Chief Zabu: 30 Years Later, Yet Right on Time.

Chief Zabu is one of those movies whose arrival seems like a punchline delivered by the cosmos itself. 35 years ago, in 1986, Zack Norman and Neil Cohen collaborated on a screenplay that they thought was so preposterous, it would make for a great comedy movie. Little did they know their screenplay would be downright Nostradamic.

Inspired by an investor’s meeting which was a veritable who’s who of New York hustlers, and hosted by the leaders of a newly created nation, they crafted the story of a realtor who had his sights set on gaining political power. Sound familiar?

At the time, in a New York which was quickly being overtaken by Trump branding, it seemed like a no-brainer to fashion their protagonist on him. 

According to Neil, “Trump already had begun slapping his name all over buildings in Manhattan. 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.

15 days of shoots and a meager $200,000 budget later, Chief Zabu was ready for distribution, or so they thought. A week before its release, their distributor filed for bankruptcy and Chief Zabu found itself lying on a dusty shelf for the next 35 years.

Courtesy of Chief Zabu/Facebook

Surprisingly enough, the movie became a myth, a ghost that haunted the classifieds of Variety with a weekly advertisement that Zack had taken out as a lark.

As it quietly awaited release, reality started to find itself bending to its will in a rather peculiar way and it grew a cult following.

Call it premonition or coincidence, there is much to learn from Chief Zabu’s timely arrival in a post-Trump world. Neil said, “We think viewers can learn a few things, the first being: watch out for New York real estate developers who dream of having political power – the more preposterous they are, the more chance they have of reaching their goal!”

There are, however, things other than its prophetic nature that make it a must watch. Starring Zack Norman, Allen Garfield, Allan Arbus, Marianna Hill, Manu Tupuo, Ed Lauter and Shirley Stole, it is as the Hollywood Reporter calls it, “a comic time capsule with a timeless punch.”

Tell our readers what Chief Zabu is about? CHIEF ZABU, made in 1986 but never released, lost for over 30 years, now found and widely acclaimed (The Hollywood Reporter calls it “a comic time capsule with a timeless punch”), is a comedy about a blustering New York real estate developer who dreams about having political power.

Almost 35 years later, the film is now released. What can 2020 viewers learn from this 1986 film? We think viewers can learn a few things, the first being: watch out for New York real estate developers who dream of having political power – the more preposterous they are, the more chance they have of reaching their goal! Viewers can learn that in the recent past there was a different form of comedy and comedy performance that is perhaps even more fun to watch today – and today we all need some comedy; and, in a lateral way, we hope the audience can learn that if we could make a feature film with very little money in 1986, today everyone is walking around with a film studio in their pocket in the form of their smartphone. You no longer need permission to be creative, if you have a notion and a desire, just go make that movie. 

How does one make a movie in 15 days? That’s such a tight deadline! Haha! One can make a movie on a tight schedule if you are both preposterously ambitious and purposely ignorant. We had no idea that when you make your first film in 15 days it’s not supposed to have 43 speaking roles and 23 locations set in four cities on two continents.  To solve the logistical problem we took over a college campus in upstate New York between semesters – with the entire cast and crew living in bunkbeds in the dorms. While we quickly shot all the Manhattan exteriors with no permits in two days, any time a character walks into the Plaza Hotel, a real estate office, the French consulate, various apartment buildings, nightclubs, the ew York Public Library, etc., the interior scene was shot on a set we created somewhere inside a building on the college campus. Somehow, it worked.

How did the idea of this hilarious satire film come about? It’s based on a true story! Zack Norman was invited to a business pitch meeting in New York and when he entered the hotel suite he found the president of an emerging Third World nation who was in town applying for membership in The United Nations. This man was surrounded by every sophisticated hustler, every lowlife in a suit, and every conniving businessman in New York – and for some reason Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty. Zack was told by the shady financier who organized the event that “it’s no longer mergers and acquisitions, Zack; the name of the game today is countries!” Zack knew this poor man who they were all spinning dreams to was doomed. Zack split, related the story to me, his writing partner Neil Cohen, and we dropped the script we were writing and said “that’s our movie.”

What can our readers expect from you next? Zack Norman (who produces and directs under the name ‘Howard Zuker’) is writing his memoir about his life as an actor, comedian, producer, and art collector over a career spanning 60 years – it’s main theme being: “enjoy every moment.” Neil Cohen has written and illustrated the new children’s book “American Gargoyles” now in development as an animated TV special for 2021.


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