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Uncle Sam

Blue Underground // R // June 29, 2004
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 22, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The first thing you see after cracking open the keepcase for Uncle Sam is a page full of quotes from various DVD websites, lavishing Bill Lustig's Blue Underground with all sorts of glowing and well-deserved praise. During Lustig's reign at Anchor Bay Entertainment, the comparatively tiny Michigan company routinely outperformed billion-dollar Hollywood studios. At a time when its competition out west gave horror as little attention as it could get away with, Anchor Bay kept its release slate teeming with high-profile genre titles, bolstered by stellar transfers and frequently by an impressive assortment of extras. Lustig eventually struck out on his own with Blue Underground, improving upon what he'd already accomplished at Anchor Bay, rescuing a number of movies from cinematic obscurity and giving them almost inconceivably phenomenal presentations on DVD. Although Lustig is probably better known nowadays for his DVDs, he had a successful run as a genre filmmaker in the '80s, having helmed Maniac and Vigilante. His last feature film credit as a director is 1997's Uncle Sam, and hopefully it won't mark Lustig's last time stepping behind the camera. Not because Uncle Sam is a great flick, but because it's really not the type of movie you want to have close out a career.

Following their collaboration on the Maniac Cop series, Uncle Sam reteams Lustig with writer Larry Cohen. The movie opens in Kuwait as a two-man military team investigates a crashed helicopter that appears to have been downed by friendly fire. As a soldier investigates the wreckage...hey! Those smoldering remains are alive and kickin', or at least kickin'. Sam Harper couldn't satiate his thirst for blood in life, so he's continuing his cheerful murder spree in death. Somehow the army manages to ship his reanimated corpse back home to a mostly disinterested family. Sam was so abusive to his wife and sister that both of them almost feel relieved upon hearing the news of his charbroiling. The only person really grieving is nephew Jody (Christopher Ogden), who idolized his uncle Sam and plans to march in his military footsteps. After, oh, forty minutes of setup, Sam emerges from his living room coffin, and the murderously patriotic zombie starts to tally a body count of draft dodgers, tax cheats, sleazy politicians, and tone-deaf sackracers. The only forces that stand in Sam's way are Jody, his disabled buddy Barry, and peg-legged veteran Jed Crowley (Isaac Hayes...damn right), and property values in Twin Rivers will never be the same.

I tried cobbling together several diplomatic, vaguely professional ways to express my feelings about Uncle Sam, but a six-letter word like "shitty" is much more space-efficient. It's bad. It's Jack-O-level bad. One of its many failings is an inability to firmly establish a tone. I get the impression that Uncle Sam is supposed to be a horror-comedy in the same vein of Evil Dead 2, with a little political satire tossed in for good measure. The execution of Uncle Sam is too half-hearted to pull any of that off. Its attempts at humor flounder. There are hardly any good scares, and it's wholly unable to maintain any sense of dread. Some of this must have been by design -- it's hard to look at that goofy, garish Uncle Sam costume and be delusional enough to believe it'd inspire terror. But if a slasher flick can't give you at least a couple of good jump scares...if it can't build any tension or suspense...what's the point? Not even the kills are any good. Probably for budgetary reasons, the murders are pretty quick, lingering briefly on the aftermath rather than showing the death blow. The kills follow that patriotic July 4th theme, mixing in flags 'n fireworks, but there's no energy propelling them. It's just one telegraphed stalk-'n-slash after another.

An integral part of the slasher formula is evenly distributing the action, trying to squeeze in a death every six to eight minutes, but Uncle Sam is way too sporadic. After the opening sequence, hardly anything happens until halfway through the movie. Bite-sized chunks of action are interspersed between interminable stretches of dialogue. The dramatic performances actually work reasonably well, although they seem sorely out of place with a guy in a fright wig, a bright blue suit, and top-hat embedding a hatchet in some guy's skull. The delivery of the dialogue in those scenes of character interaction is convincing and exhibits some talent, but no, not the supporting characters called upon to scream and flail their arms around. Uncle Sam also makes the fatal mistake of starring a prepubescent kid who I kept expecting to call out for his Grandpa Seth. It almost plays like a kids' flick, with a double-stack of stilted, hammy performances and characters pumping their arms while triumphantly shouting "Yes!" I guess the primary difference is that kids' movies are generally lighter on decapitations and immolation, frequently shying away from bits of intestine wiggling on the end of a flagpole.

Slasher flicks have always had a moral bent -- it's the slutty, pot-puffing boozehounds that always get slaughtered. Kind of along those same lines, the red shirts in Uncle Sam are unpatriotic and thoroughly unlikeable, giving the impression that the underlying message is that they got what's coming to 'em. On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, the film's dialogue emphasizes the futility of war and the effects of mindlessly obeying superiors. While it's easy to fanwank an explanation that juggles the two, I don't really buy it. Am I supposed to lean towards what the movie suggests with its slaughter of the unpatriotic, or am I supposed to side with the characters who speak out against the government? Uncle Sam really doesn't deserve an investment of that much thought. I mean, otherwise I'd have to try to come up with an explanation why a Civil War cannon can cause megaton explosions, how the murderous remains of Sam Harper managed to be neatly packaged and shipped back to his hometown, or what kind of fireworks a kid could play with to blind him, melt his face, and leave him bound to a wheelchair. Things happen for no apparent reason or purpose, like the flag-burning in the cemetary or a character plummeting down a hill during the most violent sackrace ever captured on celluloid. Then there's Lustig's tendency to have the camera progressively, choppily close in. I think there's a better movie that could've been squeezed out from Larry Cohen's screenplay, but there's no saving some of this dialogue. "Even in darkness, you can see me better than those who have eyes!" There are also attempts at slasher witticism, like Sam gouging out the eyes of a peeping tom (who's wearing an Uncle Sam outfit and stilts, one of the movie's few inspired moments): "I hope you got an eyeful!" When zombified Sam makes his first kill, plugging a couple rounds into a fellow soldier, he mutters: "Don't be afraid -- it's only friendly fire!" The closest thing to praise I can muster for Uncle Sam is that it's watchable. Even that's kind of a downside -- it's not bad enough to be lumped into the "so bad it's good" camp, and it's not good enough to...well, anything.

Video: At least it looks nice: Uncle Sam's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen video is up to Blue Underground's usual visual standards. The image is sharp and extremely colorful, sporting a bright, vivid palette in keeping with its summer afternoon setting. Contrast and shadow detail are both excellent. Speckling and assorted wear are too light to really warrant a mention, and the heavy film grain that infrequently pops in thankfully hasn't been artificially smoothened out.

Audio: The featured soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (448Kbps), and Uncle Sam sounds about as good as it looks. A bunch of sound effects are accompanied by a hefty low-frequency boom, and there's quite a bit of stereo separation across the front channels. The eerie score and Sam's undead labored breathing also creep into the surrounds, doing a better job at building atmosphere than the visuals or the screenplay. The rears are constantly chattering with action, and Uncle Sam definitely makes the most of the six channels on-hand. A stereo surround track is also provided, although no subtitles or closed captions are present.

Supplements: The primary extras are both feature-length audio commentaries. The first, with director William Lustig and Isaac Hayes, is a holdover from Elite's long-out-of-print DVD release. Lustig does most of the talking, with Hayes tossing in a few scattered comments, mostly just agreeing with Lustig or saying "yeah". It's a good thing Blue Underground dusted off this commentary -- Lustig has a lot to contribute and keeps a pretty steady flow of conversation going. There's also surprisingly little overlap with the newly-recorded commentary with Lustig, writer Larry Cohen, and producer George G. Braunstein. They seem to hold the movie in pretty high regard, pointing out its emphasis on character and direction versus stabbings and random killings, even though it's a movie about a zombie dressed up as Uncle Sam that butchers people on the 4th of July. It's even said that "scenes make sense", which boggles my mind almost as much as the comparisons to Val Lewton. They also talk about the movie's increased relevance with the recent war in Iraq, the headaches of hiring two nearly identical actresses in lead roles, filming in a lovely home with clocks scattered everywhere, penning the script after having a poster commissioned, debating the merits of certain aspect ratios, recycling from Maniac Cop 2, and the changing landscape of independent films with Dimension squaring off against the little guys. Lustig does recognize some of the movie's flaws and notes some of the changes he'd make if he were behind the camera now.

"Fire Stunts" (9:46) is an aptly-titled collection of behind-the-scenes clips with commentary by stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos. His comments are detailed and run through exactly what's happening on-screen, although I was kind of distracted by the fuzzy quality of the cropped, blown-up camcorder footage. The disc's still gallery is broken up into a few different sections -- one poster, a shot of the Elite DVD cover art, 25 promotional stills, 13 behind the scenes photos, and four scans of newspaper articles about a climactic explosion annoying a bunch of neighbors. Rounding out the extras is an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer. The disc features a set of 16x9-enhanced menus, and the movie's thirty chapter stops are listed on the interior of the transparent keepcase.

Conclusion: I want heed my advice and stay far, far away from Uncle Sam. At best, it's a mediocre slasher with a muddled message, and at worst, it's...I'll just let that sentence trail off. If you're determined to see Uncle Sam, I'd recommend sticking with a rental. For Blue Underground completists only.
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