Home Movies by Decade Movies - 1980s Zoot Suit (1981)

Zoot Suit (1981)

Luis Valdez directed this film adaptation of his hit stage musical, which is loosely based on the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial that unfairly convicted several Mexican-American zoot suit gang members in Los Angeles.

Except for the spirited musical numbers and an arresting performance by Edward James Olmos as El Pachuco, the cynical conscience of gang member Henry Reyna (Daniel Valdez), the movie largely fails to bring the impact it had on stage.


It’s a stylised, jazzy, often fictional account of four Chicano youths who are accused of murder, spend time in San Quentin and are released on appeal 18 months later.

In reality, there were 22 Chicanos on trial, but Valdez created composites of the 22 in the form of four main characters.

With a scant $2.5 million budget, Valdez shot Zoot Suit in the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood in a mere 14 days.

Being shot in a theatre – with a visible audience watching – creates a barrier that makes it hard for the viewer to feel the anguish the characters go through. The exaggerated, theatrical acting style also doesn’t help.

Henry Reyna
Daniel Valdez
El Pachuco
Edward James Olmos
George Shearer
Charles Aidman
Alice Bloomfield
Tyne Daly
Judge FW Charles
John Anderson
Abel Franco
Joey/Jose Torres
Mike Gomez
Alma Martinez
Lupe Ontiveros
Lieutenant Edwards
Ed Peck
District Attorney
Robert Phalen
Tony Plana
Rose Portillo
Smiley/Ismael Torres
Marco Rodríguez

Luis Valdez