Quentin Tarantino wasn’t the first ambitious B-movie fanatic to turn a hobby into a career; he followed a trail blazed by the likes of Joe Dante, Sam Raimi, the Coen brothers, and others. Josh Becker and Scott Spiegel were part of the same Michigan-based DIY filmmaking crowd as Raimi and Bruce Campbell, and with Raimi and Campbell made the micro-budget action picture Stryker’s War in the early ’80s, which was later renamed Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except when it was released internationally in 1985. (Becker complained to legendary press agent Irvin Shapiro that the new title sounded more like a tagline, but Shapiro forced it on him, and the film actually did decent business worldwide, vindicating Shapiro.) Inspired by their favorite grubby drive-in movies and revenge flicks, Becker and company cooked up a story about Vietnam vets battling a Manson-like hippie cult in the woods. Though not a spoof exactly, Thou Shalt Not Kill is unapologetically dumb, with corny dialogue, cheesy effects, and violence that ranges from excessively splatter-y to slapstick. It’s a movie made by guys who clearly love laughing at the worst parts of exploitation films, and don’t mind if the seams show in their work, so long as it’s entertaining.
And Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except is nothing if not entertaining. Brian Schulz stars as a wounded soldier who returns to the States, where he spends his days drinking with his buddies and trying to build a life with his girlfriend Cheryl Hausen. Then Hausen gets kidnapped by a band of local weirdoes, led by a stringy-haired self-proclaimed messiah played by Raimi. (Sam’s brother Ted plays one of the leader’s creepy, masked henchmen.) Across the board, the performances are either self-consciously stiff or over-the-top, and the minimal plot is mainly an excuse for plenty of scenes of shooting and stabbing, dressed up with colorful vulgarities cribbed from Stephen King novels. Yet Thou Shalt Not Kill is never dull, and as Raimi did on his early films, Becker shows a real why-the-hell-not spirit as he inserts a dog POV shot for no real reason, or has a background character idly spear a rat with bayonet, or provides a “squish” sound effect when Raimi squeezes Hausen’s breasts with his bloodied hands. This movie is gleefully trashy and abandons all bounds of good taste, following the spirit of its trailer, which insists, “There are times when the laws of God and man must be put aside.”
Key features: The original 50-minute, Campbell-starring Super 8 film that served as a pitch for the feature, plus a Campbell interview, a Becker/Campbell commentary track, another commentary track with Schulz and Michael Felsher, a disgusting deleted scene, and an informative half-hour “look back.”