James Ledesma hails from Los Angeles and doesn’t let anyone forget it. He has a podcast on music called Mixtape Preservation Society available on iTunes and Soundcloud, with an accompanying blog at www.fornicatti.blogspot.com.
I consider the 1980s the Golden Age of modern horror movies. Growing up during that decade, I had the chance to watch a lot of them thanks to my older brother’s part-time job at a local video store. All of them were low-budget, gory, bloody, badly acted spectacles that none of us in my family had ever heard of prior to my brother bringing them home. My parents were never bothered by the fact that we were being exposed to cinematic violence and gore. In fact, they were oftentimes more upset by the gratuitous nudity in many of these films. In other words, it was OK for me to watch people being decapitated, but a glimpse of titty was verboten.
Of course, many of those low-budget grindhouse-style video nasties have now attained classic status. Masterpieces of schlocky horror like Bloodsucking Freaks, Maniac, Pieces, all the Friday The 13th and Freddy movies have gone on to be the standard by which all subsequent horror flicks are measured, even if they have aged badly. The fashions, the music and especially the special effects (the ’80s was also the Golden Age of horror movie magazines, and I was an avid reader of Fangoria) leave much to be desired. But it’s our strange nostalgia for the thrills and chills we experienced as kids that endear these movies to us today. These movies actually gave me nightmares, but my parents never kept us from watching because they were horror fans as well. I remember my parents laughing at Tom Savini, dressed as an outlaw biker and being torn to bits in a shopping mall toward the end of the original Dawn of the Dead. It was just so ridiculous, and that kept my brother and me coming back for more … even if we had trouble sleeping at night.
Out of all the crazy horror flicks I digested as a preteen, the one that stands out for me the most is a movie that, surprisingly, few of my friends have ever seen. Even the most die-hard Italian giallo aficionados in my Facebook circle sometimes haven’t seen or heard of the one movie from that late 1970s/early 1980s era that I still enjoy immensely to this very day.
The movie is Blue Sunshine.
A brief synopsis: People are flying into homicidal rampages that involve superhuman strength and the loss of their hair. The main protagonist, Jerry Zipkin (played by Red Shoes Diaries mastermind Zalman King in one of his few acting roles before he made the leap to softcore porno director), is being framed for the grisly murders a la Hitchcockian happenstance. He spends the movie trying to get to the bottom of these murders. The trail leads him to a slimy politician (is there any other kind in these types of movies?) who harbors a decade-old skeleton in his closet involving a brand of LSD known as Blue Sunshine … or BS for short.
I have a rule for classic slasher-era splatter-fests: If there’s no violent action within the movie’s first 20 minutes, then it is no good. Blue Sunshine flirts with disaster in an opening credits sequence so long and ponderous it makes you wonder if you started the movie in the wrong place. The only way to describe the sequence is “start-stop”: some eerie music (provided by the Humane Society for the Preservation of Good Music, as noted in the closing credits) coupled with a full-moon night shot, followed by a minute or two of characters talking to each other, then the music resumes and we see the moon again plus some more credits, then more expository acting. This goes on for almost 10 minutes. But then we get the credits out of the way and it’s onto the mayhem. By the time we reach the 20-minute mark, a few people have been horribly murdered and your adrenaline is up. This is absolutely satisfying to me and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Blue Sunshine isn’t a bad movie, nor is it especially good. In terms of overall scares, it delivers adequately. The gore isn’t over the top, but the violence is jarring — mostly due to the fact that this is not a typical slasher premise but more of an outbreak-style template. There is a central villain, but he doesn’t kill anyone; rather, it’s the victims of the villain who go nuts and start getting downright mean. It greatly resembles David Cronenberg’s far superior Rabid, made around the same time. There’s an aspect of body horror buried in some sort of incidental subtext, but that’s where the comparisons end.
The movie’s pièce de résistance is near the end. One of the rampage killers chases his victim into a disco. The killer cuts a swath across the dance floor with brutal aplomb. It ranks up there with any scene from the Dan O’Bannon gem Return Of The Living Dead in its irreverence and celebration of movie violence for the sake of movie violence. It’s a cool scene in a movie that isn’t necessarily cool.
Unfortunately, the climax cannot possibly top such a setpiece, and so the movie is content to give you a title card explaining what happens and tries to imbue it with some social relevance. But at this point, it doesn’t matter. Much like the ending of the criminally underrated Class of ’84 starring Perry King, the end title almost dares you to burst out laughing at the preposterous manner in which the loose ends are tied up.
Full disclosure: I watched this movie again in my 20s, after I’d been initiated into the 1990s drug culture. My first LSD experience was with a brand known as Orange Sunshine. The political and social ramifications of this movie achieved even greater resonance with me when I watched it as an adult. It also rendered the move completely hysterical, in a very good way. I’m in my mid-40s now, and I watched Blue Sunshine again to get ideas for this essay, and it still tickles me to death. There’s some funny dialogue in this movie (a woman confides to her friend, “Nothing affected me more than when the Beatles broke up. My divorce was nothing compared to that”) and even stranger images (the killer disco scene, marionettes, bad renditions of Sinatra tunes and a parrot that should win some sort of Best Supporting Actor award). Then I remember the little boy who watched this movie with his family and had bad dreams about bald, bug-eyed maniacs trying to strangle him in my bed.
** I recommend watching the “Elvira Movie Macabre” edition of this movie on DVD. That’s the version I own. I am a huge fan of the sexy Mistress Of The Dark and used to watch her show every weekend back in Los Angeles. Her quirky brand of sarcasm helps enliven the proceedings. Blue Sunshine is not bad enough to be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 selection, but having Elvira there to help cut up the meat makes it easier to swallow.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.