“ZACK NORMAN as SAMMY in CHIEF ZABU”. It was a strange siren call that rang out in the pages of Variety for several years in the ‘80s, accompanied by an unassuming photo of Mr. Norman himself, before taking on a second life as a long running MST3K gag with the hosts shouting it out anytime a newspaper appeared on screen. In a sense, it was just a simple ad, designed to drum up investor interest in an independent film project. But the lack of follow-up of an actual movie and the ridiculous ubiquity it accumulated combined to give the whole thing a strange mystique. Who is Zack Norman and what the hell was Chief Zabu?
Well Chief Zabu is indeed a real film, spearheaded by the enigmatic Norman alongside co-writer and co-director Neil Cohen, completed in 1988 but unseen by audiences until a few screenings in 2016 preceded its long-awaited VOD debut this week (what an otherworldly fate that would have seemed 30 years ago). And Norman certainly was something of a cult figure back in the day, finding moderate fame as a comedian and actor with notable roles in Romancing the Stone and the films of Henry Jaglom, among others. But under his real name, Howard Zuker, he was even more prolific as a real-estate developer and film financier who helped get movies as diverse as the erotic vampire horror Daughters of Darkness and the Academy-Award winning Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds off the ground. It was only a matter of time before he would try and make his own film and it seems fitting that its story would be about a real estate developer aiming to take over a fictional Polynesian island.
Time isn’t always kind to comedies but there’s no doubt that Chief Zabu is still a surprisingly sharp, dryly funny satire. It stars veteran character actor Allen Garfield (always perfect at playing obnoxious slimeballs) as realtor Ben Sydney, who enthusiastically gets involved in a shady development deal concerning the island nation of Tiburaku, in the hopes that it will allow him to assume political power since the current ruler, Chief Zabu, is holed up in a New York hotel awaiting official entry to the United Nations. Norman plays his right-hand man, a jittery number-cruncher who moonlights as a stand-up comic, giving him ample opportunity to display his particular brand of surreal comedy. As these two rambling idiots fall deeper and deeper into this plot, you know things aren’t going to turn out well, especially since they need to rely on their financial partner, a milquetoast trust fund guy, to convince his ornery father to cut them a sizeable investment cheque.
It was strangely perfect timing that Chief Zabu re-emerged when it did, right as Donald Trump was on his way to the Oval Office, making its blunt satire more relevant than ever (although its take down of corporate Reagan-era culture is pretty on-point as well). Garfield plays Ben Sydney as a de facto Trump stand-in, all nervous blustery posturing to cover the fact that he’s broke and inept at his job – not that that will stop him from endlessly scheming his way to the top. Indeed, Norman and Cohen were purportedly inspired by Trump’s real estate ascendancy in the ‘80s, turning the film into weirdly prescient meta-fiction, able to map out Trump’s future probably better than he was able to himself.
At a scant 74 minutes, Chief Zabu doesn’t have any filler, madly twisting through its plot points with clear-eyed confidence. And while not every joke lands, the film certainly doesn’t lack scope, zigzagging between various US locales as well as the fictional island of Tiburaku – in reality, it was primarily all shot on the campus of Bard College in upstate New York for less than $200,000. Taking a page out of the book of scrappy American auteurs like Jaglom, Paul Bartel or Robert Downey, Sr. (whom Norman also collaborated with for 1985’s America), Chief Zabu wears its sociopolitical muckraking spirit on its sleeve.
It’s just too bad nobody got to see it until recently. Chief Zabu is clearly a showcase for Norman’s trademark performance style and he makes for an engaging, affable co-lead. While he continued to act afterwards, including a recurring stint opposite Fran Drescher on The Nanny, his directorial career was stopped dead in its tracks. It would have been interesting to see where him and Cohen would fire their next satirical shots. But no matter – at least Zack Norman really is Sammy in a really good movie called Chief Zabu, a wild self-fulfilling cinematic prophecy if there ever was one.