Color, 1985, 84m.
Directed by Josh Becker
Starring Brian Schulz, Robert Rickman, John Manfredi, Timothy Patrick Quill, Sam Raimi, Cheryl Hausen, Perry Mallette
Synapse (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)
Shot on 16mm for 20 grand in the untamed wilds of Michigan by many of the folks responsible for The Evil Dead, this oddball 1985 offering deliberately apes two popular drive-in staples of the previous decade: tough military men testing their limits after coming home from war, and crazed Manson-style psycho cult members. It's a funky brew to be sure, but director Josh Becker (Running Time) somehow makes it all work like a charm. Besides, where else can you see future Spider-Man director Sam Raimi running around in a ratty hippie wig with blackened teeth?
After taking a couple of bullets during combat in Vietnam, Senior Sergeant Jack Stryker (Schulz) returns home and resumes his life while staying in touch with some of his war buddies including Walter (Rickman), David (Manfredi), and Tim (Quill). All seems to be getting back to normal with his girlfriend, Sally (Hansen), but lo and behold, there's a crazy cult out in the woods led by a bloodthirsty messiah (Raimi) who kidnaps Sally and propels Stryker into another wave of bloody combat on his home turf.
A homegrown cult movie if there ever was one, Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except originated in 1980 as a Super 8 project starring Bruce Campbell designed to drum up investor interest, first under the title Bloodbath and finally as Stryker's War. By the time it finally became a full-fledged feature (albeit on a sub-shoestring budget), the theatrical market that had driven The Evil Dead to success was rapidly swerving to home video instead; as a result, despite positive fanzine coverage, Thou Shalt played only a handful of theaters before shuffling off to VHS-ville alongside other would-be drive-in staples like Combat Shock. A shame, really, as it's a whole lot of grubby fun, and the tape really didn't do it justice at all.
More of a cult following started to form when it debuted on DVD from Anchor Bay in a non-anamorphic and hazy but improved transfer along with a modest but welcome selection of extras, all of them (apart from Becker's liner notes) carried over to the HD-transferred reissue from Synapse, complete with a substantial new array of bonus material. The original audio commentary from the Anchor Bay release is carried over the Synapse one, featuring Becker and Campbell; it's still a pretty hilarious chat track including discussions about the project's evolution, the role of producer Scott Spiegel, Ted Raimi's unorthodox role, creating "violence vignettes," and faking Steadicam shots by building rigs on motorcycles. However, you also get a new commentary with enigmatic leading man Brian Schulz and Red Shirt's Michael Felsher (who also produced the disc extras). Schulz also derives amusement from the contrast between the 'Nam stock footage and Michigan forest shots, and they also cover the film's reviews, the most recent locations and activites of the other actors, and the ins and outs of effective cigar chomping. On the video side, ported over from AB disc are the alternate Stryker's War main titles, a deleted scene involving vomit and a helmet (with a brief bit of commentary added for the Synapse one to explain why it was dropped), and the odd, somewhat confused theatrical trailer.
Among the new extras, two are particular standouts starting with the original Stryker's War 8mm version in its entirety (48 minutes!). The temp track consisting of unlicensed music (presumably scores from other movies, though it's hard to say for sure) has been largely replaced here with new cues in the spirit of Joseph Lo Duca's work on the final film, and the strategy works well enough if that's what it takes to get this released. Obviously this is a very scruffy piece of work with a truly terrible sound mix, but it's great to have this bit of early cult movie history finally preserved for the public. Next up is the brand-new featurette "Made in Michigan: The Making of Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except" clocking in at just under half an hour. Becker, Spiegel, and almost every cast member apart from Raimi are on hand here for a very fast-paced and entertaining tour through the film from conception to release, including a very funny explanation for the creation of the current title by the film's distributor (whose rationale actually makes a lot of sense, as borne out by the roster of international translations they rattle off). Apart from some really funky green screen work on Ted Raimi, it looks great and features some appropriately retro backdrops along with a nifty glimpse of Campbell's other short film from the same period. Bruce Campbell shows up separately for an 8-minute standard def interview (shot at his spacious Oregon country home, which also served as the shooting location for My Name Is Bruce), in which he recaps and embellishes on his involvement in the original short and his journey with Becker and crew.
As for the feature itself, you get a DTS-HD MA English mono track that sounds about as good as possible given the nature of the original source material. The dialogue mix sounds more robust here than the standard def predecessor, and Raimi regular Lo Duca's score comes across clearly enough (including some fun stingers borrowed from his work on The Evil Dead). The real upgrade though here is on the visual side; it wouldn't be too tough to best the non-anamorphic Anchor Bay disc given the technological advances in over a decade, but this is a very pleasing presentation as long as you remember you're dealing with an '80s 16mm project with an intentionally gritty appearance. The grain looks very tight and comparable to what you would have seen on a really good print, and there's no distracting noise reduction or waxy textures to get in the way of the original appearance. Don't expect a sleek IMAX-based appearance here, of course, but for what it is, this goes way beyond the call of duty. A DVD disc is also included in the package, but if you can play either format, the viewing choice should be a no brainer. Easily recommended for both newcomers and seasoned fans alike.