BLU-RAY REVIEW: THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT (1985)
THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT a.k.a. STRYKER’S WAR (1985) at one point was going to be named BLOODBATH, before STRYKER’S WAR, when the film’s first genesis was a Super 8 version that starred Bruce Campbell as the lead instead of the film’s eventual lead Brian Schulz. The film has many of the familiar faces from the Michigan group of filmmakers that included Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Scott Spiegel, Timothy Patrick Quill, and another celebrity from Michigan (well, quasi-celebrity): a Mr. T impersonator that went around the state doing appearances and even advertising for the Michigan State Fair by the name of Robert Rickman. The film is packed with so much character, humor, violence, and even a bit of blood and gore.
A film that was pitched as being a movie about Marines vs. the Manson Family, is just that. A hippie-psycho cult led by the director of the EVIL DEAD trilogy and SPIDERMAN, Sam Raimi as Cult Leader, goes around the woods in what I am assuming is Michigan and goes on a murderous killing-spree hacking up and shooting every person and individual in sight. The victims are kids, teenagers, families, and even the police get caught up in this hellacious indie exploitation film that starts out following a group of marines fighting for their lives in the Vietnam War. Granted, the set of the Vietnam War was not Vietnam and probably Michigan but editing in shots of actual Vietnam War footage from stock can give viewers the illusion that the scenes are really taking place in the ‘Nam. Not really, but it’s a very fun film regardless. The title of the film and its trademark cover with the skull and the red bandana wrapped around it was always a constant image in my head as growing up. I remember seeing it so many times as a curious young boy and had no idea that a film that looks like an exploitation flick from the ’70s even though it was filmed in the ’80s. The film is a great and director Josh Becker deserves credit for making a film that has a very well-written storyline that is both cohesive and interesting, as well as so damn entertaining. To think that Becker was going to insist on it being named STRYKER’S WAR against the insistence that his press agent (a giant in his own field) Irvin Shapiro have the film retitled THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT citing that the title has more of a worldwide appeal that is easily translated to so many other languages.
Quite possibly one of the finest performances by any number of super villainous psychos ever to be filmed was Sam Raimi’s Cult Leader. He truly acted like a deranged nutjob and was most enjoyable to watch on the screen. Finding out that Raimi also ad-libbed a great deal of his scenes is an even greater testament to his genius and creativity as an actor.
The film follows a formula that never gets old for this viewer and has always been a common theme for exploitation films years past and for years to come: good vs. evil with the good being triumphant and saving the day. Exploitation films thrive on evil characters committing dastardly acts against good folk and always need a hero to come in and save the day. Generally, the hero is not always what one would expect to be and that makes the film even more fun to watch. In the case of this film, the heroes are four Marines who served together in Vietnam who come together after their tour of duty has ended.
One of the Marines Jack Stryker (Brian Schulz) was wounded in battle, getting shot in the leg and receiving permanent damage to one leg resulting in him having a permanent limp. The assault that ended up injuring Stryker was indirectly a result of Stryker’s superior lack in judgement on attacking a village with inadequate numbers of soldiers. The Vietnamese outnumbered the eight soldiers and the commanding officer, 2nd Lt. David Miller (John Manfredi), felt guilty about the outcome of the battle. 2nd Lt. David Miller (Manfredi), along with Sgt. Walker J. Jackson (Robert Rickman) and LCpl. Tim Tyler (Timothy Patrick Quill) decide to visit their fellow comrade because Miller (The Marines happen to be driving around in the same vicinity as their fellow war buddy’s cabin and pay him a visit. They go to a bar, pick up some sluts along the way while getting beer, and get into a scrap with some asshole bikers. The film is full of action and definitely a bunch of quirky and memorable characters that all make for a fun viewing.) feels guilty and wants to sort of make amends. With all four war buddies back together things seem to be going really good and this is when one knows something terrible is right around the corner.
The Marines happen to be driving around in the same vicinity as their fellow war buddy’s cabin and pay him a visit. They go to a bar, pick up some sluts along the way while getting beer, and get into a scrap with some asshole bikers. The film is full of action and definitely a bunch of quirky and memorable characters that all make for a fun viewing.
The film is as entertaining watching the interactions and jokes being delivered between the Marines’ while grabbing some beers and drinking amongst themselves as it is fun watching them fight the evil of the hippie cult. The film even throws a love-interest into the mix as Stryker’s girlfriend Sally, (played by Cheryl Hausen) lives in the small town nearby Stryker’s cabin and she happens to get mixed up in the nefarious wrongdoings of the hippie cult.
The film’s score is fantastic and one can almost imagine watching a much greater budgeted war film that came out of Hollywood instead of this small, indie, exploitation film shot on a much smaller budget. Joseph LoDuca hemmed the score for the film and one probably is already very familiar with his work if they have seen THE EVIL DEAD, EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, ARMY OF DARKNESS, or even a number of XENA and HERCULES television episodes. I also must mention that fans of Ted Raimi will enjoy seeing him in a small role as Chain Man, one of the more ridiculous looking cult members wearing blue jeans, a bunch of chains, and a mask while running around shirtless. The budget for the film was small and the lack of costumes for the cult members was evident but I was surprised to see that at least the war scenes in Vietnam had semi-decent looking soldiers (although the Midwestern terrain was evident and could not be mistaken for Vietnam’s jungles).
The Synapse Blu-ray/DVD combo is loaded with tons of extras on the discs. Not only is the film an all-new High-Defintion 2K digital restoration from the original negative, the original Super 8MM Stryker’s War (starring Bruce Campbell) is included on the film’s disc. There is a great documentary entitled Made in Michigan: The Making of THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT that was really interesting and full of fact-filled interviews and tidbits of info on the making of the film. Scott Spiegel, Tim Quill, Robert Rickman, John Manfredi, and Ted Raimi all are included in the featurette.
I love commentaries and this Blu-ray has not only one but two commentaries with Director Josh Brecker, Co-writer Bruce Campbell, and star Brian Schulz. If one can’t get enough of horror-icon Bruce Campbell, well there is also a video interview with Bruce taken while on his Oregon property’s backlot (where HIS NAME IS BRUCE was also filmed). Wrapping things up on the extra features is a deleted scene with an audio commentary accompanying it and the alternate title sequence and the film’s theatrical trailer. My favorite aspect of the Blu-ray was the reversible cover artwork because I love the skull wearing the bandana with an angel’s halo above it. This has to be one of the greatest exploitation covers of the ’80s!
THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT is a great visit back to the exploitation film of a decade when there were so many being made but not a great deal filled with as much fun and creativity as Becker’s film. As always, my only gripe with this film is there was an apparent small amount of nudity within the film, especially bush! One can’t fault a film this good for not having any gratuitous nudity in the film when it has covered all the other areas of the ingredients that make an exploitation film so much fun to view. There are so many reasons not to go camping in the woods ranging from mutant grizzly bears, hockey-mask wearing psychopaths, inbred locals, and now one needs to worry about Manson-esque hippie cults. Small towns and wooded areas are breeding grounds and hangouts for wackos, apparently. Pick up a copy of THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT and add it your exploitation film collection because it deserves a spot.