Decades after it was shot, and just in time for the 2020 presidential election, indie film “Chief Zabu” is set to be released August 7 on streaming channels Vudu, Amazon, Google and Apple iTunes. The socio-political comedy was inspired in part by a real estate mogul named Donald Trump, who in mid-Eighties New York City already had earned a reputation for an outsized ego and political designs.
The long, circuitous route of the film begins well before 1986 when creative hyphenates Zack Norman (comic, writer, director, producer, actor) and Neil Cohen (writer, director, producer, illustrator) wrote a screenplay after Zack attended a meeting for private investors hosted by the political leadership of a newly constituted nation applying for United Nations membership. “Every hustler and huckster in New York at the time was at this meeting,” recalls Zack, “not to mention Hollywood celebrities like Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor. Afterward, when Zack told Neil all about it, Neil said, “I think we have an idea here for a script.”
Indeed, the plot of the film – written, directed and produced by Neil and Zack – follows an ambitious New York realtor who dreams of political power and decides to accomplish this by taking over a nation. As Neil remembers, there wasn’t a personality more emblematic of the financial excesses of the era than Donald Trump.
“Trump already had begun slapping his name all over buildings in Manhattan,” says Neil. “He was transparently self-promotional and egomaniacal, which made him ripe for parody and the inspiration for our lead character, the status-seeking real estate developer Ben Sydney, played brilliantly in the movie by the late, great Allen Garfield,” Garfield, 80, died on April 7 from COVID-19; ironically, it was the very same day that Zack and Neil finished their final cut of the film.
For Zack, the connection to the man who would become the 45th U.S. President was even more bizarre as Zack had been introduced to the woman who became his wife by none other than Blaine Trump, who was married to Robert Trump who was the younger brother of Donald Trump (at the time, Zack was already a successful film producer, real estate developer, and Hollywood actor with credits in “Ragtime” (1981) and “Romancing The Stone” (1984).
Made in 15 days on a budget of less than $200,000, “Chief Zabu” was poised for its big screen debut in the fall of 1987. In fact, no less than Life magazine had published a double-page spread on the making of the movie as illustrative of the city’s growing indie film industry. However, one week before its release date, the distributor filed for bankruptcy, cancelling all distribution plans. Legal machinations consumed several more years, and eventually Neil and Zack had moved on separately to many other projects.
Still, the promise of the film was kept alive by a classified advertisement that appeared every week in Variety for years, proclaiming “Zack Norman as Sammy in ‘Chief Zabu,’ “a reference to Zack’s role in the film. He had taken out the ad as a lark, however, it developed its own cult following as it became a recurring signature joke on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” the long-running series known for its Hollywood send-ups.
In addition to Garfield and Zack, the film stars Allan Arbus (“MASH”), Marianna Hill (“The Godfather: Part 2”), Manu Tupuo (“Hawaii”), Ed Lauter (“The Longest Yard) and Shirley Stoler (“Seven Beauties”).
In her review of the film, critic for The Hollywood Reporter Sheri Linden wrote that “Chief Zabu” delivers its “prescient Trumpian parallels” in “parody-perfect fashion” – a “comic riff on money and politics” with a “satirical bite.” In short, it’s “a comic time capsule with a timeless punch.”
More information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ChiefZabu