05 July 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: UNDEAD-AMERICANS

"I want you DEAD!" This arresting tagline appeared underneath the image of a zombie bedecked as Uncle Sam, pointing his decaying finger at the viewer in the manner of those classic armed forces recruitment posters. Additionally, the original run of VHS tapes had a lenticular cover, so that the zombie Uncle Sam morphed into a regular-looking human, and back again. All in all, a remarkably gaudy way to market a movie, in the best possible way: a promise of trashy camp, but hugely entertaining trashy camp, the kind of idiotically high concept that was bound to be so damn stupid you couldn't help but enjoy yourself. Well do I remember thinking all this back in the late 1990s, when I was wont to haunt the aisles of the local Blockbuster, with that new release shelf of a dozen copies of Uncle Sam promising so much.

If there's one thing that any halfway seasoned B-movie watcher learns, it's that the way a movie is marketed doesn't necessarily have anything do with how good it is, and that customarily the more outré a video box or poster, the likelier the product waiting inside is to be wholly without merit. And this, certainly, is the case with Uncle Sam, which as I've learned fully 12 years after first spotting it in that lamented chain rental house, is every bit as a bad as a movie with that charmingly cheesy tagline and a lenticular cover has any right to be. In fact, Uncle Sam is quite probably the single worst slasher film I have ever seen, and while I haven't seen more than a fraction of the genre's offerings, I like to think that I've seen enough so that I know "the worst" when it comes up and sinks a hatchet into my face.

Then again, there's no reason to expect anything but the very worst from the movie. There's that lenticular cover, for a start. There are more esoteric concerns than that, though: the film was released direct-to-video, which is not a good sign in and of itself, but it's an even worse sign in light of the film's cast, which is surprisingly full of somewhat recognisable names for a mid-90s slasher film, including Timothy Bottoms, Robert Forster, P.J. Soles, and Isaac Hayes - Isaac motherfucking Hayes - and though none of those people are superstars, none of them are necessarily so cheap that you'd want to waste them on a direct-to-video horror flick. Nor would you like plump for shooting a film in anamorphic widescreen if you know its ultimate destination is videotape. No, it seems clear that Uncle Sam was conceived and produced as a theatrical release, and it was only after the screening of the final cut that the producers realised, with a hollow feeling in their souls, that what they'd produced was simply not good enough to even enjoy a brief flaring-out life in America's theaters.

Then again, the film was made in 1997, and released in 1997, and those were awkward times to be a slasher movie. The initial spate that had begun in 1980 had been dried up for many long years by the time Uncle Sam entered production, and while Scream had done much to refresh the genre the preceding winter, it must be pointed out that Uncle Sam is a textbook example of everything that Scream was sweeping away. Which is an added pity, given that this would have been an absolutely perfect story to take advantage of the post-modern, ironic, self-mocking tendency of slasher films in the years following Scream, sort of like the goofy-as-shit cover suggested it was going to be; but no, alas, it is played completely straight.

At some point I should stop my obvious attempts to dither about without actually discussing the movie. It's just so damn awful. I don't want to think about it any more. Alright, so here's the plot: in Kuwait (presumably in 1994, which is a year deducible on evidence elsewhere on the film), a group of U.S. Army men find a downed helicopter, which they suspect was taken down by friendly fire during Desert Storm. As they stand about trying to figure out what happened, one of the charred, dessicated corpses (David "Shark" Fralick) comes to life and snaps on soldier's neck, then uses his pistol and shoots right through his body - right through his body - to kill the squad's commanding officer. You're not going to get any more explanation than that for whatever it was that brought our zombie psycho back to life. You're also not going to get an explanation for what happened in the immediate aftermath of that attack, since the next time we hear about it, all that is said is that the body was "discovered", not "discovered walking around and trying to kill the people discovering it."

Next follows a credit sequence montage of vintage footage of Independence Day celebrations from across the 20th Century, particularly in their representation of Uncle Sam; it is the closest the film ever comes to a decent, functional moment. We return to find it's some time after the first scene - either a couple of weeks, or about three years, I'm genuinely not sure - namely July 1, 1994, in a town called Twin Falls, USA. Judging from the accents, architecture, and foliage, we seem to be sitting squarely in Los Angeles, Iowa. At any rate, it's one of those towns that's a bit smaller than is necessarily plausible, where everybody knows everyone else's name and the big town get-together on Independence Day is one of THE events of the calendar year. Since each and every last resident of Twin Falls is a standard-issue cardboard cliché, I'm just going to hit on the ones that really matter for the plot: there's Sally Baker (Leslie Neale) and her sister-in-law Louise Harper (Anne Tremko), who have just learned that Sam Harper, brother and husband respectively of the two women, has been found dead in Iraq - we either know, or at least suspect, that Sam is the very same zombified killer from the opening scene. Sam's death hits neither of the women very hard (we figure out long before it's revealed, that Sam was not at all a nice man to either of them), but Sally's 9-year0ld son Jody (Christopher Ogden) is devastated; for he idolised his uncle all out of proportion, and has always wanted to grow up to become just like him. The last significant member of our cast is Jed (Isaac Hayes), veteran of the Korean War, missing his right limb, and formerly full of stories about the glories of combat that inspired young Sam Harper to join the military back in the day. Now, though, Jed has concluded that war is hell.

There are more people, quite a lot more in fact. But I'm cutting myself off here because none of them are very interesting, not that we've met anyone even vaguely interesting so far, but at least they all get plenty of screentime. To cut a long story short, on the evening of July 3, three things happen: Jody unlatches Sam's coffin (which is sitting in the living room, and nobody ever seems to much mind this, except in that Sally uses it as an excuse to avoid sex with her dick boyfriend), a group of three teens burns a flag in a cemetery, and some bits of the burning flag land in the open grave where Sam is to be interred on July 5. This somehow all combines to revive him, with one goal in mind: to purge Twin Falls of all the unpatriotic, un-American figures in its midst, whether they be old draft-dodgers, corrupt politicians, flag-burners, or tax-evaders. Though, it should be mentioned, that Sam is a slasher movie villain, which means that the more important thing than his quest to purge un-American behavior, is his compulsion to punish sexual deviancy, thus his first victim is a hapless man in Uncle Sam costume for the following day's parade (you know the ones, with the long stilt legs) who is busy spying on a naked girl in a second-floor bedroom. Not only does he thus get to fulfill the movie's sex=death quota, he also grabs the costume so that he can move around partiers the next day undetected.

I believe I have made this sound like a somewhat hokey but essentially routine slasher movie; this is because, in the broadest strokes of its story, that's all Uncle Sam is. The thing that pushes it off the deep end (besides its contemptible cheapness; I would complain about the paucity of gore effects, if the "Zombie Sam Harper" makeup wasn't enough to convince me that the less prosthetics on-screen in this film, the better) is that, not only is'nt it campy and cheesy like it ought have been, and might have saved it from seeming so wooden at times; no, the worse thing still is that the film's seriousness is inclusive of it's satiric aims - satire. In a slasher film. And it's gobsmackingly dense satire, at that. If you asked writer Larry Cohen, who really really ought to have known better (so should director William Lustig, at that; Maniac Cop is no art film, but it gets the job done), I imagine he'd have said that the point was that nobody who thinks they have all the answers is right, in politics: not the right-wingers who are confident that it's the U.S.A. or the highway, nor the hippies and liberals who don't trust anything about the country. Which is a fine argument, but it's made in the film in the crudest manner. A good rule of thumb for the cleverness and intelligence on display is that Sam Harper, dressed as Uncle Sam, is also Jody's uncle Sam. So he's uncle Sam and Uncle Sam. Do you get how that's the same thing? That Uncle Sam, symbol of Americana, is Jody's mean and vicious uncle Sam? Well, the film sure as hell doesn't trust that you do, because that juvenile symbolism is hammered over and over again. And so on and so forth: all of the anti-American victims are presented in ways that mean we cannot help but desire their violent deaths within seconds of the first time they open their mouths; less in the case of the three flag-burners, who are obvious assholes pretty much from the first frame.

This is not just bottom of the barrel shit; this is the worst of everything in the slasher subgenre consolidated into 89 endless minutes. The killings, though exotic, are staged without a hint of elegance and hardly any blood; the characters are grossly unpleasant; the screenplay assumes as its launching point that you, the viewer, are the foulest idiot God saw fit to crap out into the world. It works better than I could possibly have imagined to transition us this summer from the elegant and insane gialli to the latter-day slashers that came out a good 20 years after the gialli mostly petered out; because as a snapshot of the most horrible tendencies that a 1996/'97 horror film could indulge in, Uncle Sam could hardly be a more perfectly imperfect object.

Body Count: 12 people are felled in Sam's killing spree; above that, there are at least a couple of other bodies in the helicopter when they find him. And of course, Sam himself, but I genuinely don't know if we should count him or not.

1 comment:

Benjamin said...

This is very late to the party, but I absolutely HAD to chime in to let you know there is a Twin Falls, Idaho, which I'm sure is at least tangentially related to the siamese twin love story film of the same name.