Horrors of War

It may be sacrilegious to be thinking about war-themed horror films on America’s birthday, but the idea started when I was trying to think of chillers with a Fourth of July theme. The only one I could come up with was 1997′s Uncle Sam. Despite the dream cast (Timothy Bottoms, Bo Hopkins, William Smith, Isaac Hayes, P.J. Soles and Robert Forster). a screenplay by Larry Cohen and direction by William Lustig, it’s terrible!

The plot sounds great: the body of a Gulf War veteran, killed in action, is shipped back to his hometown where he returns from the dead as a murderous zombie, intent on taking out all the unpatriotic townsfolk during the 4th of July celebrations. But it’s unbelievably slow and boring, and the murders lack oomph. It’s so surprising—Cohen and Lustig separately made landmark genre films (It’s Alive, Maniac) and teamed up for the amusing Maniac Cop, but here they just seem to be treading water.

Lustig’s own Blue Underground recently released the special edition Blu-Ray DVD, and it sounds like it’d be fun to watch it with commentary by Lustig and Cohen. Evidently they faced up to the fact that it was a stinker and took some amusing jabs at it.

A far better war-themed horror is Bob Clark’s 1974 Deathdream (aka Dead of Night). When young soldier Andy is struck down in action in Vietnam, his dying thoughts involve his promise to his mother that he’d return home to her. He comes home, much to the surprise of his grieving family, whove been told he was KIA.

Andy is changed, though. He’s barely communicative, wears dark glasses, sits in his room alone and refuses to see anybody. He only becomes active at night when everyone else is asleep, venturing out to find human victims to provide the blood he needs to preserve his living-dead state.

The film works both as horror and as an indictment of the Vietnam War, which was still raging at the time of its production. Though made on an extremely small budget, it’s quietly effective and has a truly heart-rending finale. I remember seeing it for the first time on “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” back in the ’80s. Her version was so cut up and lacking in continuity that for years I thought it was a bad movie until I saw the Blue Underground (again!) DVD years later.

Not a feature film but an episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series, Joe Dante’s magnificent 2005 Homecoming is a devastating story of American casualties rising from the dead to vote against the warmongers in Washington. It’s reminiscent of Abel Gance’s 1919 J’Accuse, which features a powerful climax in which the ghosts of dead soldiers rise up to protest the futility of war.

Homecoming is a jet-black social satire and a take-no-prisoners political statement with intense moments of melancholy. Its liberal view of the “War on Terror” inflamed some conservative horror fans, but I think it’s one of Dante’s best works, and surely one of the best episodes of the variable series. You can see the real passion he had for the subject matter. And the story’s cynical depiction of some of the country’s more—ahem—extreme political commentators is hilarious.

Moving away from the war protest allegory, other horror films with war themes that come to mind are the 2002 British film Dog Soldiers, which features a pack of werewolves attacking a platoon on a mission in the Scottish Highlands and the more recent Dead Snow, about reanimated Nazi zombies menacing a group of twenty-somethings on holiday. I reviewed this film last year. I found it to be disappointing and annoying at the same time. Nazi zombies also figured in Jean Rollin’s horrible 1981 Zombie Lake and Ken Weiderhorn’s far better Shock Waves (1977).

Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and especially Day of the Dead (1985) have a lot of military themes. But here the soldiers aren’t the dead ones—they’re attempting to maintain order in a world gone insane. 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Lateralso feature the military cracking down on an out-of-control populace.

There are action horror movies set against the backdrop of the Civil War. 1971′s The Beguiled is more of a psychological horror, as wounded Yankee soldier Clint Eastwood is taken in—and then abused—by a sexually frustrated group of Southern schoolteachers led by Geraldine Page. Jeff Burr’s 1987 The Offspring is an omnibus film with a story about Civil War soldiers in the clutches of malevolent children.
World War II seems to be a hands-off topic, except where Nazis are concerned. Bela Lugosi’s Return of the Vampire (1944) was set in wartime London, but the war didn’t really figure into the plot except that a handy bomb in a graveyard awakened a slumbering vampire. The upcoming Panzer 88 is set during the German-Russian conflict, but the monster is of the supernatural, rather than human, variety.

Not horror but sci-fi satire and still one of my favorites is Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997). It took me a couple of viewings to fully absorb it because I wasn’t up on the Heinlein novel it was adapted from. Now that I “get it,” it’s a film I enjoy revisiting every few years. Filled with out-of-control action, hilarious dialogue and Robocop-style commercial spoofs, it’s a riot to watch.

In brief, it’s about a unit of impossibly beautiful young soldiers who all share the same lust for war and desire to defeat intelligent, militant bugs on a distant planet that are threatening to destroy the earth.

Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards and Neil Patrick Harris play the students who are persuaded by their teachers and other authority figures to “join up and go kill bugs.” My favorite scenes involve recognizable character actors in these roles: Clancy Brown as the over-the-top drill sergeant; Michael Ironside as the civics teacher who reminds the kids that “service guarantees citizenship”; even Rue McClanahan as a war-maimed biology instructor!

Told in a mock documentary style, it’s got plenty of Nazi symbolism, gung-ho patriotism and splattery action. Some critics were angry about its fascist and militaristic themes; others were angry that it made fun of militarism! Go figure. When interviewed about about the film, Verhoeven himself said, “War makes fascists of us all.”

Van Dien returned for two direct-to-DVD sequels. I’ve only seen part of the first (which was bland), but I understand the second one is truly miserable. It’s a shame… Starship Troopers doesn’t deserve miserable sequels. Now, Hostel deserves the most miserable sequels it can get!

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