When you go out in search of the lost and forgotten treasures of Science Fiction cinema, you end up following a lot of strange byways and cul-de-sacs.
What led me to this one was Jeff Lieberman, a director who made a few interesting films in the late Seventies and Eighties. He has a bit of a cult following for this film, and for a while it looked like he might become a major horror director as Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper had. I first came across him when I found his obscure Science Fiction horror film, Remote Control (1988), a film which does not get a lot of love from many critics, but which I thoroughly enjoyed.
At first glance, Blue Sunshine sounds suspiciously like a zombie movie — or perhaps we should say like the rage zombies, popularized in 28 Days Later, even if that wasn’t their first appearance. Without warning, a group of very ordinary people suddenly lose all their hair and start killing everyone around them.
Jerry Zipkin, a brilliant student who has spent his career moving from job to job because of his political activism, is there when his friend Frannie becomes the first victim, killing three young women and burning their bodies in the fireplace. Jerry tries to flee, but ends up fighting Frannie on the road. His friend is killed by a passing truck, and Jerry runs away because he knows he couldn’t stand jail.
As others fall victim to this mysterious rage, Jerry plays detective, trying to discover what the killers have in common before the police catch up with him. His investigations lead him to a local politician, and to a form of LSD known as “Blue Sunshine…”
While there are quite a few murders and a fair number of killers, Blue Sunshine never turns into an all out zombie attack. Instead the killings take place separately, with the emphasis on the murder mystery. Jeff Lieberman takes his time, gives us a chance to meet some of the killers before they go mad, and gradually lets us in on what is going on, as Jerry works his way through the clues he has.
I’ll let you decide whether chromosomal damage caused by a defective supply of LSD is science fiction or not. It is a mild surprise that Blue Sunshine is probably some amateur’s attempt at cooking up a homemade batch of acid and not the work of the usual evil pharmaceutical company or a government conspiracy.
And zero references to the CIA inventing LSD in the first place.
The image of losing all your hair at once, like a pulling off a wig is a fairly creepy one, as is the appearance of the killers, with their polished bald heads and a few stray tufts of hair.
Zalman King gives a very…twitchy performance as Jerry. Jeff Lieberman has admitted that he asked King to give a very erratic performance, to suggest that Jerry might have been one of those who used Blue Sunshine. He regrets that decision and I’ll admit I’m not entirely certain what I think about it. Jerry’s actions are often hard to understand, and King’s performance does at least suggest that he is reacting to events in a very panicky and irrational way
But it might have been nice if we’d been given some sort of explanation for why he is so jumpy. Perhaps it’s claustrophobia or some other deeper trauma driving his fear of getting put in jail
Although that really doesn’t explain why he keeps pushing his girlfriend away, even before things start getting crazy.
I’ll admit that it does bother me that there are quite a few idiot moments here, when characters just don’t do the smart things anyone would do in those circumstances (you know what I mean, the moments when you end up yelling at the screen because they’re so dumb. The classic — and most used — example is not picking up the gun). This sort of thing normally bugs the heck out of me, but I find that I’m rather forgiving here, because it seems a minor lapse in an otherwise good production.
And because it is obvious that Jerry has other problems than psychotic killers and avoiding the cops.
Perhaps the strangest thing about this film is that Remote Control is supposedly a remake. A film about aliens taking over people with VHS Tapes so they can rule the world is the same as a movie about killer drug flashbacks? That seems rather hard to swallow, but it is true that both feature someone going on the run from the police while trying to prove that they didn’t commit a crime, and ordinary people turning into psychotic killers.
Heck, both films even have a Disco scene!
I’ll be honest: I like Remote Control, Eighties excesses and all, better than Blue Sunshine, and would argue that it is the better film. But this is an interesting little horror thriller and a solidly constructed mystery even if Jerry doesn’t have much of a reason for his sudden intuitive leap connecting Blue Sunshine with what is happening.
Just don’t expect Night of the Living Dead or even The Crazies (1973).
And you might not want to put that stuff your friend made in his basement into your Kool Aid…