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THE ZEBRA KILLER [a.k.a. Panic City; Combat Cops; The Get-Man] (1974).

Directed and written by William Girdler, who cranked out a slew of grindhouse faves and stinkers (ABBY, THREE ON A MEATHOOK) before his untimely death, this urban thriller is crude, violent, lovably vile, and the type of flick I wish I could've first enjoyed in an old 42nd Street grindhouse. Mixing the basic framework of a cat-and-mouse policier with the grubby trappings of thenhot blaxploitation fare, it pits a heroic Black cop (Austin Stoker of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 fame) against an afro'ed, kill-crazed psychopath. Stoker stars as overworked (but ever-dapper) police sergeant Frank Savage, who's investigating the murder of three young women, with the only clue being a bizarre, handwritten note promising "One down, 13 to go." Yes, a sicko is on the loose, and it's impossible not to cheer for the loony after he blows up an entire happy family (including little kids!) while they sit in their station wagon. As more victims turn up, with similar notes, the suspect is described as a black man -- but the viewer figures out pretty quickly that he's really a big, dumb white madman in black-face. Teamed with his white-bread partner (Hugh Smith), Savage hits the streets, and when he's not searching for this murderer, he breaks up some pissed-off whores who're beating up their pathetic pimp (D'Urville Martin, in a cornea-singeing ensemble!) and stops a cop-killer sniper. But when our central creep kidnaps Savage's girlfriend (Valerie Rogers), it becomes personal; as this sniveling villain exposes the real agenda behind his seemingly-random madness, amidst rambling racist monologues and taunts to Savage (even going so far as to sit next to the cop in a barroom, without being recognized). Stoker makes a terrific bad-ass good-guy, as he pisses off authorities, sports Hammer hand-me-downs, and gets crazier by the minute thanks to this killer's mindgames. Meanwhile, Girdler certainly knows how to keep his (undoubtedly drunk or stoned) audience awake by piling on the cheap thrills, as this toothy Jolson-psycho pushes a janitress down a flight of stairs, tosses a guy down an elevator shift, and even locates Savage in his cross-hairs. There's also plenty of laughably accidental carnage, since every time Savage barely escapes death, some unlucky bystander gets offed instead! Yes, it's unsubtle, under-financed rotgut, which looks like shit and blows its wad early on, before degenerating into a standard chase; but its ballsy, anything-goes sensibilities continually makes up for any shortcomings.

© 2000 by Steven Puchalski.