B-movie classic Uncle Sam begins with the discovery of a three year old American helicopter crash buried in the desert of Kuwait, and ends a couple of weeks later with a zombie slasher massacre at a small town’s July 4th celebration. Among the burned and desiccated corpses in the helicopter is the town’s erstwhile psychopath Sam Harper. Most synopses will tell you that Sam rises from the dead after some teenagers burn a flag over his grave on the evening of July 3rd, but he wasn’t really dead when he was found in that crash; right at the beginning of the film he breaks the neck (in spectacular fashion) of the soldier identifying his dog tag and then shoots that soldier’s commanding officer. The officer is played by William Smith, so he would have turned out to be a bad guy and Sam would have killed him eventually.
Back in Sam’s hometown, his nephew idolizes him, to the horror and dismay of the abused sister and wife Sam left behind. It is the little nephew’s meddling with the casket (he wants to put Sam’s medals in there) that allows the zombie to get out and kill everyone he deems unpatriotic, but he was alive in there the whole time. There are 45 minutes between the opening kills and the point where Sam goes HAM on the town’s miscreants, and you may be tempted to stop watching, but don’t. You don’t want to miss the last 45 minutes, which boasts a celebration ruination of a kind not seen since the parade in Animal House.
I wouldn’t say that the team of director William Lustig and writer Larry Cohen manage to build real suspense by waiting 45 minutes to start the killing spree, but they do pull off the slasher technique of showcasing such an unlikable cast of characters that you can’t wait to see them die in creative ways. If I have any critique of this film, a film which really is so goofy it isn’t worth complaining about, it is that there are too many characters. For example, we didn’t need to meet a sister and a wife and both of their boyfriends. We did, however, need the over-the-top bitter mom (the always welcome P.J. Soles) of a kid maimed by fireworks the previous year. We also needed the peg-legged Vietnam vet played by Isaac Hayes, an old friend of Sam’s whose guilt at the contribution his war stories made to Sam’s fate probably gives the dead guy as much motivation to rise up as his young nephew’s misplaced hero worship. When the blind and wheelchair-bound son of Soles’s character teams up with Hayes at the end, let’s just say I’d watch a sequel about those two characters traveling the land defeating evil. Quick, someone write a graphic novel about them, and that will guarantee the resulting film adaptation gets a theatrical release!
I know I said I was going to swear off trying to make sense of supernatural horror, and I am, but I wonder what it says about me when I have no trouble buying the part of the plot where a dead guy comes back to life and kills everyone who pisses him off, but I can’t believe the choice Sam’s sister made to keep his coffin in her living room until the funeral. Who in mid-90s America would do that? Besides, you’re just asking for it when you allow the undead body of a guy who joined the army because he liked hurting people to lie around while everyone talks shit about him and our government for three days. I mean for Christ’s sake, Sam is played by the drunk driving friend from Soultaker! Are you trying to make a zombie? Because that’s how you make one.
Keep in mind this is no Bob Clark’s Deathdream. Uncle Sam is probably not a comment on the horrors of war, just a goofy excuse for a twist on the zombie slasher film. Uncle Sam is more of a horror comedy than a straight horror, which is why I feel justified in laughing it up at all the ridiculous deaths. Not that I need justification. I was laughing pretty hard alone in my basement with my Cheetos during my recent rewatch seeing a teenager in the Uncle Sam costume trying to flee on super high stilts after being caught peeping on the requisite post-shower naked chick in an upstairs window. And then Sam said, “I hope you got an eyeful” before blinding him and stealing his costume! Okay, I don’t have a basement, but I was eating Cheetos.
I have noticed that there are two kinds of slasher movies: the ones where everyone in town knows there is a killer, and the one where no one notices that everyone is disappearing until all hell breaks loose at the end. This is the latter kind. It might have worked better as the former kind, because then it would have given the mayor a chance to refuse to cancel the upcoming festival, as so often happens in that kind of film. Do you have a preference as to which kind of slasher film is better?
Just look at that cover! I don’t know if the best part of my Uncle Sam VHS is the lenticular box or the reel of awful trailers. You never know whether or not a tape will have trailers at the beginning until you play the tape, and when you find several of them, it’s always a bonus. I remember impatiently fast forwarding through those trailer when renting tapes back in the day, and I would never have thought I would seek out and watch trailers. In fact, I’m watching a Something Awful trailer compilation as I type this. The trailers at the beginning of Uncle Sam are mostly for what seems to be horrible A-Pix Entertainment releases, including a martial arts film starring the guy from Silent Library and the guy who played Dwayne Wayne, and an action thriller where the bad guys are Anthony Michael Hall and the head henchman from Children of the Corn. I had to beg my husband to rip the trailers and upload when I saw the pièce de résistance, a commercial for a horror website with a talking CGI skull. Sadly, the site isn’t active anymore, but you can enjoy all the trailers and the commercial here. You can find the entire film on Amazon Prime or on YouTube.