Uncle Sam
Blue Underground // R // $29.95 // June 29, 2010
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 18, 2010
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Yeah, so if you've been slogging through my reviews, you know I've been saying for a while now that there are two kinds of people in the world: those'd shell out twenty bucks for a flick starring an ass-kicking zombie soldier gussied up as Uncle Sam, and those who...y'know, wouldn't. Seeing as how this is the third different format I've caught Uncle Sam on over the past thirteen years or so, you can kinda guess where I land on that whole thing.

What's not to like? Again: a zombie in a fright wig, an oversized petit goatee, and decked from head to toe in red, white, and blue. A zombie with a bowtie, fer cryin' out loud! The bill is overflowing with faces that should be more than a little familiar to the cult cinema crowd: Robert Forster (Alligator; Vigilante), P.J. Soles (Halloween; Rock 'n Roll High School), Isaac Hayes (Escape from New York; Truck Turner), Tom McFadden (Prophecy; A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2), Timothy Bottoms (Amando de Ossorio's The Sea Serpent), Bo Hopkins (The Wild Bunch; Tentacles), and William Smith (Fast Company; Red Dawn). The movie's penned by Larry Cohen and was directed by Bill Lustig, and
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if you need me to rattle off some of the highlights from their filmographies, then...yeah, you might as well stop reading now.

I really haven't stumbled upon all that many movies that seem like they were tailor-made for me the way Uncle Sam is, but as cacklingly campy as it looks on paper, the finished product is pretty thoroughly terrible. I want to like Uncle Sam -- counting commentaries, this is the seventh or eighth time I've watched it, even -- but...nope. It's not for lack of trying or anything, but it's clearly not happening.

But hey...! Skip to the story. Sam Harper got his kicks for a while there by diddling his kid sister and beating the holy hell out of his wife, but when that got kind of stale, Sammy upped the ante by enlisting. An unwavering thirst for blood works out kinda well when you're armed to the teeth and soaring over Kuwait in an attack chopper. Oops, though. Friendly fire. Fall. Crash. Boom. Burned. Dead. Scratch that: I mean undead. Just because you're pan-seared doesn't mean the hit parade has to come to a close. Sam's body is shipped back home to the sleepy little hamlet of Twin Falls, and in the truest small-town-American tradition, the coffin's kept square in the middle of the living room while the funeral's being prepped. The rest of the family is quietly relieved to hear that he's dead, but Sam's kid nephew Jody adored the guy and wants to be just like him. All he does is hang around the coffin and scowl at anyone who doesn't fit his Uncle Sam's view of what a true American oughtta be. ...and maybe it's Jody's indignation coupled with blood splotched on an old photo that brings Sam back from the dead, compels him to grab a goofy mask and a set of garish threads, and slaughter all the pricks and assholes in town. Hey, just in time for Twin Falls' oversized Fourth of July shindig too!

Even with as many times as I've trudged my way through it, I still haven't really figured out what to make of Uncle Sam. Nothing about it works. It tries to
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wriggle in between ridiculous camp and socially relevant horror but continually misses the mark on both counts. There's a broken neck and a through-the-gut gunshot before the opening titles, and the next kill doesn't roll around for nearly forty full minutes. Some of the attacks are kind of inspired -- Sam chases down a guy on stilts; there's a sack race of death; some punk vandal gets strung up a flagpole -- but most of them are extremely short and relatively bloodless. It's a coin flip if you'll even see it happen on-screen. Screenwriter Larry Cohen defends this in his audio commentary by pointing to filmmakers like Val Lewton who emphasized character and atmosphere in their horror films over barrel drums of splatter. Sure, Val Lewton's one thing, but this is a slasher flick about Zombie Uncle Sam. How much tension and suspense can you milk out of a movie with such a ridiculous monster? There is no atmosphere. Its characters are bland cardboard cutouts. Half the movie passes with essentially nothing whatsoever happening, and when the body count finally does start racking up again, the payoff's not worth the agonizingly long wait. I mean, there's not even so much as a good jump scare scattered anywhere around in here. That'd all be fine if Uncle Sam were an all-out campfest or something. It seems like it's sprinting in that direction -- Uncle Sam has more Dutch angles than a Batman marathon on TV Land -- but the movie wobbles back and forth trying to straddle that line, and its sense of humor falls just about completely flat too.

There's also a stab at political commentary, but whatever message Uncle Sam is trying to make winds up being really muddled too. At first, it comes across as a condemnation of blind patriotism and hypermasculine military chest-thumping, but at the same time, all of the hypocrites and assholes in Twin Falls wind up being slaughtered too, regardless where they fall in that spectrum. Maybe the point's that when it comes to politics, pretty
A kid shooting Destro with a missile is a kid after my heart.
much everyone is wrong? The movie scowls at the way Sam lived his life but seems to be glorifying his reign of terror in death. I dig the cast although a lot of those '70s cult cinema icons are in and out pretty quickly, so the movie doesn't get a chance to do much with 'em. Bill Lustig made the mistake of casting two nearly identically-looking women in key supporting roles, and even with as many times as I've watched the movie -- and heard Lustig make the same complaints about how much they look alike! -- I'd still get confused about which one is Sam's sister and which one's his wife. Hell, I'm still not really sure what's going on with 'em at times. Did Sam's kid sister put on her pajamas in the middle of the day and drive on over to Auntie Whatever-her-name-is' house at one point? That's kind of how it comes across. Jody's classroom seems kinda full too considering it's early July, but whatever.

Ack. Fortysomething minutes of setup, establishing an entire town's worth of characters I really couldn't care less about. (C'mon, how can a one-legged Isaac Hayes lugging around a 18th century cannon be this forgettable?) Kills that are all too often routine and bloodless. A kinda confused political message. Clunky zombie one-liners like "don't worry -- it's only friendly fire!" and awkward dreck like "even in darkness, you can see me better than those with eyes!" The pace is painfully glacial, and when you're hammering out a movie with a bloodthirsty zombie dressed as Uncle Sam, it's probably a pretty good idea to make him the focus of the flick and not his thumb-twiddling family. This should be a blood-spattered campfest and an inhuman amount of fun, but instead Uncle Sam is just limp, lifeless, and disappointingly routine. I mean, in one of the audio commentaries, there's a quip about how this is the Lifetime Original Movie take on a supernatural slasher, and depressingly, that's really not all that far off. Blah. Skip It.

I'm pretty much always floored by the effort Blue Underground puts into their high-def releases, and considering that this is Bill Lustig's company and Bill Lustig's movie -- not to mention one of the most recent productions in their catalog -- I figured this would easily rank among their most visually impressive Blu-ray discs to date. Turns out...? Not so much.

I have to admit to being surprised by just how...digital Uncle Sam looks. All of the titles and credits have a sort of internal ringing to them that doesn't look at all natural. Edges frequently come across as noisy and exaggerated. There's surprisingly little texture to the image. 'Milky' is the first word that springs to mind, for whatever reason. Even with a faint sheen of grain -- or video noise, or some combination of the two -- Uncle Sam really doesn't look at all filmic. There's that whole thing about pictures and a thousand words, so if you want to skip another few sentences of me rambling and get a sense of what it is I'm yammering on about, pop open the screenshot below. It's pretty indicative of what Uncle Sam very frequently looks like.
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Kind of along those same lines, look at how the highlights on Jody's pajamas are practically glowing, and there's even some ringing where the ends of his hair meet his skin.

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At least some of Uncle Sam's shortcomings probably date back to the original photography. The film stock really doesn't hold up well under low light, devolving into a pulsing mass of thick, gritty noise. A handful of shots are unusually soft, and detail as a whole is fairly lackluster. This too could be a factor of the choice of cameras and film. To be fair, Uncle Sam absolutely has its moments; the scope image really can look terrific at times, occasionally showcasing more fine detail than DVD could ever churn out, but it generally doesn't impress. Black levels are pretty flat, and it follows that there's no real depth or dimensionality to it.

On the upside, speckling is light and unintrusive. I also really like the movie's use of color...hues that are bright and cheery without being obnoxious, like something out of a painting of small town America. The only misstep that leaps out at me is a massive leap in saturation in the first few frames of one early shot. It's too abrupt for me to think this was a deliberate visual choice, with no fading or gradual shift. The image starts off almost completely desaturated before jarringly leaping to something more colorful and natural. I mean, just look at the hanging plant which initially looks dead and dry, and then in the space of a single frame, it suddenly springs to life.
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I'd have a really hard time recommending Uncle Sam in any event, but it's particularly tough with such a disappointing effort from Blue Underground -- perhaps their single weakest showing on Blu-ray to date.

Uncle Sam is letterboxed to preserve its intended aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and this relatively short movie and its handful of extras fit pretty comfortably on a single-layer Blu-ray disc.

Sorry about clacking away at my keyboard so endlessly there, but I'll rein myself in when it comes to the audio. It kind of helps that there's really not all that much to say about Uncle Sam's 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It's pretty thoroughly underwhelming too, and I'm particularly surprised by how harsh and clipped the dialogue can sound. I'd expect something like that from a slasher shot in 1983 or something, but from a movie helmed by seasoned pros in the mid-'90s...? Despite scoring eight discrete channels on Blu-ray, Uncle Sam is more or less a stereo track. There are light splashes of atmospheric color in the surrounds, and a handful of effects -- dirt falling down on a punk teenager that Sam's burying alive, bursts of gunfire, labored zombie breathing, and the explosive finalé, natch -- also take advantage of the rears. Otherwise, though...? You're more likely to hear snippets of music or some distractingly heavy hiss in the surround channels than anything else. Some of the pans from the front to the rear wind up sounding kind of awkward, and the occasional placement of dialogue in the surrounds never feels natural...especially when some of Sam's lines growl from seemingly every direction. Bass response is pretty impressive, at least, particularly a couple bursts of cannon fire. Again, though, this is far from one of Blue Underground's better showings on Blu-ray.

This Blu-ray disc also features a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track alongside subtitles in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.

All of the bullet points are the same as they were on Blue Underground's DVD from a few years back.
  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): The minute and a half trailer from the original DVD did get boosted up to high-def, tho'.

  • Poster and Still Galleries (HD): The images scattered around these galleries are generally fairly small but are still served up on an 1080p menu, so I'll chalk 'em up as HD. You get one poster, one scan of Elite's long out-of-print DVD, 25 production stills, 13 behind-the-scenes shots, and...hey! Four scans of local press about the climactic explosion shattering dozens of windows in a sleepy neighborhood.

  • Gag Reel (1 min.; SD): Rather than the usual flubbed lines and stumbling around, this really rough footage from a workprint piecemeals together a few takes for one big pedophile joke. Short and pretty funny.

  • Deleted Scene (1 min.; SD): Yup. Singular. It's really just two takes of the undertaker confessing that there wasn't much he could do to pretty up Sam's ravaged face.

  • Fire Stunts (10 min.; SD): Stunt coordinator Spiro
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    Razatos offers audio commentary over this camcorder footage from Uncle Sam's explosive finalé. Razatos delves in depth into torching a stunt man, flinging the still-smoldering guy through a balsa wood wall, and blowing the holy hell out of the façade of a suburban home. Among the other highlights are pulling off one key burn to be safe but still look like one seamless shot, the skill and coordination that goes into these sorts of elaborate and incredibly dangerous effects sequences, and how ten pounds of Primacord wound up shattering thirtysomething windows throughout a mile radius...a mishap that nearly got the production booted out of town. This commentary goes into much more detail than I'm used to hearing, and I definitely walked away with a greater appreciation for what a stuntman has to work through to pull off a burn sequence.

  • Audio Commentaries: Easily the best things about this Blu-ray disc are its two commentary tracks, although if you've ever listened to one of Bill Lustig's commentaries, you know that kind of goes without saying. The first of the two tracks was produced for Blue Underground's DVD back in 2004 and features Lustig, writer Larry Cohen, and producer George G. Braunstein. One of the earliest comments they make is how Uncle Sam was the work of a bunch of old friends coming together, and that's how this commentary plays too...like three longtime pals leaning back and chatting over coffee in a diner or something. It's not only a lot of fun, but this track covers an enormous amount of ground: Larry Cohen coming up with the poster art and tagline before writing so much as an outline, how likely a sequel looked at one point, shooting in a gorgeous house owned by a collector of loudly ticking clocks, and Billy Jack's Tom Laughlin being eyed for the role that Isaac Hayes eventually took over. Lustig has a lot of personality, and that's a blast to listen to in any case, but it's even better considering how critically he's able to evaluate his own work. He's proud of what he produced, of course, but he acknowledges a lot of Uncle Sam's flaws and notes what he'd do differently if given the chance.

    There's surprisingly little overlap with the disc's second commentary, this time pairing Lustig with star Isaac Hayes. This track from the 1998 Elite DVD is pretty much Lustig's show -- Hayes really doesn't have all that much to say -- and he's more than capable of shouldering a commentary on his own. He rattles off a bunch of tips and tricks for any low-budget filmmakers who happen to be listening, the headaches for a sound man pitted against suburban insanity, saving the opening sequence till the final days of the shoot so he could see how much money he had left, and revealing whose eyes, exactly, are being gouged out on-screen. Heck, he even talks about a botched homage to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A few of the same stories do pop up here, but the majority of the conversation is unique to this commentary, making it every bit as deserving of a listen as the other track.

The Final Word
With such an enormous amount of talent on both sides of the camera and the darkly comedic, satirical premise of a zombie-fried soldier dressed up as Uncle Sam, this movie looks as if it ought to hit all the right notes. Nope. Uncle Sam isn't the sort of cacklingly campy fun its cover art promises, content instead to slowly trudge along with boring characters and mostly routine kills. It really doesn't even look or sound that great on Blu-ray either. Might still be worth a rental if you're a longtime fan of Bill Lustig, Larry Cohen, or the small army of cult cinema mainstays scattered around here -- and if you do dive in, stick around for the audio commentaries! -- but otherwise...? Skip It.

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