Days of Summer #8: William Lustig’s “Uncle Sam” (1996)

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In my book, there’s a distinct difference between “Summer Movies” and “Movies to Watch During Summer”, although they’re not mutually exclusive terms. While the term “Summer Movie” denotes a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster released during the months of May, June, July, or August, it is typically the case that these films have very little to do with the actual season. In this feature, I’ll be ranting and raving about my favorite “Movies to Watch During Summer”, to anybody who cares to listen.

 photo Picture7_zpscf6d58e5.pngUncle Sam (1996, Dir: William Lustig)

Happy Fourth of July, dear readers! Do you know a better way to celebrate our nation’s independence than watching a direct-to-video horror movie about a wisecracking zombie who dresses up as Uncle Sam and butchers people during a small town’s July 4th pageant? Me neither!

There’s an unwritten rule stipulating that every major holiday deserves its own slasher movie, usually with a holiday-themed killer and appropriately festive methods of murdering people. Naturally, October 31st has a ton of them, the best being John Carpenter‘s immortal Halloween and Michael Dougherty‘s neo-classic Trick R Treat. Christmas also has far too many slasher films to name, but Silent Night Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, and Santa’s Slay come to mind. New Year’s has its New Year’s Evil. Valentine’s Day gets My Bloody Valentine. Thanksgiving? Thankskilling. Hell, even April Fool’s has two memorable slasher flicks: April Fool’s Day and Slaughter High, both from 1986.

As for Independence Day? Look no further than exploitation king William Lustig‘s batshit insane Uncle Sam, a weirdly politically-charged slasher featuring an undead Desert Storm veteran dishing out gruesome All-American justice to those who don’t fit his wrong-headed ideas about what it means to be a patriot. Hey Sam, what about our constitutional right to not be decapitated during a potato sack race?

Our story focuses on Jody Baker (Christopher Ogden), a war-obsessed preteen living with his mom in the sleepy town of Twin Rivers. When he learns that his military uncle (conveniently named Sam) has been killed in friendly fire overseas, Jody descends into a fit of mopey mourning.

The film spends about 40 minutes setting things up, shuttling different characters in and out of the Jody storyline, including Isaac Hayes as a one-legged veteran and Robert Forster as a corrupt congressman, but once some punk teens burn an American flag over Sgt. Sam’s grave for absolutely no reason, Jody’s dead uncle inexplicably rises from the grave, dons an Uncle Sam costume, and descends upon Twin Rivers’ Fourth of July festival, proceeding to go down the checklist of festive murder methods for those he views as unpatriotic. Death by fireworks? Check. Impalement via pointy flag pole? Check. Murder by George Washington’s hatchet? You probably didn’t even know that was a thing, but check.

As fun as all this is, the movie’s overt political messages are about as confused as they come, frequently getting in the way of an otherwise ghoulish good time. The Uncle Sam character is initially made out to be a kind of right-wing Freddy Krueger, killing draft dodgers, crooked politicians, and people who accuse Francis Scott Key of being a one-hit wonder. At the same time, Sgt. Sam seems to have been pretty twisted to begin with, having only joined the military because of his insatiable bloodlust.

Admist all the hypocritical blood-letting, the film also attempts an awkward anti-war message, best illustrated by Isaac Hayes’ enthused speech to Jody about why the child shouldn’t pursue a military career:

“There are no heroes. Only crazy men who lose their mind in the middle of a battle. Every sane person’s got his head down, trying to stay alive. But one lunatic runs out there, out of control, crazy full of hate. And if by some miracle he doesn’t die, they put a ribbon on him. Send him home and tell him never to be crazy again.”

So maybe Uncle Sam would have been more fun without the politics, but the film is nevertheless superior to most holiday-themed slashers and looks unreasonably great for a direct-to-video effort.

Much credit goes to former Jim Jarmusch cinematographer James A. Lebovitz (Permanent Vacation), an all-around overachiever who decided that if he was going to lens a movie about a killer Uncle Sam, then by God, he’d go full Gordon Willis and shoot in epic 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen on beautiful 35mm film. Lebovitz utilizes sprawling wide shots and surreal canted angles to great effect here, making me pine for a time before the digital video coup when low-budget horror movies could have this kind of production value.

 

Best Way to Watch: With someone you love.

Best Paired with: A lot of beer.

Further Viewing: Martin Scorsese’s brutal Cape Fear also follows a homicidal ideologue (played by a jacked and tatted Robert DeNiro) hunting down perceived wrong-doers over the Fourth of July holiday, in this case Nick Nolte and family. While it’s a highly entertaining thriller, the film would arguably be scarier if DeNiro’s Max Cady was dressed up as Uncle Sam for the entirety of the film.

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