“Uncle Sam”: The End of a Slasher Era

When it comes to 4th of July themed horror movies, you have classics like Jaws, Return of the Living Dead, and I Know What You Did Last Summer.  And while they’re all excellent choices, the 4th of July is really just a backdrop or background setting.  None of them are really about the holiday.  Even something like Independence Day (which is technically sci-fi, not horror, we know) just happens to be set over July 2-4, but it’s really just an alien invasion movie.

No horror film quite captures the spirit of the 4th of July and America itself (both the good and the bad), except for 1996’s Uncle Sam.  Written by Larry Cohen, and directed by William Lustig, Uncle Sam is admittedly a very goofy, ridiculous slasher.  But it has a lot of charm, touches upon some genuinely deep and philosophical questions, and in a strange way it remains the very last slasher of its kind…

Friendly Fire
Opening with Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991, we see the tragic death of Master Sergeant Sam Harper, whose helicopter was accidentally shot down via friendly fire.  Several years later, his body is found and brought back to his hometown, where his sister and wife mourn his complicated legacy.

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Turns out Sam was always a psychopath, even in life.

Always abusive and violent, Sam’s vengeful spirit returns to his body and he goes on a killing spree on the 4th of July, killing anyone who isn’t patriotic enough, and eventually just killing people in general.  Admittedly, things get pretty ridiculous.  But it has fun with its premise, and features great performances from legends like Isaac Hayes and Robert Forster.

And unlike the aforementioned earlier films, this is one that is absolutely filled with Americana and 4th of July imagery in the same way that Trick R’ Treat does for Halloween.  It’s an impressive feat because, as previously mentioned, so many holiday horror films are just merely set around the day rather than actually being about the day.

American Exceptionalism
While Uncle Sam is over 25 years old and it’s essentially an 80s slasher released in the 90s, certain elements and themes are still part of the larger conversation today.  Sam’s nephew has been raised on stories of patriotism and heroism, and as a result, he exudes this blind nationalism that often leads to fascism and atrocities/war crimes.

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He even questions his teacher’s own patriotism and loyalty because he protested the Vietnam War and didn’t follow it blindly.

There’s a great speech from Isaac Hayes about how different Vietnam and Desert Storm were from something like WWII, which had very clear objectives and justifications.  Without ever saying the name itself, the film is highly critical of the military industrial complex, and winds up being simultaneously anti unjust war and pro patriotism.

Ideas like this are often overlooked in “silly” movies like these, but much like 2004’s Team America: World Police, Uncle Sam demonstrates that you can be campy and ridiculous while also making a bold point.

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It has its goofy comedy moments, but Isaac Haye’s monologue about the wars taking young patriots and chewing them up is pretty grim and sobering.

End of an Era
Another commonly overlooked detail of this movie is that it was the last slasher movie to be released before everything changed completely.  1996 turned out to be a game changer for horror, specifically slashers with the release of Scream in December of that year.  The subgenre had mostly fizzled out from the 80s and subpar sequels like Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday were examples of how 90s audiences were growing tired of the franchises they adored in the 80s.

Scream gave slashers a breath of fresh, creative, meta air and in the years that followed teen slashers that were self-aware were all the rage.  Even to this day, you can’t really do a slasher without there being some level of meta analysis (look no further than Cabin in the Woods).  As a result, you can’t really get a “pure” slasher anymore that isn’t trying some sort of self-aware approach.

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It’s given us excellent films like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, but so many of these meta slashers are about the subgenre without ever being the subgenre, it that makes sense…

Thus in hindsight, Uncle Sam (first released a month before Scream) remains the final slasher film that wasn’t burdened with the baggage of trying to be meta or trying to be anything other than a fun slasher movie.  It’s a strange time capsule that feels like it was made years before it was and to this day, it’s the final slasher of a long gone era…

What do you think of Uncle Sam?  What are your favorite 4th of July themed horror movies?  Let us know in the comments!

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