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Retro 'Chief Zabu' Hits a Timely Funny Bone

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Retro 'Chief Zabu' Hits a Timely Funny Bone

by Kit Bowen 10 August, 2020

Zack Norman and Neil Cohen wrote and directed a satire called Chief Zabu in 1986 – and its socio-political buffoonery is still relevant today.

The plot follows an ambitious New York realtor named Ben Sydney (Allen Garfield), who dreams of political power and decides to accomplish this by taking over a nation. His cohort Sammy Brooks (played by writer/director Norman) goes along with him, as the two hilariously bumbled their way through trying to accomplish Sydney’s unrealistic goals.

The cast is filled with wonderful character actors, including Norman (Ragtime, Romancing the Stone) and the late Garfield, who starred in many movies such as The Conversation, Nashville and TV and who just recently passed away from complications due to the COVID virus at the age of 80. 

It's clear from the beginning these two veteran actors are having a blast playing their over-the-top characters. Their easy comedic rapport lets you in on their journey, as you laugh your ass off at their incredible idiotic endeavors. 

In addition to Garfield and Zack, the film also stars Allan Arbus (MASH), Marianna Hill (The Godfather: Part 2), Manu Tupuo (Hawaii), Ed Lauter (The Longest Yard) and Shirley Stoler (Seven Beauties).

For a little backstory on the making of the film, Norman, who is also a successful producer and real-estate developer, recalled the genesis of the film after he 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, not to mention Hollywood celebrities like Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor.” Afterward, when Norman mentioned the meeting to Cohen, he said, “I think we have an idea here for a script. 

The ties to Donald Trump are undeniable, and the filmmakers at the time knew exactly who they were satirizing. They just probably never thought someone this stupid would actually become president.

As Neil Cohen remembered, “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.” Garfield died on April 7, 2020, the very same day that Zack and Neil finished their final cut of the film.

Chief Zabu was made on a shoestring budget and was poised to get a big-screen release in 1987, but a week before the film was to come out, the distribution company went bankrupt – and the film got lost in the shuffle. After a few years of trying to secure another distribution deal to no avail, Norman and Cohen eventually went onto other projects.

The film never went completely away, however, and was kept alive by a classified advertisement that appeared every week in Variety for years, proclaiming “Zack Norman as Sammy in Chief Zabu.” This funny ad even developed its own cult following as it became a recurring signature joke on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Now, after several decades, audiences can finally enjoy the hysterical Chief Zabu, and a chance to see some fine comedic work. Watch the trailer below and look for it on streaming channels Vudu, Amazon, Google and Apple iTunes!