Uncle Sam is William Lustig’s latest masterpiece, Underseen Grindhouse
The 1980s had no shortage of cinematic offerings from unsavory exploitation directors, most of whom were known for marrying subversive politics with a mastery of low and often repulsive grindhouse shock. Consider the films of Larry Cohena prolific genre maverick who has achieved landmark works in the respective subcategories of Blaxploitation (black caesar, Hell in Harlem), supernatural horror (It’s alive and its sequels), werewolf movies (high full moon), and John Charpentier– inspired social pamphlets (The thing). Or how about the happily perverted filmography of Frank Henenlotter, who gave us the likes of push button basket case and Frankenhooker? Should we even mention the production of Troma during this same period? Seriously, you saw The toxic avenger?
Even when juxtaposed with the rest of this scuzzy bunch, Guillaume Lustig stands out from the crowd. Lustig is perhaps best known for the notorious 1980s Maniacal – still, to this day, one of the baddest and most sordid slashers of the decade, which is really saying something. Over the next few years, Lustig would become (in)famous for its wild nature manic cop series, in which a corrupt police officer is killed in the line of duty before rising from the dead for murderous revenge. Lustig’s sinister 1982 street thriller Vigilant is also an underrated gem, beating the death wish films at their own sadistic game.
One of Lustig’s most sadly overlooked films is Uncle Sama hilarious, funny and satirically prescient horror-comedy that went straight to video in the mid-90s and is currently available to stream on home horror streaming service Shudder. (Coincidently, Uncle Sam boasts a writing credit from one of the B-movie pioneers mentioned in the first paragraph, Larry Cohen.) It’s easy to see why Uncle Sam was met with derision in some circles. It’s a film that proudly owns its amateurish qualities, often poking fun at itself as a form of beating the audience to the punch. In a retrospective published by The AV Club in 2002, Nathan Rabin reviewed Uncle Samclaiming that Lustig’s last film was “just as lazy and uninspired as the manic cop the films that preceded it.” In effect, Uncle Sam is profoundly silly and undeniably sloppy: that’s part of his charm. It’s a true midnight blue movie that punctuates moments of dread with the most goofy displays of cartoon brutality the viewer can imagine.
And yet… and yet. It seems that with Uncle Sam, Lustig and Cohen were looking for more than just rehashing themes and techniques from their old work. Look past the hammy dialogue and over-the-top gore, and you’ll find a surprisingly sharp critique of chauvinistic alarmism, military fetishism, and toxic nationalism disguised as patriotism. Just like the manic cop the films indirectly address police brutality by crafting an exasperated political message in the Trojan horse of a filthy cinematic experience, Uncle Sam tackles our nation’s cyclical and ever-ongoing love affair with the military-industrial complex by unleashing a murderous fascist zombie on an American apple suburb.
What is “Uncle Sam” about?
Uncle Sam is the story of Sam Harper, an American military sergeant who is killed in Kuwait as a result of friendly fire in the film’s opening scene. Even when his corpse is brought back to the United States just in time for the July 4 celebration in his hometown, the mourning is kept to a minimum. It’s not because Sam’s family is made up of bereavement-averse sociopaths – rather, it’s because everyone in the family seems to agree that Sam was a terrible guy – the kind with a penchant for drug addiction, as well than others, more naturally cruel forms of evil directed at other more vulnerable people in one’s life. Sam’s sister, when we meet her, is handling matters related to her late brother’s expiration. Much of his screen time languishes on his son, Jody, who adores and reveres the U.S. military and dreams of one day fighting to defend America the same way his Uncle Sam did (to find?) did.
Scene after scene, Jody either performs with toy soldiers or extols the virtues of our country’s military might to her visibly overwhelmed mother. In any other movie of this genre, Jody would just be another precocious, mouth-mouthed young kid who exists to stand up to and inevitably defeat the Big Bad near climax. Here, he is the substitute for a country too enamored with the residual cultural side effects of Red Dawn, Rambo, and other hyper-patriotic movies to deal with the very real collateral damage of what he unwittingly romanticizes.
At first, the viewer must deduce that Uncle Sam himself simply chooses to violently dispatch any poor soul who dares to offend his brazenly pro-American views. By the end of Lustig’s film, the bloodshed is all-consuming, entirely wholesale, and we’re left to observe that what the filmmakers really see at the heart of their flag-waving unwavering sense of tribal pride is a kind of nihilism defeated. . There is nothing left for this broken individual to do, even in death, but indiscriminately inflict more pain and abuse.
There are plenty more surprises in store for those who decide to strap in and ride around with it. Uncle Sam: a handful of incredibly creative kills (one of the most memorable examples sees the reanimated zombie-dead Sam adopting a particularly grisly new way of hoisting the American flag), a Civil War-era battle cannon used as a weapon , and none other than isaac hayes (which, as he proved in Escape from New York, is no stranger to this kind of film), lending this otherwise knowingly junky ride an authentic sense of pathos. As ridiculous as Uncle Sam is often – and it’s really very, very ridiculous – the film is also driven by a genuine sense of outrage that makes it, against all odds, one of William Lustig’s most curiously enduring works.
It’s easy to mock and laugh at movies like this. It’s easy to look down on this kind of material and feel like the smartest person in the room. In some ways, one could argue that the filmmakers are actively inviting this kind of contempt. The Lustigs and Cohens of the world seem to enjoy making dirty, fun, irreverent pictures in this vein; why should they care what the critics think? Yet the political message of Uncle Sam hit harder so you don’t get stuck in your throat. To its credit, Lustig’s swansong gives you first your dessert, then your vegetables: you come for the sight of an evil American mascot strolling through a suburban neighborhood at night on stilts that would look oversized on a giraffe, but you stay in your place. for compelling social commentary.