I love holiday horror films. To me, they demonstrate the genre's ongoing commitment to ruining even the happiest of occasions with visions of nightmarish terror. There was a time when Halloween was the only holiday associated with evil and darkness and that set it apart as the isolated capsule of fear. But then, one by one, the other, more joyful holidays became targets for horror interpretations. It's gotten to the point that no festive celebration is without its own signature slasher or identifiable bloodbath.
This summer has already netted us a pair of winning, festive nightmares in the form of Memorial Day's Deathdream and Father's Day's The Stepfather. But today...we celebrate...our Independence Day...with a slasher film. For today's seasonal slaughtering, I give you Uncle Sam. Sam Harper was a brave soldier who died in a helicopter crash in Kuwait. This heroic death comes coupled with a controversy as it appears his gunship was brought down by friendly fire. His body is shipped back to his hometown where his estranged wife and her sister had been anxiously awaiting news. The young son of Sam's sister-in-law idolized him to no end and doesn't take news of his uncle's death too well. But luckily, young Jody will get a second chance to connect with his uncle as a flag-burning incident reanimates his corpse and sends him on a kill-crazy rampage. Will Jody become a psychotic nemesis in red-white-and-blue pants like his undead uncle? Will the town be able to carry on with its beloved 4th of July festival? Why is Isaac Hayes in this movie?
Uncle Sam is not what I would dub a quality film. Not only that, but it precariously walks the line of being so bad as to not be entertaining but instead tedious and stupid. It manages to maneuver itself just right as to tiptoe into the realm of ironic enjoyment. The film is the brainchild of two people I greatly respect: William Lustig and Larry Cohen. To be completely honest, while I am a ginormous fan of Lustig's, I harbor a real love-hate relationship with Cohen. On the one hand, these two collaborated on Maniac Cop which is one of my all time favorite 80's slasher films, and Cohen gave us Q: The Winged Serpent and It's Alive. But Cohen is also responsible for The Stuff and butchering the ending of what might otherwise have been my favorite blaxploitation film: Black Caesar. In any case, Uncle Sam feels very much like one of their team-ups, only it's been partially sterilized by the 90's. In other words, it is exactly what you expect Maniac Cop to look like if the 80's charm and lack of self-awareness were stripped away and replaced by chili bowl haircuts and miserable music.
I think my biggest problem with Uncle Sam is its disproportion of talent. The film features some really great character actors and a host of cult film alumni. I think the name I was most excited about was Robert Forster who plays a completely bent senator who's in town to recoup some of his squandered public appeal. But the film also features Isaac Hayes, William Smith, Bo Hopkins, P.J. Soles and Timothy Bottoms. But most of these character actors are used as exactly that, bit characters. A strange thing to complain about, I know, but the problem is that the principal actors are terrible. I know this is going to sound petty, but bad kid actors are a major pet peeve of mine and little Christopher Ogden is awful. It counteracts a film like this when you end up wishing harm on the young protagonist whose well-being is supposed to be the basis of the suspense. It boggles me why Lustig didn't more efficiently use the far more talented actors at his disposable.
As I said, Uncle Sam does manage to be pretty entertaining despite itself. The story is gleefully absurd and makes no bones about it. First of all, why is every adult around this child happily flaunting the law or crassly maligning America as if they were discussing the weather? It serves to fuel the kid's rage and creates the connection between he and his uncle that serves as the motivation for the killer, I get that, but it's a bit overstated. "Guess what I did today Jody, I cheated the IRS and got people out of paying them! Isn't that great?" How is this acceptable dinner conversation from the guy trying to bang his mom? Also, the genesis of Sam's regeneration is simply a flag-burning and that is as much explanation as we are given. But then again, did we ever really learn how Jason was able to survive at the bottom of Crystal Lake for damn near a decade?
The kills are probably the most interesting thing about Uncle Sam. Yes, they are loads of fun and wickedly creative; providing the requisite blood splash. But more than that, the kills in Uncle Sam are extensions of each person's individual trespass or inextricable from the festivities of the 4th of July picnic. As to the poetic justice kills, we are privy to things like flag-burners who are hung from flag poles or peeping Toms who have their eyes sliced out. As to the festival-related murders, we have people sliced up during sack races who have their heads barbecued and baddies blown apart by fire works. I thought the punishment-meeting-the-crime murders were clever, but I truly loved the latter group. In many ways, it reminded me of H.G. Lewis' 2000 Maniacs wherein victims are slaughtered by way of barrel rolls and other events one might find at a southern hootenanny. I love 2000 Maniacs and the connection between the two films definitely boosted Uncle Sam's stock as far as I am concerned.
The method of the killings is not the only homage in Lustig's Uncle Sam. At the end of the film, Jody has seen the error of his hero-worshiping ways and proceeds to burn all of his wartime memorabilia. But then he stares at the camera, no expression on his face, the music swells and becomes sinister, and then the screen cracks and explodes. It makes absolutely no sense and reminded me of the finale of Fulci's City of the Living Dead; seeming in fact to be a direct aping of that terrible ending. I thought it merely an effect of my having just watched City of the Living Dead the day before. But when the first credit after that was "For Lucio" it no longer seemed coincidental. I did a little research and found that Lucio Fulci died while the film was being made and William Lustig decided to dedicate Uncle Sam to him. Not the most fitting tribute but I respect the reverence.
So fire up the grill, open a few hundred beers, and exhibit absolutely no regard for safety when playing with fireworks. But if you find a few free moments amid the laughter, explosions, and communal hatred for England, take a gander at Uncle Sam. If you make it out alive, you are a true American! Happy 4th of July everybody!