By James Kenney. This interview originally appeared at WhatchaReading? on October 25, 2017.
Any film with Allen Garfield, Ed Lauter and Zack Norman can’t be bad. Any film with Allen Garfield, Ed Lauter and Zack Norman that was lost for 30 years, only to re-materialize this November 2nd at Videology for a screening and Q & A featuring Norman and co-director Neil Cohen, can’t be missed! CHIEF ZABU, about a status-seeking real-estate dealer who dreams of having political influence (talk about a work finding its moment!), is most known to show business types as the film featured in an ad Norman ran in Variety for about a decade starting in 1981. It became enough of a legend that the guys on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 turned it into a gag that today would have materialized as a meme on twitter. It was an ad that simply stated “Zack Norman as Sammy in CHIEF ZABU” with a photo, but as it ran week after week for a decade it grew into something to tell the grandkids about, especially because the majority of us assumed there was no film ever going to show up. Well, “us” was wrong and here, now, is your chance (and mine) to see the fabled CHIEF ZABU.
Neil Cohen, the co-director alongside Norman, has some credible reasons about why it’s worth it to head out of the house/studio/loft/sewer to come see this unearthed curio at Videology: “Its November 2nd screening is a chance to relive the early days of freewheeling, ambitious indie cinema and see two comic actors onscreen at the top of their game having a blast and giving a master class in scripted, improv, and old-school comedy. And, on Nov 2, Zack Norman will be in the house — doing a bit of post-screening comedy and answering any and all questions about the strange journey of CHIEF ZABU.”
The reaction to the roll-out so far (it has played various festivals and comedy clubs) has been satisfying and unanticipated to Cohen. “The most surprising thing about the audience reactions is how much younger people like the movie. Younger people have actually never seen any of these legendary character actors (Allen Garfield, Allan Arbus, Marianna Hill, Ed Lauter, Shirley Stoler, Zack Norman), so for them these are ‘fresh faces’ — and the style of comedy – and its satire of ‘grownups’ – is genuinely ‘out there’ while so much of today’s comedy is droll, self-conscious and guarded – with the result that people in their 20’s and 30’s find the high-energy of CHIEF ZABU refreshingly entertaining. Another surprise: the film was shot in 35mm and people remark about how ‘pretty’ it is.”
Sitting on the film has allowed Cohen and Norman to think about what worked and what didn’t in the original cut that spawned the drawn-out Norman Variety self-promotion. They reckoned if they were going to release it in 2017, they were going to do it right. No one said the release had to act as some sort of “confessional” of creative sins committed 30 years ago; they wanted to put the best possible film out. As Cohen explains, “In the original never-released edit the two main guys were given equal time and there were subplots that kept stopping the narrative; it was only when we looked at it again after 30 years – with fresher, older, and wiser eyes – that we realized the movie only works if it’s about Ben Sydney (the Allen Garfield character), and so we re-edited the film so that Ben’s story is the focus (we had no outtakes, so all we could do was cut scenes, shorten scenes or rearrange scenes which made the edit a challenging but fun exercise) – and in serving his character, well, we always knew Allen Garfield was brilliant (which is why we had asked him to do CHIEF ZABU), but in framing the narrative around him we realized he was even more astounding as an actor.”
Garfield, a well-respected character actor in the 1970s and 80s, is best known to larger audiences for his lead role in John G. Avildsen’s naughty 1970 underground hit CRY UNCLE, as one of the ensemble in Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE, and as the pugnacious police chief in BEVERLY HILLS COP 2. Lauter is a well-known face, often in action films like BREAKHEART PASS, THE LONGEST YARD, and RAW DEAL, whose last featured role was as the patriarch in Ed Burns’ underrated FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS.
As for Zack Norman, he was a weekly presence in my home; my dad bought home Variety regularly, and I would read it to see the advertisements for upcoming films, the reviews, the grosses at the local Manhattan theaters, and the weekly “Zack Norman as Sammy in CHIEF ZABU” ad. We’d laugh about the ad, talk about who we imagined the elusive Norman to be, and find it reassuring that death and taxes weren’t the only inevitable thing in life. When I finally saw Norman in a sizable role in ROMANCING THE STONE as Danny De Vito’s larcenous sidekick, it was like seeing Brando for the first time. Does Norman have a similar reaction to seeing himself on the big screen in ZABU? Cohen relates how Norman feels seeing their magnum opus 35 years after they started shooting it.
“Zack is a very high energy dude and is super-enjoying the experience of CHIEF ZABU finally coming to life; it is not at all bittersweet for him – more a proud culmination of his career – and he makes the 30 year gap (and seeing himself 30 years younger onscreen) a big part of what he shares in his Q&A analysis of the film (and his analysis of his evolution as a human being). Of all his work, Zack is most proud of CHIEF ZABU and is truly delighted it is now being seen.”
If Peter Bogdanovich gives a pull-quote, I respect it, because the man knows cinema, and Bogdanovich calls the film “Outrageous! Funny Funny Funny!” I can confirm, having seen CHIEF ZABU, that it is pure joy. Not because all of the film works (it’s a bit jagged, sure) but this loose, likeable comedy represents so much more than what amiably unfolds on the screen. CHIEF ZABU appearing after all these years is like finding out unicorns are real or Santa exists. In this most stressful period in our history, we can use a laugh and a smile, and this time-capsule piece (with unexpected political relevance) allows some legendary character actors from the second golden age of cinema to shine one more time; (some, like Arbus, the kindly psychologist from M*A*S*H, and Lauter, have passed, making this opportunity to view their unearthed performances even more poignant). Make the effort to check out ZABU on the 2nd in the hipster paradise of Brooklyn. Guaranteed there won’t be anything else quite like it unfolding that night in New York City. And, lest you forget, it will be your best chance to verify that Zack Norman IS Sammy in CHIEF ZABU.
Details about the November 2nd screening of CHIEF ZABU at Videology can be found HERE.
NOTE: The film is now available for rental or purchase via Amazon, Vudu and other streaming sources!