Zac Efron is not the first Disney star to play the role of a serial killer. But when he revealed he would play the role of Ted Bundy in 2017, people weren’t quite sure how to picture the eternally boyish “High School Musical” actor as a sinister rapist and murderer.
Reactions went something like this: “Zac Efron, you’re not at East High School anymore,” E! News wrote. “Zac Efron Will Use His Washboard Abs To Play Serial Killer Ted Bundy,” read a HuffPost headline.
But now that the trailer for “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” has been released, coinciding with the film’s debut at Sundance Film Festival this weekend, the reactions to Efron’s portrayal of Bundy have shifted, trading the curiosity for a little discomfort. For some critics, it was Efron’s wink, looking straight into the camera. For others it was the upbeat rock music in the background, making some feel like they were watching a trailer for a rom-com.
The main critique that surfaced: Have Efron and director Joe Berlinger “romanticized” the serial killer?
Of course, as Berlinger and others argued, what made Bundy so sinister was his beguiling charm, making him the last man his supporters would ever suspect of raping and murdering more than 30 women. But what he also possessed — as much as any 20th century American serial killer, from John Wayne Gacy to Charles Manson — was the celebrity, the household-name notoriety that stayed alive long after their victims died.
Some critics say “Extremely Wicked,” while convincingly encapsulating Bundy’s disturbing celebrity, doesn’t do enough to confront it.
Efron’s magnetism in the film, wrote Vanity Fair’s chief critic Richard Lawson, “is a triumph of sorts for Efron. ... But it’s also a bit of a problem, a further indictment of our serial killer-sick culture that the film, directed by documentarian Joe Berlinger, doesn’t reckon with enough."
Kevin Fallon, a critic at the Daily Beast, said Efron’s “Hot Ted Bundy” had Sundance viewers feeling “awkward.”
“While there is opportunity, even a responsibility, to explore the macabre charisma and ensuing fame that erected the tent around the Ted Bundy circus ... Extremely Wicked fails to offer any broader context, any exploration into how that played into his murder spree, or even any other insight into Bundy and his psyche aside from his narcissistic desire for attention, and talent for grabbing it,” he wrote.
“Zac Efron is hot,” he added. “But then what?
“Extremely Wicked” is the latest of a long line of serial-killer movies that have fascinated viewers for decades, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger” in 1927, inspired by Jack the Ripper, to “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991, inspired in part by Bundy. The success of the latter film became the “bellwether for the popularity of serial murder in American culture,” David Schmid, an English professor at the University at Buffalo who focuses on violence in pop culture, wrote in a commentary for the History Channel. Audiences had been primed for the on-screen popularity throughout the 1970s and ’80s, “when the American fascination with serial killers exploded,” Schmid wrote.
Ted Bundy had a lot to do with it. Between 1974 and 1978, he traveled the country luring young women with his charisma before raping, murdering and in some cases dismembering them. He confessed to at least 30 homicides but the true number of victims is unknown. His 1979 trial, for the slaying of two Florida State sorority girls, was the first to be nationally televised, as the accused killer sashayed around the courtroom in his powder-blue suit, declaring his innocence to the audience, some of whom believed him. The FBI had also recently unveiled its behavioral sciences unit, seeking to understand the psychology of killers and heightening the fascination factor within the media and among the public, Schmid noted.
In the years and decades that followed, America would seemingly become obsessed. Just on Thursday, the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution, Netflix released Berlinger’s docuseries, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.” Other TV shows like “Mindhunter” and “Dexter” have proliferated. The bizarre online world of “murderabilia” offers locks of Manson’s hair and prison paintings by Gacy for sale. Movies like “Natural Born Killers” and “Man Bites Dog” sought to satirize Hollywood and the media’s glorification of sadists.
But such commentary has done little to stifle the market for a good serial-killer flick, with some presenting otherwise well-known killers in new light. “My Friend Dahmer,” for example, presented Jeffrey Dahmer as a teenager, largely through the lens of his classmates before Dahmer later confessed to killing 17 men. Dahmer was played by Ross Lynch — another former Disney star who transitioned to a serial-killer role. Lynch, however, did not receive the same type of criticism that Efron has.
The blowback against the new Bundy film started to trickle out Friday after Fandango released the trailer in a tweet that also included a winky-face emoji, to the confusion of some. The clip begins with sultry scenes of Efron and Lily Collins, who stars as Bundy’s girlfriend, exchanging kisses and disrobing in the bedroom before police sirens interrupt. From there, scenes of Efron maintaining his innocence combine with shots of him hacking a woman with a tire iron, standing shirtless at a jail and parading in the courtroom. “I’m more popular than Disney World,” he says brashly at the end.
“The wink is extremely disturbing and the romanticization of a serial killer is exactly why these sick [expletive] continue to do things like this to women. Notoriety,” Lauren Jauregui, the singer and former member of Fifth Harmony, wrote on Twitter. “This is appalling.”
“What’s with the rock-themed upbeat trailer music & cut?” another user wrote. “I pictured it as a dark biography, not a LOLz oh this guy movie.”
But others were quick to point out that there could be no Ted Bundy portrayal without his womanizing charm.
“I’ve seen a few people missing the point of this trailer,” one user wrote in a tweet that was shared by Berlinger. “The reason the trailer seems to be painting him as this charismatic good guy is because Ted Bundy was a very charasmastic [sic], nice all American guy who no one suspected.”
“Exactly!” Berlinger said in response.
Berlinger responded to some of the criticism Sunday following the screening at Sundance in Park City, Utah.
“This is a very polarizing subject,” Berlinger told the Salt Lake Tribune. “There’s a fine line we’re drawing between people’s perceptions that we’re glorifying [him] versus having a real reason to be telling this story again in this way.”
Berlinger said he chose not to include gory scenes of his murders largely because he wanted the audience to see Bundy through the eyes of the people around him, namely his girlfriend, Liz, who is based on his real girlfriend at the time. The idea, Berlinger said, was to allow the audience to experience Bundy as the believable, charismatic man that caused some to believe him despite the horrific violence he was convicted of committing.
“I certainly don’t think we’re glorifying him because he gets his due,” Berlinger said, the Tribune reported. “At the end, he’s alone isolated behind death row. He’s a man who can’t even, while he’s being sentenced, admit to his crimes.”