Uncle Sam (1996) 0
What was I thinking? Well, it went something like this: Iím not paying for the rental, so if it turns out to really eat shit, I can at least console myself with that; Iíd been feeling a slight gravitational tug from this movie for a while because of the unbelievable stupidity of its premise; and hey, itís the fucking Fourth of July! I really ought to have known better though-- Uncle Sam practically screams ďdonít watch me!Ē to anyone who knows what signs to look out for. Letís start with the box art. This movie has one of those multi-picture covers that changes when you tilt it from side to side on its long axis. To a seasoned bad-movie veteran, this is like a huge neon sign reading ď!!NO!!Ē-- direct-to-video production companies keep this gambit in reserve to help them sell their very worst, most agonizing films. More importantly, this is a movie about an undead Gulf War veteran who kills the unpatriotic while dressed as Uncle Sam. Now Iíve see a whole lot of crap in my time, but this may be the absolute worst idea for a horror movie that I have ever heard. But you see, that was what drew me in. When will I ever learn?
Okay, so itís June 14th (later dialogue will suggest that the year is 1994), and somewhere in Kuwait, the authorities have finally found the wreckage of a U.S. Army helicopter that was shot down by friendly fire during the Gulf War. Nearly all the helicopterís passengers look like something out of a 1960ís-vintage driverís ed film, but at least one of them-- the one sitting next to the pilot-- isnít too badly charred. In fact, this particular dead guy (Master Sergeant Sam Harper, played by David ďSharkĒ Fraylick, whoís also been in such scintillating direct-to-video gems as Soultaker and the live-action remake of Fist of the North Star) is in such good condition that he is able to reach out of the burned-out chopper and break the neck of the soldier who finds him. He then pulls the soldierís sidearm, and empties its magazine-- through the now-dead soldierís body, mind you-- into the manís commanding officer. What brought the dead man to life? The screenwriter apparently neither knows nor cares. There is so much wrong with this scene that I scarcely know where to start. For one thing, even assuming that his body was spared the worst of the fire that reduced the rest of his squad to humanoid charcoal briquettes (a highly dubious proposition in itself, seeing as there would have been nobody around to turn a fire extinguisher on the blaze), if Master Sergeant Harper had really been sitting out in the desert for three years (as later dialogue will assert), the heat and aridity alone would have left him little more than a desiccated bundle of human twigs. Then thereís the question of how Harper manages to hit-- repeatedly-- a man standing a good thirty yards away whom he isnít even looking at, while firing through the body of another man! Even if we give Harper credit for some kind of superhuman zombie powers, do you have any idea what happens to a pistol bullet-- even one as large as a 9mm-- when it enters a body? First, thereís the inevitable loss of velocity-- not a trivial matter with a pistol, in which the necessity of a comparatively short barrel limits muzzle velocity in the first place. Then thereís the fact that the human body is made up of many different materials, all of which have at least slightly different strengths and densities. Any time a bullet passes through a substance of one density and into one of another, it is deflected from its original path to a degree roughly proportional to the difference between the two densities, meaning that a bullet that passes through a body almost never exits on the same trajectory as it enters on. And if the bullet should strike a bone (and under the circumstances depicted in the movie, I donít see how it couldnít), thereís a very good chance that it will break up into fragments, unless it was expressly designed to penetrate armor. In short, the difficulties inherent in pulling this trick off would seem to be insuperable.
And thatís just the first fucking scene, man! Seventeen days later, back home in the town of Twin Rivers, Harperís family is struggling to live with the burden of their many cliches. The family consists of Harperís sister Sally (Leslie Neale, from Gremlins 2 and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid), Sallyís immediately-pre-teen son Jody (Christopher Ogden, who went on to appear in SLC Punk!), and Harperís wife Louise (Anne Tremko, who used to be on ďSaved By the Bell: The College Years,Ē may God have mercy on her soul). Through the instrument of some of the most poorly-written dialogue I have ever heard, it is revealed that Jody idolizes Sam, and that he has no idea that the man was a completely evil dick who used to abuse his wife and sister so severely that they were almost happy to learn of his disappearance. It is also hinted (to be confirmed later) that Samís misdeeds were somehow connected to the failure of Sallyís marriage to Jodyís father.
But the cliches donít stop there, oh no. Louise and Sally both have new boyfriends, and no opportunity is allowed to go unexploited for the introduction of something tired and hackneyed into their relationships. Sallyís new guy, Ralph (Tim Grimm from Backdraft, which, I hasten to remind you, he did before Uncle Sam), is a sleazy corporate lawyer who makes his money by seeing to it that the super-rich never have to pay taxes, and Jody canít stand the son of a bitch. Louise is dating a young cop, who will be revealed later to have rather less than the full compliment of reverence for the law that one would desire in those charged with enforcing it, and their relationship is dysfunctional because-- you guessed it-- Louise Canít Trust Men Anymore After What Sam Did To Her. And there are more cliches on display outside the home. Jodyís teacher was a Vietnam War protester in the 60ís. (ďMy uncle said you were cowards,Ē Jody tells him-- and by the way, what the hell is Jodyís middle school doing in session in fucking July?!?!) The mayor of Twin Rivers (Morgan Paull, from Blade Runner and The Swarm) probably ought to move to a seaside resort town so that he could refuse to close the beaches when a huge, man-eating fish arrives in the local waters. The congressman from whatever district Twin Rivers is in (Robert Forster, of The Black Hole
You see, Sam Harperís body is being shipped back home to Twin Rivers. Yes, I realize that he came back to life and massacred the people who discovered his downed chopper. Never mind that-- the movie certainly doesnít. For reasons that are shrouded in mystery, Sally keeps the coffin at her house for three whole days, and it probably would have been sitting in her living room even longer had circumstances allowed it. And strangely enough, nobody but Jody (who seems actively pleased with the situation) seems to make much of the fact that there is a three-year-old stiff in the house. The preparations for the funeral provide yet more opportunities to exhume the bodies of cinemaís hoariest cliches, as Jodyís Iím-Going-To-Be-Just-Like-My-Uncle militarism collides headlong with Ralphís anti-militarist cynicism and the equally anti-militarist disillusionment of Samís old mentor Jed (Isaac Hayes-- yes the Isaac Hayes), a one-legged Korean War vet whose war stories got Sam interested in military service in the first place. See if you can guess ahead of time what shopworn ideas these two men will muster in their disparagement of the modern military.
Now while all this is going on, the camera keeps returning to the inside of Sam Harperís coffin. (And by the way, if Harper was a master sergeant, why the hell is he wearing the chevrons of a sergeant first class?) Indeed, it does so just about every time anyone in the movie does or says something contrary to uncritical patriotism. What seems to be the last straw, finally making the dead man angry enough to get up out of his coffin, pin his old medals (literally) to his chest, and go out to kick some ass, is the activities of a trio of brain-dead teens who (for no reason that is ever elucidated) go to the cemetery where Harper is to be buried to burn an American flag and spraypaint swastikas all over the tombstones. But before dealing with these miscreants, Harper takes a detour to kill the man who was to appear as Uncle Sam in the forthcoming Fourth of July parade and steal his costume. Even God doesnít know why. Then, dressed as Uncle Sam (Get it?! Get it?! Jodyís uncle Sam is dressed up as Uncle Sam! Did you get it?!), the zombie patriot heads straight to the cemetery to Defend the American Way.
He does a lot more Defending of the American Way at Twin Riversí Fourth of July celebration the next day. By the time all is said and done, all of the designated victims will be dead, along with a few characters weíve never seen before who were thrown in just to make the final body count competitive with the big-name slasher films. And naturally, it will fall to Jed, Jody (who experiences one of those overly facile ideological conversions that are the Message Movieís stock in trade), and a crippled kid named Barry (he was maimed in a fireworks accident last July 4th)-- the latter of whom has some kind of psychic link to Harper for no readily apparent reason-- to defeat the undead killer.
It isnít very often that I run across a movie that is so incredibly fucking awful that watching it makes me feel as though its creators have insulted me, but that is Uncle Sam in a nutshell. It isnít just the cliches that are insulting, itís the fact that this movie seems to be predicated on the idea that I, along with everyone else watching it, am an ignoramus. Theoretically, Uncle Samís creators are using the format of the slasher film to make us re-examine our notions of patriotism, of sacrifice, of honor and glory and all that crap, while simultaneously forcing us to come to grips with the idea that most of the alternatives that have thus far been postulated are equally full of shit, and that the people who espouse them are as likely as not be stupid, lazy, selfish, and immoral. In and of itself, this isnít necessarily a bad idea, but anybody with the cognitive horsepower to think in those terms in the first place has probably been thinking in those terms for quite some time, and is likely to be turned off by the fact that Uncle Sam makes its characters on both sides of the issue employ only the worst, least defensible arguments to state their cases, and to couch those feeble arguments in the most simplistic, juvenile terms imaginable. But you know what the most distressing thing about Uncle Sam is? The men responsible for this disaster are William Lustig, the director of Maniac, and Larry Fucking Cohen, who brought us Q, The Stuff, Itís Alive, God Told Me To, and Black Caesar! To think that the creators of some of my favorite films of the 70ís and 80ís would turn around fifteen years later and make a movie that made me feel like I was being pelted with feces for an hour and a half adds a patina of depression to the sense of insult I get watching Uncle Sam.