Uncle Sam: Maniac Soldier
Dir. William Lustig (1996)
A soldier killed in Desert Storm comes back from the dead after a group of teenagers burn a flag and spray paint a swastika on his grave. He is not happy with their lack of patriotism.
Another collaboration between William Lustig and Larry Cohen, who gave us not one, not two, but roughly two and a half Maniac Cop movies? Fuck yes, sign me up! Add into that a not-so-subtle critique of America’s Freedom Boner™ and you have the makings of a delightful holiday film. Sam Harper is a soldier who is mortally wounded by friendly fire in Operation Desert Storm. When his team finds his body and discusses how they can cover it up, he uses the last strength from his fading body and kills every one of the men who find him, closing with the line “Don’t be afraid, it’s only friendly fire,” playing off of one of the dumbest phrases ever conceived. His body is sent back to his wife, who alludes to Sam being abusive when they were together and who moved on to date a police officer when Sam was in Kuwait. Sam’s nephew Jody idolizes him, stating that he plans to go into the military when he’s older and he’ll “follow all the President’s orders, because he knows what to do.”
A famous list of men who knew exactly what to do.
The movie is exactly as corny and cheesy as you’d expect it to be, and it’s certainly more for fans of B-movies or those just looking for a fun, mindless slasher film. But for corny slashers, it’s actually not half bad. It’s way deeper than one would expect, though it barely scratches the surface of the horrors of war and the difficulties of what it’s like to come back afterwards. Isaac Hayes, who plays the older veteran who knew Sam when he was growing up (and is fantastic in the film, by the way), tells Sam’s nephew that “there are no heroes, only crazy men who lost their mind in the middle of battle. Every sane person’s got his head down, trying to stay alive.” It’s a brief discussion of what being a “hero” in battle actually means, and how it’s only lunacy and hate that drives the people who commit these “heroic” actions. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a relatively controversial opinion outside of Hollywood, but the over-the-top, ultra-patriotic, military-fetishistic Jody makes it seem like the more rational and coherent argument. The sad thing is, having known many children in military families, Jody’s view is not far from those held by a lot of these kids. What are they to do but view their fallen family members as heroes? How else are they supposed to cope with their loved ones’ deaths?
Of course, we also get the exact opposite point of view, as a group of hoodlums who don’t seem to be protesting anything in particular decide to burn an American flag standing above Sam’s eventual resting place, right after they hastily spray paint a swastika on his tombstone. Somehow, Sam senses this inside his coffin (which is inexplicably left at his wife’s house until the funeral), and he rises from his coffin, dresses in his military regalia, and goes to kick some ass like a patriotic Jason Voorhees. What we get from this film is, essentially, Maniac Soldier, and it doesn’t deviate very much from the tried-and-somewhat-true formula that Lustig and Cohen established in the MC series. Both the MC movies and Uncle Sam give their villains a backstory, and it almost seems like they are trying to make them sympathetic antiheroes, or at least try to subvert that trope. However, MC was a corrupt cop from the get-go, and Sam was a piece of shit who joined the military so that he could kill people. Yeah, there’s a brief subplot about how their deaths were not handled appropriately by those in charge, but they’re both clearly evil people who wreak the havoc in death that they wished to in life. The differences are what make MC the much better films, though there are some excellent things about this one as well.
The major difference between this and the MC movies is that this is much more of the standard slasher film than it is anything else, but it’s a slasher that is handled relatively well. Uncle Sam is not a bad film, for sure, but it prevents itself from going into “good” status by cutting away from the more gruesome moments, delivering less gore than it rightfully should contain and leaving us with the after-effects much more than the actual acts themselves. It also starts a bit slower than I would have liked, and it takes fully forty minutes into the film before we start seeing Sam off the local residents (starting with a guy in an Uncle Sam costume on stilts, where he gets the mask that he wears throughout the rest of the film.) He kills a guy with pruning shears, buries one alive, and hangs one from a flagpole as Taps is played in the background. He even grills a severed head, which honestly might not taste that bad. It wrings every bit of juice from its patriotic theme, and its got a veritable checklist of kills with all the items you would expect to be present at a 4th of July celebration.
Is that what it means when they say half-mast?
The film is better than you’d expect, but it’s certainly not amazing. That being said, it has a little bit of everything. It has a random subplot of a boy who was blinded and scarred by fireworks and shares an odd, seemingly-psychic connection with the killer; it’s got a military public relations guy who tries to sleep with the family members of those that he reports as deceased; and it even has a screamo version of the National Anthem. What more can you ask for from a shameless, B-level Lustig joint? With short cameo roles by PJ Soles and Robert Forster and a supporting role from Isaac Hayes, it’s got just enough star power and capable acting to move itself out of the Troma catalogue and move it into the “well, the box art is kinda cool looking so we might as well rent it” category. I’ve seen a lot better, but I’ve also seen a lot worse. While there’s nothing in this film that should make America proud, it is custom-built for the kind of cheap consumerism that we all know and love. If there’s a better way to ring in Independence Day than watching a band dressed as the founding fathers provide the background music for an Uncle Sam-dressed serial killer, I haven’t seen it yet.
Who this movie is for: B-slasher fans; Lustig disciples; Unwavering patriots who want to identify with the killer
Bottom line: It’s not a bad film, and certainly worth a watch for slasher completionists. It’s got some cool kills and a genuinely creepy mask, but it also gets a tad preachy at times on a subject that it is not nearly qualified to handle. While it may not be the best movie that we’ll watch over the holiday weekend, it scratches an itch in the same way that Jack Frost, the similar film about a killer snowman, does. It’s one that slasher fans should see at least once, and at the end of the day it’s exactly what you think it would be from the cover art, though perhaps a bit better than you’d expect. It also, strangely, rehashes the war story from the MC films about a soldier preventing hypothermia by piling dead bodies on top of them, which is a weird thing to put in your movies twice. Either way, give it a shot and let me know what you think.