Larry Cohen’s reputation as a grindhouse smuggler of the first order has been pretty well set since Q: The Winged Serpent‘s cheeky Harryhausen-over-SoHo vibe generated surprisingly brisk box office lucre, but while The Stuff, It’s Alive, and God Told Me To are justly recognized as simultaneously sleazy and elegant milestones, Cohen’s screenwriting work (if anything, even more funky in ambition) has only begun to attract the same level of attention, thanks to his recent Pacific Bell diptych. Among the casualties of the auteurist wars is Uncle Sam (with William Lustig at the helm), and I don’t care which side of the current cultural-political schism you choose to worship, Cohen’s got your number. While not much more plotwise than a elemental replay of the director and writer’s previous zombie-vigilante collaboration Maniac Cop (from the looks of it, at half the price), Cohen’s vicious portrait of wartime America as the land of opportunism, lip service, and raging (albeit spineless) jingoism skewers the hypocrisy of hawks and doves alike.
When the charred body of the titular Sam comes back from Iraq during Bush Sr.‘s Gulf War, felled by friendly fire, his small hometown (in the midst of their Independence Day festivities) all make a game attempt at putting a stiff-upper-lipped display of respect and allegiance for the benefit of his nephew (a faggy little twig who constantly lisps “When I grow up, I’m going to be a soldier just like my uncle Sam,” despite the obvious impending “don’t tell” barriers lying ahead of him). But only the sage Isaac Hayes seems to be willing to tell the boy the harsh truth: that Sam was something of a xenophobic, misogynistic, bloodthirsty asshole who probably deserved to get fragged. “There are no heroes, only crazy men who lose their mind in the middle of a battle,” Hayes growls. “And if by some miracle he doesn’t die, they pin a ribbon on him, send him home and tell him never to be crazy again.” Sure enough, Sam’s Red, White & BBQ corpse comes back to life and pins his Purple Heart directly onto his still cracklin’ chest to carry out a posthumous mission: to execute all the Americans unworthy of his warped sense of heroism—draft dodgers, photo-op politicians, floppy-haired teenage punks who don’t sing the national anthem with the proper reverence…well, actually everyone who isn’t an A-Rab killing machine.
Complementing Cohen’s note-perfect string of nationalistic platitudes, Lustig’s surprisingly evocative widescreen compositions are peppered with an absurd parade of Americana—fireworks, potato-sack races, even a morose, wheelchair bound young boy as a ludicrous representation of the stereotypical Vietnam vet—almost all of which become the instruments of death to an amassed populace that feels no qualms about celebrating its own legacy of militaristic vengeance but draws the line if it threatens to soil their bubble of blithe privilege. Oh, and it features a gliding, dreamlike chase scene on stilts that, no doubt to Sam’s chagrin, momentarily thrusts the video cheapie straight into the realm of swooning Euro-horror. Otherwise, it’s Dogville through the eyes of a pit bull.