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Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except

Synapse Films // Unrated // April 10, 2012 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 3, 2012 | E-mail the Author
Dateline! 1969. In this corner: a ragtag bunch of vets fresh off a particularly brutal tour of duty in Vietnam. In this corner: a small army of nutjobs in some sort of thrill kill cult, prone to
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painting messages about how "the bloodbath is coming" with their butchered victims' arterial spray.

So, yeah: Marines versus the Manson Family. Oh, right, plus it's a grindhouse action flick from a bunch of the splatter savants outta Detroit who made The Evil Dead. If you need any more of a review than that, then I don't really know what to tell you.

Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except doesn't pussyfoot around. I mean, the storytelling is about as clean and uncluttered as it gets. Sgt. Stryker (Brian Schulz) limps back from 'Nam with a bum leg and a broken heart. He doesn't want the girl he left behind (Cheryl Hausen) to see him like this, but...awwwww, she loves the big lug anyway. Of course, when a movie has a scene early on where a bunch of bloodthirsty cultists -- led by a scenery-chewing Sam Raimi -- bust into some poor bastards' house and hack them into bloody, fist-sized chunks, chances are you're gonna see those maniacs again before too much longer. The cultists fix their sights on Sally, and whatever
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nefarious plans they have in mind for her bump up against Date Night. Stryker thinks he's been stood up, with only a bottle of hooch, his doggie, and...oh, hey, a bunch of his old Marine buddies and a Michigan Militia-style arsenal to keep him company. Turns out the cultists are wreaking havoc in Stryker's backyard, and yeah, this is around the time where the title "Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except" starts to make a whole lot of sense.

Even though director Josh Becker and company had a microscopic budget to play with back in the mid-'80s, they tried not to let that get in the way. Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except is ridiculously ambitious, staging semi-convincing war scenes with a half-battalion of extras in Detroit-standing-in-for-Vietnam. The kills are dementedly inspired and gloriously violent...everything from gouging some schlub's eyes out with a pair of scissors all the way to jart-fu. It's rocking a body count that puts most slashers to shame, and its last twenty minutes in particular make for a pretty much unrelenting massacre. The story's mostly trying to avoid getting in the way. Sam Raimi infuses the whole thing with one of the most deliriously manic performances in anything, ever as the leader of the bloodbath cult, and the cast straight across the board is earnest and likeable. Yeah, the seams definitely show at times in such a production with a budget this lean, but that winds up coming across as charming rather than cheap. Love it, love it, love it. Of the long, long list of stuff I adore about Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except, ranking somewhere dizzyingly close to the top is the delicate tone it manages to strike. The violence is over-the-top to the point that it teeters on slapstick, and you've got Sam Raimi gnawing on the scenery whenever the camera's pointed in his general direction, and yet the movie manages to avoid devolving into shameless camp. Some of the gruesome imagery scattered around here is legitimately disturbing. The smirking sense of humor definitely gets its share of laughs but doesn't stomp all over everything else that's going on either. Unconventional, sure, but also kinda perfect. Geez, what a hell of a run Synapse has been on with their Blu-ray release slate. Chalk up one more Highly Recommended to that list.

If you want to know why Synapse Films is on my Christmas card list -- or, well, why they would be if I had a Christmas card list -- take a peek at their blog post about the remastering and re-re-mastering behind Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except. I mean, they could've settled for something sloppy and substandard to hit their targeted release date, but Synapse's Don May, Jr. is as crazed a videophile as you're ever likely to meet, and he took extreme measures to ensure
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that this Blu-ray disc looks every bit as perfect as the movie's original photography would allow. ...and hey! It does.

To get this out of the way, though, Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except was shot close to three decades ago on very gritty 16mm stock. There's a fair amount of stock footage early on that probably looked wretched back in 1987 when the movie was making the rounds in theaters, and I can't say those scattered moments hold up all that well now. Its cinematography didn't always have the benefit of hours to lavish on lighting setups or...well, at times any real lighting rigs to speak of, period. There's a definite ceiling as to how great a fiercely low-budget exploitation flick like this is going to look in high-def. If you want all your Blu-ray discs to be polished to a sparkling gleam, then the smart money says that Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except isn't gonna be for you. Your loss. On the other hand, if like your presentations to be authentically filmic -- cleaned-up while still looking wholly and completely natural -- then this is a five-star effort all the way.

Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except's gritty texture thankfully shows no signs of being filtered or artificially smoothened away. The level of clarity on display here is kind of startling, as if every last granule of that texture has been rendered clearly and distinctly. Stock footage aside, sharpness and fine detail are both robust, generally in the same league as a lot of lower-budgeted 35mm exploitation that's found its way to Blu-ray, even. There's no visible wear to speak of at all -- no nicks, flecks of dust, water damage, fading, or anything else you'd normally feel like complaining about -- and whatever digital cleanup was done doesn't appear to have had any deleterious side-effects. Some of the grain in the stock footage can look kind of clumpy, yeah, but I couldn't spot any compression artifacting, edge enhancement, or other assorted digital nasties. Colors look spot-on as well, at least once all that stock footage is out of the way.

So, yeah, the short answer is that Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except is a flawless presentation of a rough-hewn, down-and-dirty exploitation flick. It's not the type of disc you'd grab off the shelf to show off your TV or anything, but who cares about that? Considering what they had to work with, I'm not left with any complaints at all. This is another in a long line of exceptional presentations from Synapse Films.

Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except and its extras span both layers of this BD-50 disc. This presentation has been pillarboxed to preserve its intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1 -- there's a whole thing about this on Josh Becker's audio commentary, by the way -- and it's been encoded with AVC.

Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except has gotten the lossless treatment on Blu-ray, presented in two-channel mono as a 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track. Again, this Blu-ray disc only has so much to work with thanks to the limitations of the original production, but it sounds about as perfect as it possibly can. The recording of the dialogue is kinda unremarkable, and there are a couple of times early on when it sounds noticeably different from cut-to-cut. Though the dialogue does sometimes sound flat and boxy, it's consistently clean and intelligible throughout. The thuds, kicks, and punches during the brawls come across as kind of canned, not that this Blu-ray disc is to blame there. Some of the bigger bursts of gunfire pack a wallop, but otherwise there's not a whole lot going on in the lower frequencies.

I'm not complaining, though -- promise! Just trying to be descriptive. I'd say overall that Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except sounds better than average for an '80s exploitation/action flick, even. I get the sense that every ounce of clarity that can be eked out of the original master tapes is on full display here. There isn't any intrusive noise buzzing around in the background, and the lossless audio is similarly free of clipping, clicks, pops, and dropouts. Again, we're not talking about demo material here, but I'm perfectly happy with what Synapse has delivered for Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except.

Oh, and there aren't any dubs, subs, or remixes this time around. The only other audio options are Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except's pair of commentary tracks, and they're lossless as well, awesomely enough.

  • Stryker's War (48 min; SD): Easily the highlight of the extras on this Blu-ray disc is the original 1980 Super 8mm short. Stryker's War
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    was produced as a prototype to help raise financing for the feature film, the same as Within the Woods before it. This short does play quite a bit like Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except, down to some dialogue, staging, and camerawork that's just about identical. The biggest difference, natch, is that Stryker's War stars the mighty Bruce Campbell. Some other significant revisions would be made once Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except was underway, including a completely different introduction to Sally and an alternate grisly death for the long-haired hippie cult leader guy. If you only have time to give one of the extras on this Blu-ray disc a look, it oughtta be this.

  • Audio Commentaries: Two of 'em, even!

    The first commentary track pairs together director Josh Becker and producer/story-credit-guy/supervising sound editor/all-around-legend Bruce Campbell. Not that you need me to tell you or anything, but Bruce always gives good commentary, and Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except is right up there with the best of 'em. Among the topics of discussion this time around are sound effects pilfered from The Evil Dead, training a stage dog with bags of potato chips, raiding Detroit-area Chinese restaurants to find Vietcong extras, crafting their own Revolution 9 knockoff, and pointing out a Super 8 cameo by Sam Raimi's Clockwork. You'll laugh. You'll learn. It's kind of everything you could possibly want out of an audio commentary.

    Not that anyone wants to follow behind a Bruce Campbell audio commentary, but impressively, commentary numero two-oh more than holds its own too. Actor Brian Schulz heads up the second track, and Michael Felsher -- a name you really ought to recognize if you buy lots of awesome movies on Blu-ray -- does a brilliant job keeping the discussion going. It plays more like a really lively conversation rather than two people staring at a little monitor and saying something every once in a while. Schulz paints a strong picture of what it was like to work in the low-budget trenches in Detroit as well as what life is like for a stage actor in Middle America. As you'd probably expect, Shulz speaks at length about the rest of the cast as well as Scott Spiegel and Josh Becker. There are also some really terrific stories lobbed out like balloon-squeaky sound effects punctuating bloodied-boob-honking in the screening room and the Marines taunting actual bikers that went over about as well as you'd think.

    Obviously the Becker/Campbell commentary is the more essential of the two, but I really enjoyed both tracks and would say they're both well-worth taking the time to give a listen.

  • Made in Michigan: The Making of Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except (32 min.; HD): This half-hour retrospective features interviews with writer/director Josh Becker, co-writer/producer Scott Spiegel, and just about all of the main cast. (Plus Ted Raimi!) It's kind of tough to list the highlights because...well, "Made in Michigan" is basically 32 minutes straight of highlights. To rattle off just a few of them, though, you get to hear about the sprawling 200 page screenplay that was co-written by a Vietnam vet with way too much attention to detail, John Manfredi doing his best Sly Stallone with the monologue from the end of First Blood, Bruce Campbell's super-secret secret cameo, figuring out how to pull off an ambitious
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    motorcycle stunt without a stuntman or even a motorcycle handy, and the parade of different titles that were mulled over. You get everything from discussions about the movie's impossibly ambitious scale to peeks at Bruce Campbell's Super 8 epic Cleveland Smith: Bounty Hunter all the way to a Mr. T impersonation (from a professional, too!). A hell of a lot of fun and pretty much essential viewing for anyone picking up this Blu-ray disc.

  • Interview with Bruce Campbell (9 min; SD): If you were all teary-eyed that Bruce Campbell wasn't in "Made in Michigan", don't sweat it. The Chin pops up in his very own interview, shot back in 2007 at the backlot he had built on his property in Oregon. If you've already devoured the other extras on Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except, then you've already heard a lot of these stories -- how Campbell getting his SAG card prompted some heavy recasting, some of the Super 8 veterans who worked on this 16mm production, how Stryker's War ruined Campbell's backyard, and the story getting overhauled during a roadtrip back from the Evil Dead shoot -- but let's be honest here: everything sounds better when it's Bruce Campbell telling it.

  • Deleted Puking Scene (1 min.; HD): Yeah, that heading probably tells you everything you need to know there. In his optional audio commentary, Josh Becker explains why this vomit-slathered scene that prompted lots and lots of walkouts in early screenings wound up getting the axe.

  • Alternate Title Sequence (1 min.; HD): An alternate intro features a discarded title -- Sgt. Stryker's War -- as well as a matte shot of a Vietnamese village that didn't make it into the film proper.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): Last up is a high-def theatrical trailer.

Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except is a combo release, and if you're not up on the lingo, that means the second disc in the set is an anamorphic widescreen DVD. I love, love, love the sleazy, grindhouse-style cover art, although the cover's reversible if you want the original poster art with the skull rocking that bandana instead. By the way, neither the Blu-ray disc nor the DVD are region-locked, so wherever you are the world over, you can safely give Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except a whirl. That's always appreciated.

The Final Word
As if you need more of a review than Vietnam vets versus the Manson Family...! Highly Recommended.
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