Written by Larry Cohen
It’s a pretty familiar refrain from me, but I wish Larry Cohen had directed Uncle Sam instead of simply writing it. There is a very subversive film to be made from his script that undercuts the faux-patriotism of blindly following your country’s government, no matter how morally questionable its actions. Cohen’s script also tries to graft on a critique of how the military might appeal to angry, violent young men and how the military sees them as useful assets in times of war. Both issues make for intriguing subtexts, but it seems like one too many elements for director William Lustig to wrangle into a coherent whole.
The year is 1996 and an American attack helicopter is found in the Kuwaiti desert, three years after the end of Desert Storm. The helicopter was shot down by friendly fire and buried in the sand. As the helicopter is searched, the burned corpse of gunner Sam Harper (David Shark Fralick) suddenly comes to life. He breaks the neck of the soldier searching the helicopter and shoots the officer (character actor extraordinaire William Smith in a cameo) on hand to supervise the recovery of the bodies before seemingly returning to death.
Meanwhile, in Harper’s peaceful home town, news of the discovery of his body is met with mixed reactions by his family. His nephew Jody (Christopher Ogden), a youngster around eleven or twelve years of age, goes into mourning for the man he barely recalls, but holds dear as a beloved hero. Jody’s mother, Sally (Leslie Neale), is more reserved in her reaction, trying to rein in Jody’s hero-worship of her brother. Louise (Anne Tremko), Sam’s widow, is more animated in her relieved reaction since she has been living in fear that Sam might still be alive.
It seems that before he joined the military, Sam was a man who used his family as an outlet for his anger. He abused Sally when they were children and then turned his violent temper on Louise after they married. And now that the coffin containing his corpse is sitting in Sally’s living room, all those bad memories are stirred up for his family.
Into this already psychologically difficult situation comes the supernatural element as Sam rises from his coffin as an undead psycho (who looks and behaves very similarly to Cohen and Lustig’s Maniac Cop). As Jody continues to defend his dead uncle as a hero to anyone who will listen, Sam dons an Uncle Sam mask and descends upon the town’s Fourth of July celebration to unleash some mega-violence on those he considers deserving of his wrath.
And whom does he target? Well, just about everyone in town. From Jody’s draft-dodging history teacher (Timothy Bottoms) to a corrupt congressman (Robert Forster, a year before his career resurgence via Jackie Brown) to a trio of teenage punks who burn an American flag in the graveyard, everyone is considered fair game. Eventually, Sam sets his sights on Sally and Louise, forcing Jody to finally realize his uncle might not have been such a great guy, after all.
Much is made throughout the film of what a horrible person Sam was in life and these scenes become a little too repetitive. Even those whom Sam was on good terms with, like disabled veteran Jed (Isaac Hayes), are quick to point out Sam’s anger. But once Sam goes on his killing spree, it seems odd to have a scene where Sally and Louise sit down to explain to Jody what a horrible person Sam was. At that point, the audience gets it—he was a very bad guy. But now he’s a very bad, undead guy, so maybe now is not the best time to sit around and talk about the past.
Cohen’s script returns time and again to the idea that Sam’s supposed patriotism is nothing more than a reason to engage in homicidal behavior. For much of the first two acts, Sam only kills those who, in his mind, show disrespect to America or the military. But when the third act rolls around, he is exposed as the phony he is, killing people who merely question the necessity of a war like Desert Storm or those he sees as standing in his way of getting at Sally and Louise.
Given the moral of the film is to show the harmful effects of believing patriotism to be blind allegiance to your government, it was inevitable that Sam’s warped patriotic ideals would be revealed as a load of self-serving crap. But it was also disappointing when the point in the film rolled around where he began killing indiscriminately. It suddenly made him less interesting as a villain when he became just another undead killing machine who hates everyone and everything.
But even when he abandons the more interesting ideas in Cohen’s script, Lustig is still a skilled director and he makes sure Uncle Sam is a solidly put together undead slasher film. The kill scenes are stylishly shot and edited with a highlight being an inventive sequence that makes good use of fireworks, the pointed end of a flagpole, and a third string hero who should have known better than to go up against the villain in a horror film.
But there are plenty of slasher films that pull off the basic elements with similar ease. Given the potentially subversive commentary on the military in Cohen’s script, Uncle Sam should have been more than another slasher film. That it eventually settles for being slightly above mediocre makes it a disappointment.
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