Star-Spangled Shocker: A Leftie Limey Reflects on Uncle Sam (1996)

Matty explains why William Lustig’s Larry Cohen-penned slasher is now more relevant than ever.  

As a Brit, my knowledge of Independence Day is limited to Wikipedia, what a few American friends say, and the Roland Emmerich movie of the same name. However, as someone who loves a shindig, I do like to mark the 4th of July — particularly as I enjoy the irony of my stateside pals celebrating getting away from me and the tea-stained, colonial clutches of my fellow manky-toothed ancestors. And what grander way to do it than by watching a date-appropriate slasher flick? Halloween has, well, Halloween (1978), Christmas has Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), and the 4th of July has the mighty UNCLE SAM: a slick, overlooked hack-a-thon that’s become more frighteningly relevant these last few years.

Written by Larry Cohen, Uncle Sam began as a title and poster that the late, great indie auteur could whip around potential investors to drum up backing. With Cohen’s old china/Maniac Cop trilogy collaborator, William Lustig, attached to direct, Cohen and producer George G. Braunstein raised a tidy $2million budget, the film’s finance coming from businessman Lamar Gable — now the chairman of Barron Collier, a commercial and residential real estate company in Southwest Florida. Stemming from Cohen’s belief that the image of Uncle Sam had transformed into a subject of scorn the world over thanks to America’s increasingly boorish reputation, the mercurial genre genius wanted to tell a story about how those who blindly follow orders are subordinate to the more sinister machinations of their superiors — in this case, a soldier victim of his own government’s ineptitude. Cohen’s typically charged premise concerns a US army trooper, Master Sergeant Sam Harper, who’s shot down in Kuwait during a Middle Eastern conflict that, though unspecified, is obviously — purposefully — the first Gulf War. 

Unlike Vietnam which quickly fell afoul with the American public when footage of napalm attacks and the My Lai Massacre obliterated whatever notions of heroism the US army tried to foster, the 1991 Gulf War was a triumph of propaganda. Throughout the contra, the US military carefully controlled the endless rolling news footage. Top brass were keen to show off their impressive array of hardware and weaponry, and big-up their accomplishments in combat, despite a staggering 24% of the 148 US soldiers killed in battle being due to friendly fire. 

It’s this that kills Sam Harper. 

Opening in Kuwait, Uncle Sam starts with the discovery of Harper’s flambeed body in a charred helicopter chassis. When one of the response team questions friendly fire, the reply spat forth by William Smith’s grizzled Major speaks volumes: “I don’t want to hear that crap,” the legendary heavy barks. “These things happen in war.” The implication is bone-freezing: death by the supposed good — ie. those you’re fighting for and who’re meant to protect you — is a formality as inevitable as death by the enemy. All we can do is shut our pie holes and get on with it. The guy’s above don’t care; we’re meat for the machine. And today, when the leadership we’ve got on either side of the Atlantic is characterised by vagaries, lies, and gross incompetence, it’s even more chilling — especially as our respective straw-haired bossmen are hellbent on downplaying a global pandemic in the name of spin and popularity. Health workers and those on the front line might be dying, but it’ll at least make America and ol’ Blighty great again, right? 

It’s a grim truth not lost on Harper. Temporarily springing back to life in a moment of EC-tinged ghoulishness, the deep-fried Desert Stormer musters just enough energy to snap the response team soldier’s neck and pump Smith full of lead in a burst of vengeful fury. “Don’t be afraid — it’s only friendly fire,” he wryly croaks before properly, erm, croaking. Harper knows the cards he’s been dealt. And boy is he vexed.

You see, pre-demise, Harper was already a complicated chap. Lustig clues us in with the film’s titles: a razzle-dazzle montage where stock footage of the various representations of Uncle Sam throughout history illustrate how this quintessentially American piece of iconography has been co-opted by everyone from the government to the Ku Klux Klan. Such a juxtaposition teases the same idea that Lustig and Cohen explored in the original Maniac Cop (1988), that the truly wicked and those with power or a badge or a uniform are often arm in arm, indivisible. While Lustig and Cohen would go on to soften the hulking Cordell in Maniac Cop’s two sequels, retconning him from a thuggish brute who enjoyed infringing upon his suspects’ rights to an honourable bit of bacon framed by his corrupt gaffers, their initial iteration of the titular plod presented him as a born n’ bred sadist who was attracted to the police force because it gave him the authority and means to hurt people with relative impunity (until Cordell ends up in Sing Sing for his actions anyway). Sam Harper is no different. As Uncle Sam unfolds, we quickly learn that the soldier isn’t the hero his young nephew, Jody (the endearing Christopher Ogden), believes him to be. He was a nasty, alcoholic tyrant who used to beat his estranged wife (a suitably fragile turn from Anne Tremko), and terrorise his equally estranged sister, Jody’s Mum, Sally (Leslie Neale). In the film’s darkest scene — which is handled with great sensitivity by Lustig, who seldom gets credit for how deft a dramatist he is (witness: the harrowing psychological probing of Joe Spinell’s eponymous loon in Maniac (1980), and the family-based turmoil in ace serial killer thriller Relentless (1989)) — Sally reveals to a crushed Jody the horrific abuse she suffered as a child, detailing Sam’s torment of her as physical, emotional, and sexual. 

Harper’s mentor, Sgt. Jed Crowley, offers the most succinct summation of who Sam was. Beautifully essayed by soul legend Isaac Hayes (just prior to his pop culture resurgence as the voice of Chef in South Park), Crowley is an aged man wracked by decades of regret but a total arse-kicker when the situation requires it. “Sam was an angry kid,” Crowley mournfully sighs, contemplating how his war stories inadvertently shaped the bastard. “He had to get it out of his system. I took him hunting once and he scared me. He liked killing.” Simply, the army afforded Harper the opportunity to indulge his depravity under the guise of patriotism — which sure sounds familiar…

Uncle Sam (1996)

Indeed, you don’t have to be a political pundit to have noticed how, in these fraught and terrifying times, patriotism is a word frequently employed to justify reprehensible behaviour. From the chest-thumping Trump nuts in America, to the ruddy-faced, flag-shagging gammons here in the UK, bigots are emboldened by the barely concealed contempt our figureheads have for anyone who isn’t a straight white male, and are merrily excused of their misdeeds because, duhhh, they love their country. Racism and homophobia get ignored in the land of the free. White supremacy is fine as long as it’s suffixed by a cry of ‘God save the Queen’. All lives matter. There is no white privilege. There is no Coronavirus. Get Brexit done and all that bollocks. And what stirs in Uncle Sam are Cohen and Lustig’s jibes at these kinds of folk. 

Evoking Bob Clark’s creepy anti-’Nam parable Deathdream (1972), in which another dead soldier returns from the grave to similarly stalk his hometown, back on US soil, the zombified Harper reanimates ahead of his funeral and opts to cut a bloody swathe through the denizens of the sleepy, idyllic-looking Californian backwater of Twin Rivers. In a further Deathdream-infused flourish towards the end of the film, Cohen suggests Jody’s misplaced idol worship of Harper as a possible reason for his resurrection; a vague echo of The Monkey’s Paw-esque MacGuffin of Clark’s picture, where the grief-stricken wailing of a bereaved mother apparently wills her deceased son back into existence. However, as those who’ve witnessed Deathdream’s unbearably tense “I died for you” speech can attest, Harper’s unrest in Uncle Sam is also firmly rooted in his own internal rage. 

The first half of Uncle Sam is loaded with character work which, sadly, won’t jive if you’re hankering for a faster paced hour and a half of mayhem. But those who persevere with the film’s steady build will be richly rewarded when Harper emerges from his coffin — at the stroke of midnight on the 4th of July, no less. In a robustly constructed sequence that ranks among Lustig’s career-best set pieces, Harper pursues a stilt-wearing peeping tom across a foggy park. Naturally, the peeper is clad in an Uncle Sam outfit: ostensibly because he’s practicing his stilt walk for Twin Rivers’ upcoming parade, but, really, to strengthen Cohen’s poke at those who disguise their ugly nature behind a noble exterior. Dispatching the randy bozo with a pair of garden shears, Harper steals his costume and cements the metaphor. He wraps his icky, pustulating visage (which is rendered with tremendous flair by SOTA FX — the gruesome grunt is part Savini shuffler, part Freddy Krueger) and, by proxy, his murderous desires in a big virtuous bow the embodiment of America’s vision and values. And as he did in life, the undead Harper frames his bloodlust as patriotism, skulking through the town and slaughtering those he deems un-American. In a multitude of murders that Lustig executes with technical moxie and laconic aplomb, a couple of tearaway teens who don’t afford the stars and stripes the proper respect get skewered; a conscientious objector school teacher gets axed in the head for his perceived cowardice; a snarky adolescent lad gets decapitated for mocking the national anthem; an ambitious lawyer in an Abraham Lincoln cosplay gets assassinated (off-screen, alas, but the Lincoln touch is very funny); and a snivelling senator (Lustig’s Vigilante (1982) and Maniac Cop 3 (1993) star Robert Forster) gets blasted by fireworks. But as Harper’s butchering of his ex-wife’s new beau proves, there are personal motivations to his killing spree. He’s not ridding Twin Rivers of its country-hating undesirables: like many a so-called patriot, Harper attacks because others don’t agree or fit with his opinion or lifestyle. The three totalled delinquents are just being prank-loving kids; the teacher is just of a differing, more liberal persuasion than the right-wing Harper; as prick-ish as he is, the lawyer is fundamentally trying to refine the American judicial system by challenging sketchy and poorly conceived government legislature; and Harper’s wife’s paramour is guilty only of treating her nicer than Harper did. In fact, in classically satirical Cohen fashion (c’mon — what did you expect from the man responsible for It’s Alive (1974) and The Stuff (1985)?), the genuine undesirables of Uncle Sam’s narrative are those akin to Harper, the aforementioned peeper, and a skeevy Sergeant who uses his role in public relations to bed army widows. Played to the hilt by Bo Hopkins, this oily slimeball is a virtual mirror of Harper; another character whose vices are tarted up with medals and regalia. 

With that in mind, there is a perverse self-awareness to Harper. “Americans?! These are the same people that left me to die in the desert,” the putrefying fiend rasps in Uncle Sam’s climax. “Well, now they have to face me”. Harper is too villainous and vile to feel sympathy for, but Lustig ensures the anger and exasperation that fuels stuntman-cum-actor David ‘Shark’ Fralick’s performance emanates from the screen. And for a second, there’s a flash of hope, Harper understanding that it’s the higher-ups he put his faith in who helped further twist him into a literal monster. They incubated the evil already within him. 

Having thwarted his homicidal zombie uncle with a cannon (resulting in a nifty full body burn that, given the stunt’s prevalence in Lustig’s oeuvre, is arguably his defining directorial trait), it’s a thought that appears to have resonated with Jody in Uncle Sam’s unnerving coda. But as Lustig’s ambiguous, Fulci-aping final shot demonstrates, the image shattering City of the Living Dead (1980)-style as Jody cracks a disquieting smirk (a deliberate homage: the film is dedicated to the then-just-passed maestro’s memory), there’s a sense that his worship of Harper is still there. It’s bleak and strikes a chord. Because as the wave of racism that’s swept the planet amidst BLM has made clear, at the minute, bigotry and hatred are obviously so ingrained into the human psyche that it seems we’ll never completely eradicate them, and that they’ll always be here in one form or another. But, hey, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep railing against it. As Jed Crowley affirms, it’s better to confront Sam Harpers than let them run riot.          

Happy 4th.

Uncle Sam (1996) US VHS
Uncle Sam’s iconic US VHS cover. The second highest-selling title in distributor A-Pix’s history at the time of its release in July 1997, Uncle Sam was packaged with lenticular artwork that transformed an old man Uncle Sam into a ghoul with a simple tilt of the box. To promote it, A-Pix also issued lenticular posters (see below). According to IMDb, only ten posters made it to video stores. Here in the UK, Uncle Sam was released on tape by BMG in March 1997.
Uncle Sam (1996) lenticular
Lenticular poster courtesy of Site of the Dead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s