Follow TV Tropes


Film / Zodiac

Go To

Melvin Belli: I believe this is a window into this man's soul. Killing is his compulsion. Even though he tries to ignore it, it drives him. It's in his blood.
Inspector David Toschi: Could be, or maybe he just likes the attention.

Zodiac is a 2007 film directed by David Fincher, based on the 1986 book of the same name by Robert Graysmith, chronicling one of the most infamous criminal cases in American history — the manhunt for the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area during the late sixties and early seventies — from the perspective of three main characters:

  • Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who becomes obsessed with the Zodiac.
  • David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a renowned San Francisco homicide detective who is put on the case indefinitely.
  • Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a Chronicle reporter on the Zodiac.

The main problem catching the killer is that none of the agencies and jurisdictions investigatingnote  have all of the same information, and often the evidence seems to contradict itself. Graysmith eventually takes it upon himself to go between them and solve the crimes.


Fincher and co. spent 18 months meticulously researching the Zodiac cases for the film, as he felt a burden of responsibility to dispel the mythical stature of the killer by separating fact from fiction, and even got the Zodiac Killer's only surviving victims as consultants for the film.

Zodiac provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adult Fear:
    • Graysmith starts out fearing for the life of his children, including pulling one off a bus after Zodiac threatens to shoot out a school bus. Later subverted when he continues his investigation despite receiving threatening calls to his house and, in a darkly humorous moment, involving his grade-school age kids in the investigation.
    • The mother and her baby hitching a ride with the Zodiac Killer and then learning who he is, and then hearing that he'll kill her after throwing her baby out a window, is deeply unsettling and indicates exactly why hitchhiking is mostly a thing of the past.
  • Advertisement:
  • Alone with the Psycho: Subverted. When Graysmith goes to interview a cinema owner, convinced that the writing on a poster is Zodiac's, linking him to one of the guy's employees... only for the owner to calmly inform Graysmith that he himself does the posters, and then offer to show him records in the basement. Nothing sinister actually comes of it, and he's never revisited as a suspect.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Robert Graysmith, who is obsessive about the Zodiac case, causing many people to think there's something... Off about him.
  • Ambiguous Situation:
    • Whether Zodiac really killed Cheri Jo Bates and tried to kill Kathleen Johns or is just taking the credit for these crimes is left uncertain, just like in real life.
    • Did Robert Graysmith really hear footsteps of someone walking around upstairs when he was in Vaughn's basement, or was his paranoia causing him to mistake the natural creaking noises of an old house for footsteps?
  • Ambiguously Evil: The two primary suspects, Bob Vaughan and Arthur Leigh Allen, are very creepy but although Graysmith believes it's Leigh, neither of them is ever officially confirmed as the Killer. The Zodiac's identity remains unknown.
  • Attention Whore: The Zodiac; he sends letters to the police and media bragging about his kills, including taking credit for murders that may not have been his. Melvin Belli and Paul Avery have shades of this too.
  • Audience Surrogate: Although he never says anything about it, Graysmith's expressions when he agrees to go with a creepy old man into his creepy old basement have "This is a terrible fucking idea" written all over it. What's the first thing he does when said old man menacingly turns off the lights in his basement, and when he unlocks the door of his house? Run for his fucking life.
  • Badass Mustache: Ken Narlow.
  • Based on a True Story: Which Fincher and company spent 18 months researching before filming a single shot.
  • Beat Panel: 1983, when Robert and Leigh meet face to face. Even though nothing is said, it's clear that both know who the other is.
  • Big Bad: The film revolves around the murders committed by the Zodiac Killer, who's heavily implied to be Arthur Leigh Allen.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While Robert gets off pretty well (you can see that he wrote a book about the Zodiac experiences on the bestseller rack in a bookstore), Paul ends up giving up the chase and dies afterward, and there is the undeniable fact that the Zodiac Killer is a Karma Houdini.
  • Bookends: The movie begins and ends with Mike Mageau and "Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan playing.
  • Bound and Gagged: Zodiac's 3rd set of victims (his second on-screen set) end up like this.
  • Break the Haughty: Paul’s involvement with the Zodiac case leads to him being left a broken man addicted to cocaine and alcohol, which is heavily implied to lead to his death in 2000.
  • Call-Back: Robert states he won't be able to stop investigating the case until he's able to look the killer in the eye. He (maybe) does just that when he meets Arthur in the hardware store at the end.
  • Cast as a Mask: The titular killer is played by 3 different actors (John Lacy, Richmond Arquette, and Bob Stephenson), while the two suspects, Bob Vaughn and Arthur Leigh Allen, are played by Charles Fleischer and John Carroll Lynch, respectively.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Robert.
  • Could Say It, But...: Toschi does this with Robert twice.
    "I can't discuss the case with you. I can't give you information, and I certainly couldn't tell you to go see Ken Narlow in Napa. N-A-R-L-O-W."
    "I can't tell you anything about that. But maybe Melvin Belli could."
  • Cowboy Cop: Subverted. Toschi is the inspiration for both Bullitt and Dirty Harry, but despite his eccentricities, he's very by-the-book.
  • Creepy Basement: Bob Vaughn's old farmhouse cellar.
    "Not many people have basements in California..."note 
  • Creepy Monotone:
    • When he's on the phone, the Zodiac himself, when he's not breathing heavily, is speaking in this.
      "Good... Bye..."
    • Bob Vaughn, too, which certainly lends to the brief assumption that he's the Zodiac. The way he asks Graysmith "Would you like to go upstairs and check?" Brrrrr.
  • Criminal Mind Games: Oh, boy. The letters, the code, the stained shirt...
  • Da Chief: Jack Mulanax, Vallejo PD; Ken Narlow, the Napa County Sheriff.
  • Dated History: Some things in the film have been proven incorrect, as new evidence has came to light in the years since the film's release. For example, in the film, the Zodiac Killer is shown sitting in the backseat of the cab before killing Paul Stine, while in real life, there was evidence that he actually sat in the passenger seat next to Stine. Also, Arthur Leigh Allen hasn't been suspected of being the Zodiac for many years.note 
  • Daylight Horror: The Zodiac's second on-screen murder — and the most grisly part of the movie — takes place lakeside during a sunny day.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Avery, which shouldn't be a surprise considering who plays him. Toschi and Armstrong have their moments.
  • Defective Detective: Toschi's self-aggrandizement, ties, and penchant for Animal Crackers give Monk a run for his money. Word of God according to writer/producer James Vanderbilt, this was a case of Truth in Television.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • A blink-and-you'll-miss-it insert shot where Paul Avery writes that the Zodiac killer is "possibly a latent homosexual". This line is later brought up when the Zodiac Killer takes notice.
    • Paul and others at the San Francisco Chronicle jokingly call Robert a "retard" a few times.
  • Distant Finale: The last scene takes place in 1991, 8 years after Graysmith finds Leigh at the hardware store. The only person to see the Zodiac without a mask is taken in to see some photographs. He points out the one of Leigh, with 8 out of 10 certainty. Unfortunately, by that point, this guy is a homeless drug addict with an arrest record worse than Allen's!
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul":
    "Call me Leigh. Nobody calls me Arthur."
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: The establishing shot of San Francisco showing the Ferry Building (with the now-defunct Embarcadero Freeway behind it).
    • Later on, the Transamerica Pyramid is shown frequently, though it's still under construction.
    • Melvin Belli's St. Francis Wood mansion is shown to have a close view of Downtown San Francisco. In reality, the neighborhood is miles from Downtown and the view is obscured by hills.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: Subverted, when hundreds of random citizens report their pet theories to the police.
    Woman: Have you ever considered the killer might be Paul Avery?
    Toschi: Frequently.
    • Also:
      Woman: I am the Zodiac.
      Armstrong: And how did you kill your victims?
      Woman: With a gun! No, wait, with a hammer!
  • Evil Wears Black: The Zodiac, in the one time we get a clear view of his figure, is dressed in all-black, almost costume-like, getup.
  • The Faceless: The real killer always has his face hidden in shadow or under his infamous mask.
  • Facial Dialogue: When Robert Graysmith agrees to go into the creepy dark basement with the murder suspect, he only asks polite questions about the case, but his facial expressions betray the thoughts of "This is a TERRIBLE fucking idea" that are obviously running across his mind.
  • The Film of the Book: Well, the film of the making of the book. Graysmith's book is eventually seen on screen as well.
  • Foregone Conclusion: In reality, the Zodiac Killer was never found... the movie stays trueish to this.
  • Gilligan Cut:
    Paul Avery: This... can no longer be ignored. What is it you're drinking?
    Graysmith: It's an Aqua Velva. You wouldn't make fun of it if you tried it.
    (Avery tries a sip of the drink. Cut to a table full of empty umbrella drinks.)
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Zig-Zagged. The Zodiac murders that take place during the night do slightly obscure the violence, but the single one we see in the day leaves a lot less to the imagination.
  • Grey Rain of Depression: It rains a lot in Northern California, contributing to the film's brooding atmosphere.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The Zodiac breathing heavily over the phone, which Robert gets to hear several times.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: Rick Marshall.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The film strongly implies that Arthur Leigh Allen really was the Zodiac Killer after all, particularly in the final scene, but in Real Life he hasn't been considered a serious suspect for years.
  • Hollywood Nerd: Gyllenhaal's character. However, this is Truth in Television, since Gyllenhaal does look like the real Robert Graysmith — circa 1970s — whose personality was very much like his onscreen counterpart.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: The Trope Namer is referenced in one of the Zodiac letters. It's also Arthur Leigh Allen's favorite book.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: Graysmith gets this idea and begins working on it alongside his investigation. Said book (which the movie is based on) is seen on the bestseller's list during the ending.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Paul develops one in his final appearances; the epilogue reveals that this was the starting stage of the pulmonary emphysema that would take his life.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Robert.
    "I'm not a reporter; I'm a cartoonist!"
  • Karma Houdini: The Zodiac Killer is never caught, just like in real life. While the movie presents a case that Arthur Leigh Allen was the murderer — or at least was the most likely to be the suspect based on what was known at the time — he dies of a heart attack before he can be seriously investigated.
  • Loophole Abuse: The police can't give evidence away to reporters. But Graysmith is a cartoonist...
  • Married to the Job: Graysmith's obsession with the Zodiac progressively turns him into this as he investigates further, much to his wife's chagrin; it even gets to a point where we only see him interacting with his kids when they're helping him sift through Zodiac information. Ironically enough, his obsession drives him to quit his actual job, and once Graysmith begins making public appearances in connection to his studies (putting him in potential view of the Zodiac) and getting mysterious phone calls, his wife divorces him and relocates herself and his kids, fearing for their safety. The "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue reveals that Graysmith at the very least is now on much happier terms with his kids.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Not many people have basements in California."
  • Mirror Scare: A very tastefully done example when Robert Graysmith, scared out of his mind, is struggling with the locked door of Bob Vaughn's house, when Vaughn suddenly steps forward and appears in the mirror behind Graysmith.
  • Morning Routine: Disrupted to show the effect the killer has on the population.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!:
    • The police fail to investigate a suspicious person because of a false report that the suspect is a black man. The killer later taunts them over how they Missed Him by That Much.
    • Toschi is accused of faking a letter to the editor praising his exploits, which gets him busted off the case and rendering most of his information invalidated or invaluable. Subverted, however, when the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue states that he was exonerated of the accusation years later. Double Subverted in that now the SFPD are the ones who did a nice job breaking it when they thought they were making a good call.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • All of Zodiac's assault sequences are drawn-out and slow-paced, and as a result are excruciatingly suspenseful to watch.
    • The entire scene of Graysmith in Bob Vaughn's basement. Especially when Vaughn tells Graysmith that he lives alone. So whose footsteps were those upstairs?
  • OOC Is Serious Business: Toschi throughout the film eats other people's food, to the point that his partner has long since accommodated the habit. At long last, Graysmith convinces Toschi that Allen is the killer over breakfast, and Toschi pays for the meal.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Robert's reaction when he realizes he's alone in a basement with a man who could potentially be Zodiac.
    • David Toschi has this when he realizes Zodiac is changing his pattern.
  • Ominous Fog: Even the poster gets in on giving us San Francisco's trademark fog at its most frightening.
  • One-Word Title
  • The Other Darrin/The Other Marty: Invoked Trope. The Zodiac Killer is played by different actors throughout the film to match what eyewitnesses said and to add to the mystery of his true identity.
  • Police Are Useless: Mostly averted; it's more Obstructive Bureaucracy and public hysteria preventing the cops from doing their jobs properly.
  • Politically Correct History: Averted; "negro" is used interchangeably with "black" in the '60s and '70s, and "retard" and "homosexual" are used as insults.
  • Put on a Bus: Michael Mageau, one of the first on-screen victims and the only person to see Zodiac without a mask, skips town as soon as he gets out of the hospital.
    • The Bus Came Back: He returns at the very end of the movie, as a vagrant (in real life he has sadly been mixed up with alcohol and drugs, and appears shabby in the movie) and positively identifies Allen as his shooter.
  • R-Rated Opening: The film opens with a teenage couple driving to a Make-Out Point, where they are shot at point blank by the Zodiac.

  • Room Full of Crazy: Rare heroic example; by the end, Robert's house has been taken over by boxes of files related to the Zodiac.
  • Sanity Slippage: Graysmith. He goes from a fairly stable if some oddball cartoonist and loving father, to a one-man investigative team trying to solve the Zodiac murder, quitting his job and driving his own family away in the process. It's not until the end, when he's able to look Arthur Leigh Allen - the person he believes to be the Zodiac - in the face that he's able to recover. Apparently this was Truth in Television for the real Graysmith.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: Graysmith has his moments.
    Graysmith: I just want to help.
    Narlow: What are you, some kind of boy scout?
    Graysmith: Eagle Scout, actually... First class.
  • Scenery Porn: The opening shot of the North Bay on the Fourth of July, the sweeping view of San Francisco's waterfront, the skyline at Christmas, the Napa Valley, the interminable darkness of the Central Valley at night...
  • Second-Hand Storytelling: The first known murder committed by the Zodiac killer isn't shown in the film due to there being no surviving witnesses. The murder of Cherri Jo Bates also talked about but not shown again due to lack of survivors and due to it happening three years prior to the start of the film.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: While waiting for the Zodiac to call, Jim Dunbar and Melvin Beli chat about Star Trek, specifically the episode Beli guest starred on.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Nerdy, straight-edge Graysmith versus the boozy, chain-smoking Paul Avery.
  • Serial Killer: The Zodiac Killer himself, natch.
  • Show Within a Show: Dirty Harry is shown at a theater, with the movie acknowledging that the villain of that film was inspired by the Zodiac Killer.
  • Shown Their Work: The filmmakers took great care to only show what is known of the killings. Of the confirmed four Zodiac murder scenes, only the last three are shown. Since nobody survived the first one, the filmmakers had no idea what was said or exactly how it happened, so it is not shown but only referred to. The two with one survivor are portrayed according to the survivors' recollections of what happened. The taxi killing is filmed so that no conversations are shown in the cab (after Zodiac enters the cab, it is only shown from above until he kills the driver and exits); again, nobody (except Zodiac, if he's still alive) knows what was said.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Robert and Paul's final conversation ultimately boils down to this. While Robert tries to present new Zodiac information to him, Paul bluntly states that he abandoned the case a long time ago, as no substantial developments have been seen. His new headspace of reporting daily news has no room to accommodate years-ago inklings, and he outright tells Robert that his work isn't building up to anything important. While this does leave Robert shaken, he ultimately defies this as he continues his work on the case.
  • Sleeping Single: When Graysmith starts to get entrenched in the case, he stops sleeping in the same bed as his wife, which his kids notice.
  • Sssssnake Talk: "Thisssssss issssss the Zzzzzzzzzodiac ssssssssspeaking..."
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: "Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan plays over the radio as Zodiac shoots two people.
  • Stab the Salad: Bob Vaughan corners Graysmith in his house and Graysmith flinches as Vaughan thrusts forwards... with the key in his hand, which he then uses to unlock the door and politely let Graysmith out.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • Robert's attempt to get a distant Paul back in on the Zodiac case fails, as Paul has long moved on, doesn't see the case as all too significant, and isn't willing to entertain Robert's hopes that his visiting would be enough to completely galvanize Paul's enthusiasm.
    • As Graysmith gets further entrenched in the case, it has deep consequences in regards to his familial bonds. He stops sleeping in the same bed as his wife and he hardly interacts with his kids outside of Zodiac clue deciphering. It's once his increasingly reckless actions in regards to keeping himself and his family safe — appearing on TV, for one — start getting his house anonymous phone calls (potentially from the Zodiac) that his wife calls it quits, divorces him, and relocates her and his kids.
    • While Arthur Leigh Allen is the man the film concludes to be the Zodiac, he doesn't fully match up with all of the available information, some of it rock solid, and thus is never truly convicted.
  • Red Herring:
    • "Sam," the guy who calls in on AM San Francisco claiming to be Zodiac? Just some mental hospital patient who got access to a phone. Although the guy who made the initial call into the switchboard was not this mental patient.
    • The Riverside killing. And the attack on the woman on the highway.
    • Many of the Zodiac's letters only repeat information already published in the newspaper, leading investigators to think he's just taking credit for crimes he didn't commit.
    • Rick Marshall manages to take up thirty minutes of the movie despite never being seen and not being Zodiac. We think.
    • Although Bob Vaughn heavily implies that he might be the Zodiac, his allowing Graysmith to leave his house safely vindicates him of it.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial:
    Graysmith: Hey, does anyone ever call me names?
    Paul Avery: You mean like retard?
    Graysmith: Yeah.
    Paul Avery: No.
    • When the Zodiac threatens Paul Avery, everyone begins to wear "I am not Paul Avery" buttons, including Paul Avery.
    • And when Leigh is being interviewed by police:
    Leigh: (to police officers) Those knives with blood on them were from a chicken I killed.
    Leigh: (to police officers) I'm not the Zodiac, and if I was, I certainly wouldn't tell you.
  • The End... Or Is It?: Graysmith is positive he's found the killer, and Fincher clearly agrees that it's a very convincing case, but the film very deliberately leaves it open that they might be wrong. John Carrol Lynch plays the assumed killer as just another guy annoyed at being bothered by the police, so you don't judge him as evil simply because he acts evil: you have to decide based on the available facts. Does the evidence stack up or doesn't it?
  • Terror at Make-Out Point: The teenage couple in the opening scene arrive at such a place, only to be shot by the Serial Killer.
  • Time Skip: Used liberally in the film's chronological presentation, with skips ranging anywhere from days to weeks to years in length.
  • Umbrella Drink: Robert's Aqua Velvas.
    Avery: This... can no longer be ignored.
  • Unperson:
    • Darla's sister seems to drop off the face of the Earth when Graysmith is looking for her. He eventually finds her in a prison.
    • Mike Mageau, the only person to see Zodiac without his mask and live, skips town once he's out of the hospital. He comes back at the very end, 22 years after the shooting.
  • Unreliable Expositor: Sherwood? Who was fired from Questioned Documents? Who drinks like Paul Avery?
  • The Unsolved Mystery: SFPD has officially closed its Zodiac homicide investigation, despite the fact the 1969 case remains unsolved and leads continue to pour in.
  • Unwanted Assistance: The various police departmens Robert reaches out to get increasingly fed up with his investigations. By the end, Toschi all but calls the police on Robert when the latter shows up at his door late at night screaming he knows who Zodiac is.
  • We Need to Get Proof: The main challenge once the heroes become convinced that Leigh is the Zodiac. Despite mountains of evidence — the windbreakers, the gloves, the wing-walker boots, the knives, the guns, The Most Dangerous Game, the watch — it could all be dismissed in court as circumstantial.
  • Wham Line: "Mr. Graysmith... I do the posters myself."
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Graysmith is happy with his children, Toschi retired from the SFPD in 1989, Leigh died of a heart attack before the police could charge him with the murders, and Paul Avery died around 2000.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: