The story devised for Zaat is straightforward in the tradition of many Creature Features from the 1950s. Mad scientist Dr. Kurt Leopold (Marshall Grauer) has been working for twenty years to discover a new radioactive element: ZsubA, AsubT (ZaAt), with which he can transform a man into a man-catfish hybrid. Admiring the walking catfish, he thinks to himself, "We're going to have to do something about your size. You can't battle people being just two feet long." In his Florida lab, he injects himself to alter his internal functions to an amphibious mode, then he submerges himself into a solution-filled tank to change his body. He emerges as a monster mutation (Wade Popwell) a man-sized fish that walks upright. Leopold consults his 7-Year Plan, a circular chart which plots his acts of revenge against those who mocked him and his scheme for creating a female hybrid to mate with. Local town sheriff Lou Krantz (Paul Galloway) and visiting marine biologist Rex (Gerald Cruse) make for an unlikely alliance in the initial investigation of local killings. As the news of a mysterious creature reaches higher levels of government, agents from the Inter-Nations Phenomenon Investigations Team (INPIT) arrive in town, wearing jumpsuits and armed with swamp buggies and a van equipped with scientific equipment, to take over the investigation. Agent Martha Walsh (Sanna Ringhaver) is kidnapped by the catfish-Leopold monster after he picks her to become his mate.
The budget for Zaat was $50,000 with a shooting schedule of 30 days, and Barton assembled a cast and crew mostly made up of newcomers to feature films. Among them was Miami-based cinematographer Jack McGowan, who would go on to shoot the low-budget horror films Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973), Dead of Night (aka Deathdream), and Deranged (both 1974). For the key role of the monster, Barton simply ran a small classified ad in the local newspaper which read, "WANTED: 6'5" or taller male to play role of Monster in Horror movie. Must be experienced swimmer, scuba diver. ACTING ABILITY not required." There were ten respondents, but Wade Popwell not only fit the main requirements, he also had local acting experience. Barton said at the time, "During auditions, when I told him to attack an imaginary victim, Wade did it with such realism there was no doubt in my mind he was the man for the job."
The monster suit is seen throughout the film and often in bright light. It was primarily designed and built by Kivett, who told Ed Tucker in Scary Monsters magazine, "I liked the idea of the monster having a leech-like face rather than a dinosaur or alligator-like jaw. Originally the monster was supposed to attack people and suck the blood out of them with this leech-like mouth. We found out that the leech teeth didn't look so good, so we decided to go with a fang look to it."
The staff at Florida's Marineland proved to be very helpful and most of the interiors and exteriors of Dr. Leopold's laboratory were filmed there. The underwater shots of subjects being lowered by gurney into the tank of radioactive material were filmed at the largest freshwater tank at the park, which contained porpoises, manatees, and according to underwater cinematographer Kivett, "the largest alligator snapping turtle in the world." The turtle could not be corralled to an opposite section of the tank, and Kivett and the cast members were none too keen to be near it. Other shooting took place in the nearby small towns of Switzerland and Green Cove Springs. Barton emphasized the neighboring cooperation, saying "the city of Green Cove Springs, 20 miles south of us, laid out the red carpet for us. The folks at the First Baptist Church prepared our meals, both for lunch and for the evening shoots. The folks at Marineland were fabulous. We were so fortunate that they had a portion of their facility that was not in use and to which they gave us free reign. This was a major undertaking for us and all elements went right on schedule."
The original script at one point called for a scene in which a giant walking catfish, a mutation from Dr. Leopold's experiments, scuttles across the landscape and destroys everything in its path. Kivett constructed a miniature set with farm houses, roads, and fences, and after great effort a walking catfish was found (they proved to be more uncommon than National Geographic indicated), but the creature proved to be uncooperative. "It wouldn't do anything," according to Kivett. "We put it on the set and it said, 'yeah, right! If you think I'm going to walk across this you're crazy!'" (The final print seems to include one of the miniature shots, rather randomly inserted, as a catfish flounders along a miniature fence on a hilltop set).
Zaat completed filming in 1971, meeting its schedule and budget. An additional expense was to strike fifteen 35mm prints of the movie at $1,000 each. At that time Jacksonville-based Clark Films was a principle distributor of low budget features in the Southeast, and they handled bookings for the finished film. From the beginning Barton had included Harry Clark in the development of the script, because, as Barton later said, "he was thoroughly versed in the exploitation value of various stories." At many Florida engagements, Wade Popwell again donned the monster suit and was put on display at the local theater in a cage on the back of a flatbed truck. On one occasion, the suit was found to have several BB pellets imbedded in it, after local teenagers took potshots at the monster! The personal appearances, along with an intense print ad campaign, ensured that the film did brisk box-office in local territories, some theaters reporting that the film outgrossed such Hollywood fare as The Poseidon Adventure (1972). The distribution set up by the Clark brothers even extended to other parts of the country; as Barton told TCM, "we had approximately 350 bookings, primarily in the Southeastern states, but as far west as Texas and Oklahoma and as far north as Pennsylvania."
Barton sought out a television deal, but this proved to be problematic. "After its initial distribution, we attempted to find a legitimate TV distributor, unfortunately our sample [tapes] sent to them ended up, unbeknownst to me, at individual stations. I was to find this out when a call would come in from a friend or fan who said it was shown on a certain station on a certain day." Barton also sought out national theater distribution and signed with Capitol Films, who gave the movie a new title, The Blood Waters of Dr. Z, and came up with a new ad campaign. The company soon filed for bankruptcy, however, and not only did the producers see no revenue, they also lost at least twelve film prints and the resulting legal problems tied up Barton's film for many years. In legal limbo, Zaat became a "lost" film. Fortunately, at roughly the same time that kids who had seen the film in theaters or television in the 1970s grew up to seek out their nostalgic memory, Barton was able to retrieve both the copyright and the original negative of Zaat.
Producer: Don Barton
Director: Don Barton; Arnold Stevens (uncredited)
Screenplay: Don Barton; Ron Kivett, Lee O. Larew (story); Arnold Stevens (uncredited)
Cinematography: Jack McGowan
Monster Costume: Ron Kivett, Martha Fillyaw, Les Lancaster
Music: Jamie DeFrates, Barry Hodgin
Film Editing: George Yarbrough
Cast: Marshall Grauer (Dr. Kurt Leopold), Wade Popwell (The Monster), Paul Galloway (Sheriff Lou Krantz), Gerald Cruse (Marine Biologist Rex), Sanna Ringhaver (INPIT Agent Martha Walsh), Dave Dickerson (INPIT Agent Walker Stevens), Archie Valliere (Deputy Sheriff), Nancy Lien (Girl Camper)
by John M. Miller
E-mail from Don Barton to TCM
Scary Monsters Magazine No. 38, April 2001
"What about 'Zaat'?", American Cinematographer, June, 1973