically undermine a film’s preceding narrative: Graysmith’s account of the Zodiac killings is “objectively” false. The ending of Zodiac can only suspend an unbridgeable disconnect between the imaginary and real registers of its historic narrative. This unresolved relation between the narrative and the regime of information produced by the media comprising the Zodiac crimes is paralleled by film’s cinematography. With its digital naturalist aesthetic, Zodiac creates imaginary, created approximations of an absent real.

By resisting narrative closure, the unsolved Zodiac crimes come to stand in for the general epistemological uncertainty accompanying the radical expansion of media in the post-1960s decades. Reading Zodiac “narratographically” reveals a great ambivalence resonating through the film’s narrative and materiality. It is at once anxious concerning the loss of indexicality with the passing of celluloid, while at the same time obviously animated by the capabilities of code to remediate older cinematic visions. The digital cinema in one of its earliest inceptions offers us a curious hybrid form of historicist imagery, enacting an open, transitional process of remediating its analogue past.

This article has been peer-reviewed.



  1. This term is most famously theorised in Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999). In this essay I won’t be employing their ideas of immediacy and hypermediacy, although the self-effacing dynamic of the cinematography under discussion could be readily interpreted through this optic. The connotation of “remedying” formerly bad media is also pertinent to the traumatic nature of the Zodiac narrative.
  2. David A. Williams, “Cold Case File,” American Cinematographer 88:4 (April 2007), www.theasc.com/ac_magazine/April2007/Zodiac/page1.php
  3. A survey of other prominent serial killer/police procedural films, which would include M (1931) and Memories of Murder (2003), suggests the genre is particularly well-equipped to explore the relations between informational flow, media and national allegory.
  4. Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 9.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures, trans. Anthony Enns (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), pp. 145–6.
  8. Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p. 84.
  9. Garrett Stewart, Framed Time: Toward A Postfilmic Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007), p. 102.
  10. Ibid., p. 145.
  11. Ibid.
  12. These elaborate visual effects are explained in “The Visual Effects of Zodiac” on Zodiac: The Director’s Cut, Blu-Ray, Paramount Home Entertainment, 2009.
  13. At this point the soundtrack amplifies the heavy fuzz and reverb of Donovan’s psychedelic-pop hit, “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, intensifying the menacing tone of the sequence. In broadly figurative terms, its aural evocation of a threatening underside to the hippy culture is a useful shorthand for the “end of the ’60s” in popular memory.
  14. Although beyond the scope of discussion here, its allegorical referent also extends to a large range of intertextual connections to New Hollywood films where climactic dramatic moments were punctuated by slow motion shootings (such as most of Sam Peckinpah’s work, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and The Parallax View), often involving automobiles (for example Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and Easy Rider). Laura Mulvey notes the prominent cinematic sub-genre of doomed couples, in which “the dying together motif is realised particularly appropriately through the motorcar that mobilises and harnesses the death drive.” Laura Mulvey, Death 24x A Second (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 77.
  15. The use of digital cameras to shoot the night in a naturalistic way produces its own textural qualities. While emulating an idea of the 1970s taken from film images, the night scenes do not quite resemble the imperfect, grainy, underexposed images of prominent 1970s cinematographers such as Gordon Willis’ dark scenes in Godfather II and All the President’s Men. Rather, Harris Savides’s digital cinematography in Zodiac “plumbs the murk… extracting a {high} level of detail and dim nuance…Street- and porch-lights are on, yet not blown out, glowing softly and casting subtle, textured shadows… the image looks ineffably foreign…” These unique cinematographic effects in Zodiac are explored in James Crawford, “Dark Matter: James Crawford on David Fincher’s Zodiac,Reverse Shot (26 April 2008), http://reverseshot.org/symposiums/entry/69/david_fincher
  16. Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer with Chris Cullens (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), and Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Standford: Stanford University Press, 1999).
  17. The convergence of the serial killer and the cinematic basement also hanging over this scene is the famous reveal of Norman Bates’s decomposed mother in Psycho (1960).

About The Author

Sam Dickson recently completed a PhD in English at the University of Sydney with a dissertation on intermediality in American film and literature since the 1960s. His research areas include film theory, media theory and American literature. He has been a sessional tutor for undergraduate courses on film and literature at the University of Sydney.

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