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A Tribute to Don Barton
Don Barton 1930-2013: creator of 'Zaat,' a cult classic from Northeast Florida, dies at 83
JON M. FLETCHER / The Times-Union
Don Barton, who made "Zaat" in the early 1970s, kept the original creature costume in his garage.
By Matt Soergel
Don Barton brought “Zaat” to life in the early 1970s, and while the movie about a giant radioactive walking catfish-human monster was quiet for decades, it never really went away.
Decades later it found new life as a cult classic, and even played again Saturday night at the 75th-anniversary celebrations for Marineland, where scenes were filmed.
Mr. Barton was scheduled to speak at that screening: He loved to talk about his monster. However, he died that morning of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said his son, John Barton. He was 83.
Mr. Barton, a Jacksonville native, accomplished many things in his life, including raising nine children with his wife, Shirley, to whom he had been married for 57 years. But many knew him best as director of “Zaat,” a modestly budgeted horror movie filmed, mostly in first takes, over one month in Northeast Florida. That’s where a terrible aquatic creature wreaked havoc among good old boys, hippies and bikini-clad young women alike.
In 1970, Mr. Barton owned a company, Barton Films, which was doing well with commercials and training films. But he got an itch to make a full-length feature. After seeing a National Geographic article about walking catfish, “Zaat” was born.
The 1971 creature-feature played for a while at drive-ins and movie houses, mostly in the Southeast. It was bootlegged and retitled several times, and Barton learned hard lessons about the cutthroat movie business. It had a renaissance, though, after being mocked in 1999 on TV’s “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” which featured science-fiction movies generally thought of as bad. By June 2001, “Zaat” made it to theaters again, playing to two packed auditoriums at the now-gone St. Johns 8 Theater on the Westside.
That came after horror fan Ed Tucker, a “Zaat” lover since he was 6, reached out to Mr. Barton and eventually helped him re-release the film on DVD. “There’s no other movie like it,” Tucker said Monday. “Just the fact that you’ve got so much monster on screen, and the fact that it’s a 1950s movie done, in color, in the 1970s.”
The film went on to numerous other screenings attended by Mr. Barton and fans of his 7-foot tall killer catfish, as well as two appearances nationally on Turner Classic Movies.
Mr. Barton, in a 2009 interview, said that after “Zaat’s” theatrical run he thought it would never be talked about again. He was, happily, wrong. And in recent years he had been trying to put together a sequel to introduce the watery monster to a new generation.
“He enjoyed the limelight — he never turned down a microphone, as far as I remember,” said John Barton, laughing. “He enjoyed the people who enjoyed the movie. It gave him great joy.”
In 2009, artist R. Land, a Jacksonville native and lifelong fan of “Zaat,” invited Barton to a screening of his movie in Atlanta, where a neighboring restaurant served catfish dinners for all.
“It was just a beautiful thing when Don got up and talked.” Land said Monday. “The crowd was really into it, the theater was full, the print looked great, and afterward he was signing autographs and DVDs. Don had fun.”
Mr. Barton was a co-founder of the Florida Motion Picture and Television Association and won several awards for documentaries. In 1984, he became vice president of marketing at what’s now St. Vincent’s HealthCare, and later served on the hospital’s executive board.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Barton is survived by sons John, Michael, Mark and Paul, all of Jacksonville; daughters Elizabeth Till, Anne Petty and Catherine Sanneman of Jacksonville, Mary Ellen Sanchez of Savannah, Ga., and Teresa Campbell of Brookings, Ore.; 23 grandchildren; his brothers Quinn and Thomas of Jacksonville, and James of Charlotte, N.C.; and sister Beverly Kolodinski of Jacksonville.
A vigil service will be from 7 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, 1773 Blanding Blvd. A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. June 18 at St. Matthew’s.
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