I say this without any pretension: I really have the greatest readers. It’s true! Sure, the number of CV readers may not be as high as some other low-level sites, which will go unmentioned *grumble, grumble* – but what CV lacks in readership volume it more than makes up for in quality readership. They engage, they support, they respond, and they’re ardent when they do so.
This is a long roundabout way for me to say what a crappy website-runner-dude I am. Jeff Wolfe (long time listener, first time caller) submitted this awesome, thorough piece on Bill Lustig’s ’96 schlocker Uncle Sam long before the due date I’d set – but I am just now getting it up. No excuses; I’m just tardy. I explain all this because his piece focuses on the July 4th holiday, so I didn’t want you (faithful, diligent readers) to think Jeff was off his rocker still talking about Independence Day a week into August. With all that cleared up, please enjoy Jeff’s awesome piece on Uncle Sam!
STARS AND STRIPES SLASHER
With the 4th of July coming up, I felt it only appropriate to review the patriotic Stars and Stripes shlocker, Uncle Sam. I spent years scoffing at the cover art and title of the DVD box, back when you actually saw movies on the shelf. I hated the premise on first sight. If it weren’t for my knowledge that it was directed by exploitation hero, William Lustig (Maniac, Maniac Cop Trilogy) and written by genre veteran, Larry Cohen, I never would have given it a chance.
If you’re going to enjoy watching this B-movie, it’s key to see it in the context of satire. I’ve read other reviews that were uncommitted as to what the filmmaker’s intentions were. There are plenty enough signals given throughout the movie that point towards a slap-stick take on uncritical, patriotic fervor. In fact, it would be hard to imagine a script packed with more laughable caricatures of “anti-Americanism.”
Based on the first half of the movie, it’s possible the audience could be fooled into thinking they’re watching the wet-dreams of Ted Nugent. If you stick with it to the end, I don’t think there’s much of an argument for Uncle Sam being a hero figure.
Let’s talk about the name for a second. The homicidal maniac Uncle Sam, is an actual uncle whose name happens to be Sam. (Does it really seem like these guys were being earnest?) Like the mythical Uncle Sam of Americana lore, the film character Sam Harper, also proudly served his country. By the accounts of his own wife, Sam was a wife beating, drunk asshole that went off to Iraq War #1 and later went missing. He became a highly decorated soldier at that, due to his proclivity for ultra-violence.
As it happens in the fog of war, Sam ended up a friendly casualty. “Don’t be afraid, it’s only friendly fire,” are Sam’s mocking last words as he shoots down the investigating officers. The military then went ahead and covered up the whole incident. Plot decisions like that were early messaging tip-offs that Uncle Sam is not meant to be a big, ra-ra, promo for nationalism. Later scripted conversations with lines like “the truth is, it was all about oil,” land directly on the nose.
The tension of the story centers around Sam’s young nephew Jody, coming to terms with his uncle’s untimely death and later, with who Sam really was as a person. Like most kids, Jody grew up looking up to his uncle never realizing what a hateful, son-of-a-bitch he really was.
When Sam’s body is delivered home just before the 4th of July weekend, the casket is brought to the families house before burial. While Jody’s mom, Sally, is totally relieved and ready to move on, Jody quickly morphs into a miniature version of his shit-kicking uncle. He annoyingly calls out everyone he can for not being patriotic enough. He nails his mom and new boyfriend with this zinger while storming away from the dinner table – “I’m not watching TV. I’m in mourning.” Cute kid.
Not dissimilar to Lustig’s Maniac Cop character, Uncle Sam becomes an undead monster that inexplicably re-animates to get revenge against those who betrayed him or his country. This movie is so over-the-top, the first thing the walking corpse does after getting out of his casket, is re-pin all his old medals onto his rotting flesh. Despite the odd, overbearing political rhetoric throughout, the movie is not designed to be overly thoughtful. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing subtle about this movie. All the dialogue and action is explicitly overt in pounding the thematic troupes home.
After slipping out of the family home, Sam’s first victim is a hapless Peeping Tom, dressed in the Uncle Sam costume borrowed from the upcoming Twin Rivers 4th of July parade. Unfortunately, the camera goes to black when Sam hacks the guy up with a pair of gardening sheers. Lustig’s choice to cut-away on many of the kills was a disappointment. Coming from the director of the gore classic, Maniac, I expected more impressive death scenes. To be fair, this may have come down to the special-effects budget. The ridiculous costume he takes off the victim’s body gives Sam his goofy character look – which we have to acknowledge, is totally absurd. Underneath the suit is a horribly burned and disfigured body, the practical F/X work on that aspect was successfully gross.
Once fully in character, Sam goes on a town-wide killing spree, going after anyone with a less than Totalitarian allegiance to the Flag. Conveniently enough, the town the film takes place in happens to be full of draft dodgers, flag burners, tax cheats, corrupt officials and general miscreants.
Uncle Sam gets busy with the killing while Jody defend his memory and decides which branch of the military to enlist in. The lack of kill scene carnage is made up for with symbolic humor. Sam preforms a literal flagpole hanging on a drunk teen, guilty of burning the flag and desecrating tombstones in the graveyard.
A good deal of the acting is painfully bad with a few exceptions sprinkled in. The most interesting character by far is Sergeant Jed Crowley, played by none other than Isaac Hayes. Crowley is a Korean War vet that knew Sam back in the day. He regretfully filled his head up with heroic war stories, setting him down a militant, blood-thirsty path. Crowley comes into the story during Sam’s funeral and befriends young Jody. Totally disillusioned with modern-day war and walking on a wooden leg, Crowley tries to make amends by steering a defiant Jody away from a life of conscription.
Hayes can easily be mistaken for his famous role as Chef on South Park when he delivers lines like, “I’m too old for this crap!” And, “damn kids. Go home to your mother.” Close your eyes and it’s impossible not to see the cartoon Chef in your mind.
The big build-up to the Independence Day celebration sets the stage for Uncle Sam to really let the blood spill. The jubilant festival continues despite several murdered corpses being discovered left and right.
Actor, Robert Forester shows up in the film for a couple of scenes as a shady congressman before being blow to bits in massive fireworks explosion. That grand finale finally sent the townspeople running for their lives.
Jody eventually accepts that his uncle is back from the dead and the one responsible for all the killings. He learns this from a blind and paralyzed kid named Barry. Somehow or another Uncle Sam telepathically communicated his identity to the crippled boy during the festivities.
Jody decides that since Uncle Sam trusts him, he’s the only one who can put a stop to the killing spree. With the help of Sergeant Crowley, a plan is enacted that makes use of the town’s antique battle canon and features some climactic explosions and fire.
Uncle Sam is a somewhat enjoyable slasher-flick despite suffering from a number of flaws. The premise of an undead war vet returning home for more killing, had a lot of promise. The script could have been even more campy and off-kilter, as to leave no question as to it’s status as a horror/comedy. With a different treatment, it could have worked with a darker tonality closer to his finest achievement, Maniac. As it stands, the lack of definition holds the concept back from reaching its fullest capacity. The music, casting, plot and special effects all could have been crafted to a much higher degree. Low-budget production values and subpar actors didn’t help the cause. I was left wanting much more in either ideas or simple, sheer violence. Knowing what Lustig and Cohen are capable of forms the basis of my criticisms. In another attempt to understand their predicament, I recall that the late 90’s was a time period in which horror lost it’s way in general.
Even for the diehard Lustig fan, a lot of slack should be cut going into the viewing in order to not come away disappointed. If you’re prepared to give Uncle Sam a break, and you really can’t think of anything better to watch, by all means give this a go.
Sadly, this was Lustig’s last film before he got into restoring old Grindhouse and exploitation flicks. I for one, would have liked to see him end his directorial career on a higher note. On the other hand, having a couple of bona fide classics on his resume along with his contributions as CEO of Blue Underground is more than a lot of people can say for themselves.
And remember, Independence wasn’t granted without a whole lot of bloodshed!
Jeff Wolfe is the artist/writer at Secret Transmissions blog and print zine.