On the eve of Election Day, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival will screen "Chief Zabu," a low-budget comedy about an awkward New York real-estate developer in a frantic scramble for money, social standing, political influence and the power to put his name on the sides of buildings.
As if the point were not obvious enough, the movie includes a shot of a hospital emblazoned with the name "Trump."
You'd be forgiven for assuming the film has been rushed into existence to cash in on the high-profile foibles of a controversial presidential candidate. But in fact, "Chief Zabu" predates the rise of Donald Trump as a political brand by decades: It was filmed in 1986 and is having its premiere screenings 30 years after actor-director Zack Norman and writer-producer Neil Cohen misplaced it.
While Trump was not the inspiration for "Chief Zabu," Norman and Cohen credit him for stimulating their recovery of the film. The search began last November when polls began to confirm the billionaire's uncomplicated aspirations were resonating with a growing number of GOP voters.
"We were having dinner," Norman says, "and we looked at each other and we said, 'We made that movie. It's Ben Sydney!' "
"Chief Zabu" follows the clumsy ambitions of the owner of a Manhattan real-estate firm, a nebbishy dreamer named Ben Sydney, who drives a Mercedes he probably can't afford. The story begins as Sydney, played by veteran character actor Allen Garfield, is getting in over his head on an investment on the fictional Polynesian island of Tiburaku, seeking to be an independent country with a seat at the United Nations. (The film takes its name from the honorable island leader with whom the investors are getting cozy.)
While Sydney's immediate goal is to secure fishing, agriculture and road-building rights on the island, his parallel vision is fixed on how the windfall of money and influence will improve his status in New York. As his plans appear to fall into place, the newly confident Sydney strikes up a romance with a beautiful and self-involved film actress.
"It begins by him saying, 'I want to be a human being. I want people to like me, to respect me. I want my name on hospital wings. I want to build buildings,' " Norman says. "It's unbelievable, the consequence of time."
Cohen applauds Garfield's ability to make a likable character out of Sydney, "a very needful, delusional, insecure American human being who thinks he's found a way to become important."
Islamorada to Tiburaku
The idea for the film came to Norman during his day job doing New York- and Miami-area real-estate deals in the 1980s, under his real name, Howard Zuker. An actor best known for a role as Danny DeVito's sidekick in "Romancing the Stone," Norman subsidized his film work as a standup comic, which took him to stages at the Eden Roc and the Playboy Club in Miami Beach.
Also a producer (he helped Henry Jaglom release the 1974 Oscar-winning Vietnam War documentary "Hearts and Minds"), Norman met Cohen, then a talent agent, while working with one of Cohen's actors. After Norman shared his idea for a movie, the two churned out the script in a week while at Norman's time-share in Islamorada.
"Chief Zabu" was made for a paltry $187,996 and filmed in 15 days about 100 miles up the Hudson River from New York on the campus of Bard College. The cast and crew, a motley group of 1980s character actors working for half union scale and 40 to 50 Bard students on break between spring and summer classes, bunked two to a room in the college dorms.
Some filming was done in New York, including scenes of the Plaza Hotel (just before Trump bought it) and a prescient shot of a sign.
"It's a sign that used to hang, and still does, on a hospital, that I used to look at every day while I drove into New York. It said, 'The Trump Pavilion,' " Norman says, laughing. "And I say in the movie, to Ben Sydney, 'You see that sign over there? How would you like some day to have your name up there like that? The Ben Sydney Pavilion.' "
Garfield, a friend of Cohen, was the first actor to sign on to "Chief Zabu," and he made calls that attracted others. Along with Norman, who plays Sammy Brooks, Sydney's smarter right-hand man, the cast includes the familiar-if-not-famous faces of Ed Lauter ("Shameless"), Allan Arbus ("M*A*S*H"), Shirley Stoler ("The Honeymoon Killers" ) and others.
The first screening
In 1986, "Chief Zabu" was the subject of a lengthy profile in the Los Angeles Times and stories in Life magazine and the New York Times, with famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld providing a drawing for the poster for the film, then titled "Rich Boys." Norman and Cohen "loved the film" and invited friends and some New York reviewers to see a rough cut at a Fifth Avenue screening room.
"When the picture was over, nobody wanted to look at us," Norman says, as the two dissolve into laughter on the phone from Norman's Los Angeles home.
Cohen continues: "There was a woman from the New York Times that I knew, who I literally saw, as the credits come out, crawl out of the theater between seats so she wouldn't see me."
They laugh now, but admit to having been confused by the reaction. Norman moved on with his acting career, and Cohen sold his first script to a Hollywood studio. They set "Chief Zabu" aside, the film landing in Norman's New York storage unit.
"We said, 'We'll get back to it,' " Norman says. They didn't.
Norman did not let go of "Chief Zabu" entirely, however. For nearly three years in the late 1980s, he took out an ad in Variety, the daily entertainment trade newspaper, that included his picture and the words "Zack Norman as Sammy in 'Chief Zabu.' " The cryptic ad took on a life of its own, earning a reference on the cult TV show "Mystery Science Theater 3000," a line of T-shirts and, in recent years, an intermittent hum of Internet chatter.
"Why did I do it? Because it gave me great joy," Norman says.
Where was 'Chief Zabu'?
By the time the emergence of Donald Trump prompted Norman and Cohen to reconsider "Chief Zabu," Norman had made multiple moves, including one from New York to Los Angeles, and his storage units had gotten smaller with each change of address. He had no idea if he still had the film.
They found a VHS copy, which they converted to digital and re-edited.
"We're looking at it, as proud as can be, and this young editor we're working with said, 'Fellas, you can't show this to human beings. It's like watching it through a terrarium. You've got to find the negative,' " Cohen says, laughing. "And we're looking at him like Abbott and Costello. We said, 'Negative? We don't know where the negative is.' "
Remembering that he had moved some belongings to the cellar of his house in Los Angeles, Norman invited Cohen to help tear the room apart and "under lots of old tax records and laundry" they found the negative. In May, they took it to the prominent FotoKem film lab where the two "first-time, indie, low-budget filmmakers, aggregate age 141" convinced the owners to charge them the student rate to convert their 35 mm film to digital.
"The next thing you know, we're at a secret screening room inviting some friends to see it in L.A., just for a laugh," Cohen, 65, says. The June screening attracted a crowd of young filmmakers — intrigued by the Trump connection and the cult of his Sammy ads, Norman says — and veteran tastemakers such as filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who called it "Outrageous! Funny, funny, funny!"
Robert Rosen, professor and dean emeritus at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, as well as a reviewer for NPR station KCRW, called the film "funny and satirical" and "compellingly relevant to the present and eerily resonant with the inanity of current presidential politics."
"Chief Zabu" recently had a weeklong run at the Laemmle Theater in Santa Monica to qualify for 2016 film awards, and from there will make its East Coast premiere on Monday, Nov. 7, at Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood and at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale. Norman and Cohen will attend both screenings.
Norman calls his film "a portrait of America," both then and now. Is it great again?
"Oh, it is great again, man," he says. "I'm so pleased with this picture, I can't believe it. Who figured, back all those years ago, we'd be here talking about it again?"
"Chief Zabu" will be shown 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood, 2008 Hollywood Blvd., and 7:45 p.m., Monday, Nov. 7, at Savor Cinema, 503 SE Sixth St., in Fort Lauderdale. The Savor Cinema screening will be followed by the free Zabu Stomp Party in the theater courtyard, featuring the music of Gold Dust Lounge. Tickets to each screening cost $11, $8 for seniors and students, $6 for members. Admission is free to those wearing an "I Voted" sticker. Call 954-525-3456 or go to FLIFF.com.