One Of The Scariest Scenes In Zodiac Kills In Broad Daylight

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Chris Evangelista and Matt Donato. In this edition, Chris takes a trip to Lake Berryessa with "Zodiac.")

David Fincher's "Zodiac" was a box office disappointment when it arrived in 2007. Despite this, those who bothered to see the dang film came away impressed, and in the years since its release, "Zodiac" has risen to become considered by many (myself included) David Fincher's best film. Meticulously crafted and just as obsessive as both Fincher and the characters in the film, "Zodiac" isn't your normal serial killer movie. In fact, the killings stop rather early in the movie, and from there, "Zodiac" becomes less about the killer and more about the characters on his trail. Tense, funny, shocking, and often overwhelming, "Zodiac" is one of the best movies of the early 2000s. 

The setup

In the 1960s in California, a serial killer who has dubbed himself the Zodiac stalks helpless victims. Three men become caught up in the case: cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr., right before he started making exclusively Marvel movies), and cop Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). The killer strikes at random in different jurisdictions and changes his pattern when he kills, making him exceedingly hard to catch. And then he vanishes. 

The story so far

The film opens with one of the Zodiac's first killings before shifting to the characters investigating him. The killings eventually stop, causing the case to run cold. But the scene we're talking about below happens early in the film, when the Zodiac is still very much active. At this point, the Zodiac seems to be exclusively targeting young couples who have, unfortunately, made themselves vulnerable to going off to secluded places for some alone time. 

The scene

Couple Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard are relaxing one day at Lake Berryessa in Napa County. The young couple lay on a picnic blanket and seem perfectly content, and, yes, perfectly alone. But Cecelia starts to notice something — there's someone coming towards them. And he has a gun. And that's not all: he's dressed from head to toe in a strange black outfit, making him look like an executioner or a comic book villain. 

At gunpoint, he forces the couple to tie each other up — and then proceeds to brutally stab them, turning most of his fury towards Cecelia. Other filmmakers might've flinched away from the brutality of the scene, or shot it in such a way that some of the violence is obscured. Fincher, on the other hand, never lets the camera look away. He forces us to watch the stabbing, and while he does eventually cut away, he lingers long enough to make the entire experience terrifying. Adding to the horror is the fact that this is all happening in broad, sunny daylight. We tend to think we're safe in the bright sunshine, and here, Fincher is shattering that belief and showing us that horrible things can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. It's a highly disturbing scene that I'll admit I have a hard time watching just because it makes me so damn uncomfortable. And, yes, scared. 

The impact (Matt's Take)

The bleak ferocity behind "Zodiac" stems from its true crime origins. We can easily dismiss Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees as monsters we'd meet in real life, but the Zodiac Killer? A mass murderer who left a bloodstain on the pages of American history? We watch a scene like the Lake Berryessa murder and can only think about how a human was capable of such merciless violence. It's broad daylight; no theatrical overacting or accompanying score. There's nothing Hollywood about the Zodiac's standoff with lovers soaking in Napa sunlight as water churns and birds chirp. It's cold-blooded murder put on the screen not for our entertainment — just another terrifying scene in "Zodiac" that utilizes that ever-present concept of monsters who can walk among us in everyday life.