A serial killer in the San Francisco Bay Area taunts police with his letters and cryptic messages. We follow the investigators and reporters in this lightly fictionalized account of the true 1970's case as they search for the murderer, becoming obsessed with the case. Based on Robert Graysmith's book, the movie's focus is the lives and careers of the detectives and newspaper people.
On July 4, 1969, an unknown male attacks a couple with a handgun, Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes) and Mike Mageau (Lee Norris), at a lovers' lane at a golf course in Vallejo, California. Mageau survives his wounds, while Ferrin dies from her injuries.
One month later, a letter written by someone calling himself the "Zodiac" arrives at the San Francisco Chronicle. Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a Chronicle crime reporter. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a political cartoonist there. The newspaper receives encrypted letters that the killer sends, taunting the police. Because of Graysmith's editorial status as a cartoonist, he is not taken too seriously by Avery or the editors and is excluded from the initial details about the killings despite his interest in the case. In particular, Graysmith is drawn to the encrypted code included with the letters. When the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper publishes the cypher letters, a husband and wife team reads them, and is able to decipher one. While at a local bar drinking Aqua Velvas, Avery initially makes fun of Graysmith before they discuss the coded letters. Graysmith does some interpretation of the letter, which Avery finds helpful. Avery begins sharing more story information with him.
The Zodiac killer attacks again, stabbing a couple on a picnic on September 27, 1969. Law student Bryan Hartnell (Patrick Scott Lewis) and Cecelia Shepard (Pell James) are attacked at Lake Berryessa in Napa County. Shepard dies after two days as a result of the attack, while Hartnell survives. Two weeks later, on the night of October 11, 1969, San Francisco taxicab driver Paul Stine is shot and killed in the city's Presidio Heights district immediately while he was dropping the killer off. The Zodiac killer then tore off a large blood stained piece of Stine's dress shirt, and later mailed pieces of the stained shirt to the San Francisco Chronicle, along with a letter taunting the police and the newspaper. San Francisco police detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to the Stine case,and work closely with other area detectives including Vallejo's Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) in and Detective Ken Narlow (Donal Logue) in Napa. The killer, or someone posing as him, continues to toy with authorities by sending more letters, and speaking on the phone with lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) when he makes an appearance on a television talk show. Paul Avery and Graysmith form an alliance, delving deeper into the case as time permits.
In 1971, Detectives Toschi, Armstrong, and Mulanax question Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), a Vallejo suspect in the case. Allen acts very suspicious during the interview, playing word games with the detectives. However, a handwriting expert (Philip Baker Hall) insists that Allen did not write the Zodiac letters, even though Allen is said to be ambidextrous. Avery receives a new letter threatening his life, and he becomes increasingly paranoid and turns to drugs and alcohol. At one point, he shares information with the Riverside Police Department, angering both Toschi and Armstrong. The case's notoriety weighs on Detective Toschi, increasingly while viewing a Hollywood film, Dirty Harry, loosely based on the Zodiac case. Graysmith keeps hounding Toschi, even showing up at the theater where Toshi is watching the movie with his wife.
By 1978, Paul Avery leaves the Chronicle, and moves to the Sacramento Bee newspaper. Detective Armstrong transfers from the San Francisco Police homicide division, and Detective Toschi is then demoted for supposedly forging a Zodiac letter. Graysmith, meanwhile, continues his own investigation, interviewing witnesses and police detectives involved in the case. His investigation is profiled in the Chronicle, which the prime suspect is known to read, and he allows himself to be interviewed on television about his book-in-progress concerning the case. Obsessing over the unsolved case, he begins receiving anonymous phone calls with heavy breathing (on the night of Ferrin's death, Graysmith discovered that someone prank-called the victim's family and did the same thing). Because of his submersion in the case, Graysmith loses his job and his wife Melanie (Chloë Sevigny) leaves him, taking their children with her.
Graysmith persistently contacts Toschi about the Zodiac murders, and eventually impresses the veteran detective with his knowledge of the case. While Toschi cannot directly give Graysmith access to the case evidence and other information he discovered over the years, he provides contact names of other police departments in other counties where Zodiac murders occurred. The cartoonist acquires more information that points to Arthur Leigh Allen as the Zodiac, and although circumstantial evidence seems to indicate his guilt, the physical evidence, such as fingerprints and handwriting samples, exonerates Allen.
In December 1983, a full 14 years after the first murder, Graysmith tracks Allen down to a Vallejo Ace Hardware store, where he is employed as a sales clerk. Allen's name tag can be seen with "Lee" written on it. Allen asks if he can help Graysmith with anything, to which Graysmith immediately replies "no." Then, they stare at each other for an extended moment, their expressions morphing, before Graysmith turns around and leaves the hardware store.
Eight years later, in 1991, victim Mike Mageau (Jimmi Simpson) meets with authorities and identifies Allen from a police mugshot. As the authorities walk by an airport book store, copies of Robert Graysmith's book Zodiac are seen in the shelf for bestsellers.
Final title cards inform the audience that Arthur Leigh Allen died in 1992 before he could be questioned further by police. A tissue sample was taken from his body at his autopsy. A DNA test performed in 2002 did not match Allen with a partial DNA sample gathered from the postage stamp on one of the Zodiac letters.
There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer When a series of murders terrorized California, one man took responsibility for them all. Based on the true story of America's most notorious serial killer.
Errors in Geography The scene where Melvin Belli is to meet the Zodiac impostor at St. Vincent De Paul's Thrift Store in Daly City is actually filmed on the corner of 26th Ave. and Irving Street in San Francisco's Sunset District. In the background, the Sunset Supermarket can be seen, which did not have Chinese characters displayed at the time the movie took place.
Factual Mistake The blood-stained fabric from the taxi driver should not have been red. The iron in the blood would have turned brown due to oxidation.
Factual Mistake In the scene aboard the PSA flight to southern California, the flight attendant makes an announcement over the speaker stating that "smoking is allowed only in the last six aisles." No airplanes have six aisles; presumably she meant to say "the last six rows."
Factual Mistake The taxi driver picks up his murderer on Geary St. in the theatre district. As the camera follows overhead, trolleybus power lines are visible. However, Geary St. did not have trolleybuses, so the power lines are appear in error. The 38 Geary bus route, one of the longest in San Francisco, was always a diesel route.
Audio/Video Mismatch When Robert Graysmith visits Paul Avery at his boathouse, you can see "Pong" on Avery's TV. As the scene plays out, you can hear the Pong ball bouncing around for a while, then the sound of the ball scoring. But it's the same shot of the ball bouncing once, then going past the paddle on the right and scoring.
Character Error When Zodiac is "fixing" Kathleen Johns' wheel, he is seen in the mirror twisting the wheel nuts clockwise, as if to tighten them (which he was supposed to be doing), but if the wheel were to fall off, he should have been twisting anti-clockwise to loosen the lug nuts.
Character Error Graysmith says he is an "Eagle Scout, first class." There is no such award as Eagle Scout first class. There is a rank of First Class in Boy Scouting, but it is much lower than Eagle.
Continuity When Robert Graysmith is in Paul Avery's house after he is retired from the Chronicle, the score is 15-9 on the screen displaying Pong. However, another shot is taken and the score is 14-9, but instantly changes back to 15-9.
Continuity Robert Graysmith follows Robert Vaughn's car to Vaughn's house in the pouring rain. Vaughn lets Graysmith in his house, offering to hang up Graysmith's wet jacket. Graysmith politely but hurriedly refuses. Next, Graysmith enters the kitchen and sits at the dining table, his back to the camera. His jacket is now dry.
Continuity In the bar where Paul Avery and Robert Graysmith have their first drink together, Avery's glass sits to his left in some shots; and in others, it sits to his right, next to Graysmith.
Continuity During the TV station interview with Melvin Belli, the SF coffee mug moves by itself in between shots, periodically showing either the front or back design.
Continuity When Inspector Toschi hands Arthur Leigh Allen's watch to Inspector Armstrong, the time jumps ahead about 2 minutes instantly. Also during the hand-off, the bezel rotated about 40 seconds counter-clockwise, as shown by the black indicator marking.
Errors in Geography During the time-lapse sequence of the building of the Transamerica Pyramid, light shines from the west as the sun rises.
The Zodiac case was reopened after the release of the film.
The producers hired a private investigator to track down the real-life Zodiac survivor, Mike Mageau.
The shooting script was 200 pages long. To combat any problems with overlength that might be caused by such a big script, David Fincher decided to make his actors speak faster.
Jake Gyllenhaal shares one of the film's creepiest scenes with Charles Fleischer. In real life, the two have known each other since when Gyllenhaal was three years old.
The real-life Zodiac survivor, Bryan C. Hartnell, makes a cameo with his wife in the police station.
The only real comment that Robert Graysmith said about the finished screenplay was "God, now I see why my wife divorced me".
When Mark Ruffalo met David Toschi, the investigator he plays in the film, he was very impressed to learn that Toschi had perfect recall of every detail of every case.
Even though Jake Gyllenhaal was David Fincher's first choice for the role of Robert Graysmith, had Gyllenhaal turned the role down, Fincher's second choice was Orlando Bloom.
The film was shot in 110 days.
Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery were not actually friends. Their relationship is fictionalized for the film.
Anthony Edwards was cast as Armstrong because David Fincher wanted him to be played by a thoroughly decent person. Fincher already knew him, not so much from his work on ER (1994), but because he was a neighbor.
For the close-ups of Jake Gyllenhaal's knuckles as he draws or holds letters, hair was digitally retouched in. David Fincher felt that Gyllenhaal's hands were too hairless and pretty.
Initially David Fincher wanted to cast Brad Pitt as Avery before he settled on Robert Downey Jr. instead.
The South Korean film director Joon-ho Bong has classified David Fincher's film as a "masterpiece" writing that "...there was really nothing to find fault with about it, down to the cinematography, art direction and action."
Dave Toschi in real life was the inspiration for Steve McQueen's performance in Bullitt (1968). In the film, Graysmith mentions that Toschi wears his gun like Bullitt. Avery replies that Bullitt got it from Toschi.
According to David Fincher, Robert Downey Jr. was so exhausted while making Zodiac because the film was shot digitally (leaving them with fewer resets and fewer breaks) that he decided to leave jars of his urine around the set as a form of protest.
Sign up and get access to some cool features. Create watchlists, check in at movies, rate them or even write whole reviews! You can also share literally everything on Moviebuff with your friends, enemies, frenemies, family, babysitter or pets. Is that enough incentive for you?