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Serve Your Country...Or Else!
on July 5, 2004
After his helicopter is shot down by "friendly fire" in Kuwait, the charred remains of Desert Storm hero Sam Harper (David "Shark" Frahlich) are recovered by a reconnaissance team and shipped off to his Midwestern hometown back in the States. His sister Sally (Leslie Neale) and his widow Louise (Anne Tremko) are actually relieved to learn that the abusive Sam is dead, because in life he was a fanatical right-winger whose legendary heroics actually stemmed from his propensity for being domineering and downright sadistic. In fact, the only person in town who seems to mourn Sam's demise is his nephew, Jody (Christopher Ogden), who has long worshipped his uncle as the epitome of bravery and manhood.
Sam's burned and apparently mummified body arrives home in a sealed casket a scant day or two before the 4th of July, and when some of the town's juvenile delinquents perform a disrespectful flag-burning ritual at the fallen war hero's freshly dug grave, not even Death can restrain Sam's patriotic indignation. Sam rises from his coffin, appropriates an Uncle Sam costume, and celebrates Independence Day by meting out fatal punishments to the town's hoodlums, crooked politicians, draft dodgers, and anybody else he considers to be un-American. When young Jody discovers who's behind the wave of killings, the lad realizes that his uncle may not be so worthy of admiration after all, and he and a few of his friends set out to thwart the activities of the flag-waving fiend. But will Jody and his buddies be able to stop Uncle Sam before it's too late?
On the surface, 1997's UNCLE SAM seems to hearken back to the early 1980s and the heyday of the slasher-flick. Following the basic formula of the popular films from that era--films such as HALLOWEEN (1978) and FRIDAY THE 13th (1980)--UNCLE SAM centers around a mentally unbalanced individual who inexplicably rises from the grave to become a serial-killing juggernaut, and only a few innocents are able to learn the killer's identity and ultimately halt his murderous spree. The unique variation in this film is that, instead of eliminating promiscuous teens (the typical slasher-flick victims), the unctuous Uncle Sam is picking off anybody who pooh-poohs old glory, hot dogs, baseball, apple pie, or any other icon of the American way of life.
But if viewed as straight horror, UNCLE SAM will read as a rather goofy film. There is actually much more going on here than just a bunch of gratuitous bloodletting. Scripted by indie auteur Larry Cohen--well known for penning and directing way-above-average exploitation genre flicks such as IT'S ALIVE! (1974), GOD TOLD ME TO (1976), and Q: THE WINGED SERPENT (1982)--and directed by Cohen's sometimes-collaborator William Lustig (1988's MANIAC COP and sequels), UNCLE SAM is actually a dark Juvenalian satire of cultural phenomena like blind patriotism, patriotic demagoguery, the romanticizing of war, and misguided hero worship. Although the satirical aspects are more blatant here than in THE STUFF (1985)--Cohen's top-notch feature-length mockery of consumer excess and the smarmy advertising industry that spurs it on--UNCLE SAM still cogently and humorously delivers its message and is therefore a lot of fun to watch. It has also been argued that UNCLE SAM is gently spoofing the slasher sub-genre itself. While it's obvious that this is not the primary theme, it would be difficult to deny that the film does offer a few playful jabs at other holiday-themed slasher flicks.
The acting in the film is above par, especially for a low-budget horror film. (Watch for lots of well-known faces, including Timothy Bottoms, Isaac Hayes, and the cute P.J. Soles of HALLOWEEN fame.) The cinematography is excellent, the attention to color (especially the reds, whites, and blues), the use of shadows and contrast, and the skillful framing in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio at times breathtakingly beautiful. And Lustig's direction is tight but not overbearing, and he keeps the plot moving along at a natural but exciting pace.
In many ways, UNCLE SAM is a family-friendly slasher flick. That's not to say that it's suitable viewing for the pre-teen Disney crowd, but the characteristics typical of the genre have been toned down. Some of the killings carried out by the titular character actually take place offscreen and are therefore merely implied, and even the murders that do occur within the camera frame are not nearly as bloody nor as gruesome as the genre norm. And unlike many horror films of recent decades, the T&A factor is practically non-existent, with only one scene offering a very brief flash of female nudity. For a genre-loving family with children aged 13 or older, screening this film as part of the 4th-of-July celebration could become a fun annual tradition.
The new DVD treatment of UNCLE SAM from Blue Underground is superb. The digital transfer is nearly perfect, with nary a discernable filmic or digital artifact. The sound quality is also wonderful, with viewers given two versions of Dolby from which to choose. And there is lots of cool bonus material, too, including two feature commentaries, the original theatrical trailer, and more.
UNCLE SAM may not be to every viewers taste, but most genre fans who enjoy dark satire will want to give the disc a spin. And fans of Larry Cohen will certainly want to add this one to their DVD collections.