Sunday, March 2, 2008


Another example of patriotic zombies, this time from MANIAC director William Lustig. Working from a script by B-movie guru Larry Cohen, this 1996 release tries to Kruegerize the great American icon, but the entire enterprise feels as lifeless as its title character.

The plot centers around Jody (Christopher Ogden), a young boy whose uncle Sam was killed by friendly fire during the Gulf War. Finally making its way home, his casket waits in Jody's living room until the funeral, saving the production much money in location costs. (Head-scratching abounds in the early scenes: if Sam's a zombie in the prologue, why/how is he dormant in his coffin? Why did it take so long to identify Sam's body, when he died with his dog tags? And what the hell is Jody doing in school in July?) When a group of teens burn a flag at his gravesite, Sam returns to life, donning an Uncle Sam costume for his vengeance-spree.

UNCLE SAM takes forever getting started, as its roster of victims is established (a draft-dodging teacher, a local politician who belittles the National Anthem, the cop who's dating Sam's widow), but even once the killing begins it comes off dry and perfunctory. For what's essentially a slasher film with a creative premise, UNCLE SAM seems strangely dispassionate when bumping off its cast. But then, it's never clear why Sam kills; is he outraged he was denied burial at Arlington? Does he want to punish those who disrespect the country he loves? Or is he merely out for revenge? Cohen's screenplay picks whatever motivation's convenient at that moment.

And while it's obvious why Sam chooses his victims--painfully so, in most cases--he dispatches them with no irony or sense of poetic justice, save one bit involving a head-shot Abe Lincoln. UNCLE SAM tries to incorporate Fourth of July trappings, like killing off Robert Forster in a shower of fireworks, but wouldn't Sam consider impaling someone on the American flag disrespectful?

Lustig includes a number of familiar faces in small roles, from Isaac Hayes as a wounded war veteran, to William Smith, who wrote and performs the clunky spoken-word piece over the end credits, but his leads are woefully anemic. Jody starts off as a genuinely curious child trying to sort the romanticized image of battle from its grim reality, but quickly turns into an unlikeable brat. Sympathy is suddenly shifted to Jody's friend, a boy blinded and crippled in a firework mishap, who has plot-convenient telepathic powers; his presence makes little sense.

Unlike the similarly-themed HOMECOMING, UNCLE SAM keeps its tongue firmly in cheek (unfortunately, it also has one thumb stuck up its ass), but it never creates the spark that a fun horror movie should have--the film's a shining example of how shitty fright flicks were in the mid-'90s. Instead of simply dedicating the film to Lucio Fulci, Lustig should've followed his lead.

Lustig went on to do great documentaries for Anchor Bay and later founded the incredible Blue Underground label, which brought us a wealth of memorable pictures on DVD. Judging from the flaccid nature of his last feature film, it's clear that he made the right decision.

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