Friday, November 18, 2016

Bring Out Your Dead!

Recently, I pulled out a couple of DVDs that had been gathering much dust on my shelves. Well, not really gathering dust as I make the occasional excavation run through my DVDs to find titles I know I have on hand, but that I can't seem to find by just general review of the spines.

In any event, I pulled the two movies for two reasons: One, they were originally packaged together in a special deal from Blue Underground, and, two, the films deal with similar issues even though the method of how those issues are presented form completely different end results. The two films are Deathdream (also known as Dead of Night, Night Walk, and The Night Andy Came Home) and Uncle Sam.

Though both are incredibly low budget, both deal with themes of duty, loss, and love or the lack thereof. All very lofty targets for small movies, but how do the films handle their themes, and are they successful?

Deathdream does not beat around the bush with pretension or mystery. You see the major character Andy killed in Vietnam (though it never really states that war by name), so you know that when he shows up the night his folks are informed of his death that he is dead but has been drawn home by the power of his mother's love and prayers. Just because we think we want or need something or someone doesn't mean that our desires are the best for everyone involved, as we see Andy has returned as his mother wished, but that which made Andy ANDY was left on that battlefield thousands of miles away.

Uncle Sam has Sam Harper, a soldier who was MIA in a more recent Gulf War conflict, found dead due to "friendly fire" (meaning he was hit by weapons wielded by his own troops). His body is sent to his loved ones, a wife and a sister as well as a nephew who idolized Sam, back home. We find out that Sam is not the hero his nephew thinks he is. He apparently abused his sister and his wife to the point that both distrust and detest men. Even his closest friend, played by Isaac Hayes, admits that Sam was a person who enjoyed hurting and killing others, and that in no way makes him a hero. But Sam, possibly triggered by a vast number of "un-American" activities involving a Fourth of July celebration, rises from the grave to defend America once again.

Two stories of American dead returning from questionable conflicts. But, oh boy!, do they take different paths!

The script for Deathdream, written by Alan Ormsby and directed by Bob Clark, is a slow build up from the moment Andy returns home. He is different, quieter, and withdrawn. His lack of interest in much of anything begins to claw away at the tightly-drawn smiles of his family. Everyone keeps up a fa├žade that everything is fine and dandy, but it is obvious that Andy is not the same person who left home many months ago to fight overseas. Whether it is intentional or not, it clearly notes the mental trauma of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that has become connected with the Vietnam War, even though they use the fact that Andy is actually dead to convey the disconnected mental status.

We watch as Andy and those around him slowly descend into a pit of confusion, pain, and anger while Andy is rotting away (quite literally) in a half-life that he did not ask for and doesn't know how to escape.

The film is quiet and understated in such a way that the viewer is pulled into the story and is faced with the same questions the family has: What happened to the Andy they knew? How do they handle his changes and get on with what used to be a fairly happy and stable life? Why is this happening? How can they help Andy who now seems almost alien to them?

On the other hand, Uncle Sam trades the slow psychological burn for in-your-face splatstick and unsubtle commentary on patriotism and blind acceptance of "America: Love It or Leave It" jingoism. Of course, the film was directed by William Lustig (director of the supremely unsubtle Maniac) and written by genre veteran Larry Cohen. If you need an introduction to what you are about to get involved, watch Maniac Cop made by the same dynamic duo, and I think you'll understand the territory you are wandering into.

The first quarter of the film seems aimed at putting the viewer on the side of Sam Harper. We first see Sam, or what is left of him, in the wreckage of a helicopter downed by friendly fire. While the commanding officer tells his men that these kind of things happen in combat, Sam uses the last of his strength to shoot both the soldier examining him and the commanding officer and to say, "Don't worry. It's only 'friendly' fire!" As Sam's body is brought home, we are introduced to a weak-willed draft dodger posing as a kindly teacher, a pervert on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam, and some young punks who feel spray painting swastikas and burning American flags are fine ways of working off that teenage energy. Let's not forget the leering military officer assigned to inform Sam's widow that her husband's body has been located and is being returned, or the slimy politician who, in spite of being a known crook, is looking to rack up some votes at the small town's Fourth of July gathering.

When Sam begins picking off these miserable excuses for humans, we can feel a pinch of pride that the American way is being upheld.

Then we start learning the truth. Sam was a cruel and violent person before he ever joined the military. He committed acts upon his sister, starting when she was six, that she has trouble talking about when explaining them to her son, Sam's hero-worshiping nephew. He routinely terrorized and abused his wife. He took delight in hearing stories about war and killing and realized that the military would be his best chance to act on his twisted needs.

Okay, so his motivations aren't as noble as those of Andy in Deathdream.

Larry Cohen is a great writer for exploitation flicks. He manages to work in social and political commentary into a lot of his films like Q, It's Alive, and God Told Me To. Admittedly, he also directed his own screenplays in those instances, but even in Maniac Cop, directed by Uncle Sam's William Lustig, Cohen managed to get a few well-placed digs at social ills. Here, he sets up a number of characters primed for fleshing out to make some biting commentary on patriotism, military swagger, and honoring the country you live in, but his script does little more than give you characters with bull's eyes on their heads for the underplayed death scenes. Instant set up for off-hand kills by Sam.

Compared to Deathdream's slow build up that uses the family dynamic as a way to focus the story, Uncle Sam uses a scatter-shot approach that allows for a more inclusive look at the issues at hand but that same approach also dilutes and undermines the potential power the film could have had. Essentially, Uncle Sam comes across as mostly plot points with little story to give the film an impact of little more than a variation on the slasher genre. That Larry Cohen opted to go that route is such a shame given the split in the country over the Gulf War, similar to that of Vietnam, with one side pro-America with the ideal that we are right in our involvement overseas compared to those who feel the war is designed to protect the status of American petrodollars and bolster corporate bottom lines.

Admittedly, given the vast difference in how the films approach their topics, one could almost assume I am comparing pickles and grapes. Maybe I am, to a certain point. Still, with roughly similar ideas (those killed in the war returning to life in their home country which doesn't know how to process inner conflicts over the wars that caused the death of the soldiers), we could have had two strong films that rose above their horror film labels to be excellent commentaries on how those on the home front deal with the tragedy of war.

Instead, we have one potential classic and one attempt at satire that squanders its power in rapid-fire, mindless kills with minimal consideration towards commentary.

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