debunked. In retrospect, I imagine the filmmakers, in their zeal to turn kids away from the dark side, weren't all that scrupulous about the true cause of the birth defects they showed for shock effect -- such is propaganda.
Not that LSD is harmless-- not by a long shot. Like so many man-made things, it can be used and abused. Years before Timothy Leary experimented with psychedelic drugs at Harvard, the CIA became interested in LSD (among other drugs) for bolstering its "special" interrogation techniques. In the fifties, the national security establishment tested their special techniques on unwilling and/or unwitting participants. In one deplorable instance, prisoners at a federal prison in Kentucky were kept high on LSD for 77 consecutive days. In another, an army civilian employee, Frank Olson, was slipped LSD without his knowledge. He jumped out of a New York hotel window to his death. (Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Anchor Books, 2008.) On the flip side, researchers in Switzerland have recently used LSD to alleviate anxiety in the terminally ill, with promising results.
Burlesque). While the film can be seen as a straight anti-drug cautionary tale, there are other, subtler things going on in the background that take the viewer on a trip (bad pun intended) down unexpected side roads.
Blue Sunshine starts off with an effectively eerie title sequence. As the credits roll, a full blue moon ascends to the strains of Charles Gross' haunting original music. Cleverly and efficiently, we're introduced to three characters through the title sequence: a pill-popping surgeon, an attractive divorcee, and a harried cop with family problems. Each is relatively young, in their mid-thirties, and each one seems to be having a bad time of it, near the edge of a physical or nervous breakdown, or both. They all seem to have one thing in common-- bad, bad headaches that cause them to stare wildly off into space. As each little character drama plays out, the ominous blue moon descends each time and more credits unfold to the weird, haunting strains of the theme music.
Cut to a house party, where a group of thirty-somethings are letting down their frizzy, 70's-style hair. One guy is imitating the Japanese movie monster Rodan (Rodan? Really?) Another is doing a poor Sinatra imitation. Our protagonist, Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King), is hanging back in his cheesy holiday sweater, enjoying the company of his cute blonde girlfriend Alicia (Deborah Winters). Just when we think we're going to get a break from the simmering tension of the title sequence, the Sinatra imitator (Richard Crystal) pretends to plant a big wet kiss on one of the party girls. Her boyfriend playfully grabs at the man's collar in mock disapproval, and suddenly the faux crooner's wig comes off in his hand. Everyone's stunned as the man stands stock still, a few long strands of hair dangling from his otherwise cue-bald head. Cut to an extreme close-up of the man's now wild eyes darting back and forth. He runs out the front door.
|Jerry Zipkin reacts in horror to the murder and|
mayhem caused by "Blue Sunshine"
Whew! I remember being deeply impressed when I first saw this scene in the early '80s. Compared to the gothic Universal and costumed Hammer horrors that I was used to, this terror erupting from the most mundane of settings -- a cocktail party -- was a revelation. From this wild beginning, Blue Sunshine diverges into several intertwined story lines: 1.) Jerry attempts to figure out what's going on and clear his name while the cops try in vain to catch him; and 2.) we see the bills coming due, so to speak, for a number of otherwise solid citizens who partook of too much bad acid ten years previously. Writer-director Jeff Lieberman very cleverly picks a cross section of America -- a photographer, a cop, a doctor, a young divorced woman, and an ex-football player / Congressional campaign manager -- as both victims and perpetrators of the excesses of the late '60s. It's as if the whole country, and not just a few individuals, was experiencing the mother of all bad flashbacks.
One of the film's flaws (easily forgiven), is the ease with which mass-murder suspect Jerry flits around L.A. with the help of his girlfriend, breaking into houses and knocking on doors in pursuit of the truth. For all the effort the cops put into the chase, you'd think he was wanted for overdue parking fines instead of murder. This gives Jerry a chance to piece together the full, horrific story. First he investigates an eerily similar set of murders involving a bald cop who suddenly loses it and chops up his family. Then he traces an old psychedelic portrait labeled "Blue Sunshine" to the charismatic Ed Flemming (Mark Goddard of Lost in Space fame), who just happens to be running for Congress. As Jerry figures out the common connections -- time: 1967; place: Stanford; illicit drug of choice: "Blue Sunshine" LSD -- Jerry just happens to witness a couple of more instances of Blue Sunshine's slow-acting chromosomal damage. The victims all suffer from debilitating headaches, bad dreams, hair falling out by the fistful, and, worst of all, homicidal psychotic breaks.
|Is this man suffering from bad acid, or bad disco music... or both?|
Other touches elevate Blue Sunshine out of the realm of a simple cautionary anti-drug horror tale and into art house territory. In one scene that seems to serve no dramatic purpose, Jerry is mistaken for a dealer by a pathetic, desperate junkie, while a mute, creepy bald man (not a Blue Sunshine maniac) appears out of nowhere with an idiot grin on his face. At the film's climax, mute, bald department store mannequins look on as Jerry struggles with another victim of the LSD plague. On one level, the baldness (not to mention the madness) seems to be Fate's ultimate revenge on a generation that celebrated excess in so many things, including hair. On another, it's symptomatic of a more widespread malaise-- this empty, materialistic late 20th century (now early 21st) lifestyle that has us feeling less in control than ever, and (literally and figuratively) tearing our hair out.
Jeff Lieberman is a true low-budget auteur. He wrote and directed a handful of quirky horror films in the '70s and '80s (and managed to write and direct again in the 2000's with Satan's Little Helper). Of these, Squirm (1976; about a town infested with man-eating worms) and Blue Sunshine have earned the biggest cult reputations. (In a DVD extra interview, Lieberman said he was most pleased with Just Before Dawn, 1981, about a group of campers who encounter a machete-wielding maniac in the woods. Lieberman also noted that he made far more money writing Hollywood screenplays that were never produced than he did with the cult favorites he made himself.)
Sadly, Zalman King died just a little over a month ago; he was only 70. Some reviewers (especially IMDb users) have been pretty harsh in their assessment of King's performance. They complain that he's all over the map-- stone-faced one moment and having a conniption fit the next. I think they miss the point. King's Jerry Zipkin fits right into the film's what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen-next? atmosphere. Not only are we worried about the Stanford class of '67 and when and how they're going to flip out, we're worried about Zipkin and what he's going to do-- in the back of our minds, we're not so sure he didn't partake of the bad acid himself. In the early '80s King gave up acting to produce and direct-- primarily soft-core erotic movies and TV shows like Two Moon Junction (1988), Wild Orchid (1989) and the Red Shoe Diaries (1992 - 2006).
Fortunately, Blue Sunshine is the closest most of us will ever get to experiencing a bad LSD trip. The celluloid trip is quite fun. Back in 2003, Synapse Films came out with a special 2-disc set with the film, a CD of the eerie soundtrack and interesting extras including Lieberman reminiscing over roads taken and not taken in his film career. It's also available to stream from both Amazon.com and Netflix.
Did you ever hear the words "Blue Sunshine"?