Sundance audiences applaud Zac Efron as serial killer Ted Bundy, but reviews are mixed for ‘polarizing’ movie about his crimes

(Brian Douglas | courtesy Sundance Institute) Zac Efron, left, portrays serial killer Ted Bundy, here with his unsuspecting girlfriend Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins, right) and her daughter (Macie Carmosino), in Joe Berlinger's "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," an official selection in the Premieres program of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

The hottest ticket at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival — a dramatic retelling of the story of serial killer Ted Bundy — did not disappoint in provoking reactions.

“Audiences are loving it, which is great. You could just feel it. People really seem to be connecting and getting something out of it,” filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who directed the new drama “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” said in an interview Sunday, after its premiere Saturday night and a second screening Sunday morning.

The movie casts heartthrob Zac Efron as the charismatic young man who ultimately admitted to murdering at least 30 women in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a crime spree that spanned the country from Washington state to Florida, with stops in Utah and Colorado in between.

In this combination photo, Zac Efron attends the world premiere of "The Greatest Showman" in New York on Dec. 8, 2017, left, and serial killer Theodore Bundy appears in Tallahassee, Fla., on July 28, 1978 after being indicted on two counts of first degree murder, three counts of attempted murder and two counts of burglary in the Chi Omega slaying. Efron is portraying Bundy in the Joe Berlinger film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” which will be presented during the Sundance Film Festival running Jan. 24 through Feb. 3 in Park City, Utah. (AP Photo)

Bundy actually was convicted of kidnapping in Utah in 1976. He was extradited to Colorado to face murder charges, and he escaped from authorities twice there. In January 1978, two weeks after his second escape in Colorado, he killed two young women and injured three others at Florida State University — the crimes for which he ultimately was convicted, and for which he was executed in the electric chair on Jan. 24, 1989.

“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” — the title comes from the judge’s verdict in his Florida trial, uttered in the film by John Malkovich — was declared the most-anticipated film at this year’s festival by the Internet Movie Database. The IMDb based this on a survey of search traffic on the site after the Sundance slate was released in November.

Early reviews were mixed-to-positive. The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee praised “Efron’s remarkably accomplished, fiercely committed performance” but wrote that the movie is “struggling to justify its existence.” Owen Gleiberman, in Daily Variety, called it “an honestly unsettling and authentic inquiry into the question of who Ted Bundy was.” IndieWire’s Kate Erbland called it “the rare film about a criminal that offers human details without humanizing a man who so many agree was a monster.”

“This is a very polarizing subject,” Berlinger said, acknowledging the reviews. “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.”

(Photo courtesy of Joe Berlinger) James Hetfield (left) with director Joe Berlinger (center) and co-star Zac Efron, on the set of the upcoming movie "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile." Efron plays notorious serial killer Ted Bundy; Hetfield plays Utah Highway Patrol trooper Bob Hayward, the officer who arrested Bundy in 1975.

The script, by Michael Wierwe, was based on the memoir of Elizabeth Kloepfer, the woman who was Bundy’s girlfriend from 1969 through the early 1970s, and was unaware at the time of Bundy’s many murders of young women. (Bundy confessed to 30 murders just before he was executed.)

Because the movie in part shows the point of view of Liz, played by Lily Collins, Berlinger said it was important not to show the gory nature of Bundy’s crimes early in the film.

“We’re giving the audience the same experience Liz had in their encounter with Ted,” Berlinger said. “If it was a typical serial-killer movie, where there’s an escalating body count and we’re seeing the violence and the police closing in on him, I think that would just so poison the audience into being able to have this experience of being able to be deceived by somebody who’s so believable and charismatic.”

Berlinger rejects the notion that his movie glorifies Bundy’s evil. “I certainly don’t think we’re glorifying him, because he gets his due,” Berlinger said. “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.”

And Bundy’s notoriety transcends his crimes. His Florida trial, Berlinger said, was “the Big Bang of true crime. It’s the first nationally televised trial. The first time satellite technology, electronic newsgathering was coming into its own, which allowed the Bundy trial to be covered, and made serial murder mainstream live entertainment for people. To me, that’s the precipitating event that landed us where we are with this insatiable appetite for true crime.”

Berlinger has a long reputation as a documentarian, with many of his films — including “Paradise Lost,” “Brother’s Keeper” and ”Crude” having premiered at Sundance. When he was pitched to direct the “Extremely Wicked…” script, he was already well into making a four-hour Bundy documentary series for Netflix.

The documentary, “The Bundy Tapes,” was released on the streaming site Thursday, which was both the festival’s opening day and the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution.

“It wasn’t planned, but you could say this is the greatest electronic press kit ever created for a movie,” Berlinger joked.