directed by Jeff Lieberman, essay by Jamie
Horror fans such as I have long used a last name as an adjective: ‘Cronenbergian’. It’s a helpful shorthand for fans of the massively liked director in seeking out lesser works by directors who worked in similar shadowy areas of the genre. Late 70’s films of this type are rare, after all Cronenberg wasn’t really the figure he would become even 5 year later, so Jeff Lieberman’s 1978 masterpiece Blue Sunshine could actually be said to predate the term, but now in 2010 it’s a good way to get the uninitiated into seeking and seeing this film. It’s not that ‘Blue Sunshine’ is body-horror (which is usually when the term ‘Cronenbergian’ is used), the Cronenberg that this seems most close to is his Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone. While that is certainly a lesser Cronenberg (probably since the material isn’t originally his), Blue Sunshine outshines that more famous film in almost every conceivable way; its political satire cuts deeper, it’s contemptuous attitude towards hippie era baby boomers is more subversive then any Cold War era paranoia, and the killers, whose murderous urges are unknown even to them is just downright scarier.
At the time Blue Sunshine was released in 1978 Lieberman was still somewhat of a cult director, as his sole credit was the 1976 cult (soon to be) horror classic Squirm, featuring the make-up work of then unknown Rick Baker. Sadly the films release didn’t change his stature, nor did his next one, the 1981 slasher gem Just Before Dawn (that features one of the great endings to a slasher film). Lieberman turned to other work after these three horror films so it’s entirely possible that he’ll never achieve the status he truly deserves (though a return to the genre in the mid-2000’s offers a slight glimmer).
Blue Sunshine is the story of an LSD that ten years later turns its taker into a murderous lunatic. The taker has no advance warning except for the losing of ones hair (it’s said to afflict every follicle on the body), and the occasional splitting migraine when loud noise is encountered. When the first afflicted member goes crazy at a party and barbecues three women, a friend in attendance begins investigating. The friend, Jerry Zipkin (played by Zalman King who could have played Sean Penn’s older brother the similarities are that close) is doubly confused when he begins learning that other lunatics are also popping up and that they all graduated from Stanford exactly ten years prior. Soon he’s got the help of his (maybe) girlfriend Alicia on the case and his old pal David, who also graduated from Stanford ten years ago. After a process of elimination Jerry and David, who is now a practicing MD, realize that a Stanford lab made LCD called ‘Blue Sunshine’ is the culprit. It’s chief pusher at the time was Edward Flemming who is now running for Senate in California and his candidacy is gaining steam. Thankfully David and Edward never took the stuff though they were both dealing it, however Edward’s chief security man, an old college pal and Stanford football star, has. This sets the film off and running, Jerry trying to get close enough to Ed to warn him (and perhaps immobilize him), while escaping a Detective who wants answers for the mounting murders that seem to be his doing. This last third act is interesting as Zipkin, a once valedictorian from Cornell, purses Flemming with a tranquilizer gun not knowing whether or not he’s taken Blue Sunshine, probing the idea of assassination, but without the finality of death, and for the greater good for all involved. It’s gripping stuff not normally found in underground B-horror from this era (or any era for that matter). It’s relation to horror and politics mirrors the aforementioned Dead Zone, and the (somewhat) cat-and-mouse assassination sub-plot speaks to Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), while it’s look is classic 70’s horror. The acting is good, if not great, with the help of Lieberman’s never cheesy script (and this is a breath of fresh air for a film with a plot this out there).
Blue Sunshine played to mostly positive reviews, then drifted into the realm of forgotten (if even seen) classic sporadically sprouting up at CBGB’s punk rock club of all places, being played on screens as bands rocked away. If obvious why the punks picked up on the film; the climax scene takes place at that rank disco and the infected man– now bald– is thrown into fits whenever the throbbing disco bass line is turned up. I’ve read a rumor that the supergroup in England consisting of Robert Smith of the Cure and Steven Severin of Souixsie and the Banshees called The Glove’ paid homage with their only album, 1983’s ‘Blue Sunshine’ (the film did play to rave reviews at the London film festival, the same year Halloween made David Carpenter famous, so it’s not out of the question that they would have been familiar with it). Many West Coast punkers like the Dead Kennedy’s could draw much from the subversive ex-hippie drug pusher turned ‘passionate’ conservative candidate in their indictment of Jerry Brown (and others) in ‘California Uber Allies’. Now, looking back, it seems to fill that space so prophetically before California officially became the state that sprouted the ultimate phony politician Ronald Reagan, and movement Neo-Conservatism. Somewhere JG Ballard must be smiling that a film like Blue Sunshine was made. Here’s to hoping it eventually gets it’s place in the (blue) sun.
The Horror Honorable Mention series is meant to highlight films we feel are worthy enough for mention, but ultimately, after the 4 lists were finalized didn’t make the final 100. ‘Blue Sunshine’ placed on just one list, Jamie’s, at number 50