From largely the same creative team responsible for Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead, director Josh Becker’s gonzo shoestring gore explosion Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except is at last available in a tricked-out and highly anticipated Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Synapse. For many years a ubiquitous lo-fi VHS staple, Thou Shalt Not Kill was shot on a micro-budget in the early ‘80s, following the success of Raimi’s feature debut The Evil Dead. Thou Shalt Not Kill was conceived originally as a follow-up vehicle for Dead star Bruce Campbell, pitting a small cadre of battle-scarred former Marines led by Campbell’s Sgt. Jack Stryker against a bloodthirsty hippie cult, headed by a greasy, Manson-esque proto-Messiah played by Raimi.
Returning home in 1969 following the end of a bloody, traumatic tour in Vietnam, Sgt. Stryker (Brian Schulz) finds himself unable to re-adapt to civilian life. Permanently crippled, and navigating a subterranean network of deep emotional devastation, Stryker becomes an isolated and destitute recluse, living in a shack deep in the woods surrounding the hometown of his childhood. Visited one day out of nowhere by the gruff but kindly grandfather of his former high school girlfriend, Sally (Cheryl Hansen), Stryker is convinced to re-ignite their failed romantic relationship, and he begins taking slow, tentative steps toward rejoining the world of the living.
Just as his freshly salvaged relationship appears poised to burst into bloom, Stryker’s lady friend is the victim of a shocking and brutal break-in, which leaves her grandfather bludgeoned to death, and Sally herself writhing helplessly in the sadistic clutches of a drugged-out, deranged hippie biker gang. Reuniting with his three similarly dysphoric combat buddies, Stryker loads up on ammunition and sets out into the woods to rescue his woman, launching a gleefully gory guerilla counter-attack on his ruthless and crazed opposition.
The crew behind Thou Shalt Not Kill started off shooting super-8s together in high school, and the informal teamwork atmosphere of the production is evident, though never in an off-putting way. Sam Raimi puts in a deliriously and unapologetically scenery-chewing performance as the lead Manson rip-off, cackling through blackened teeth and a cheap wig as he lurches forward with clutching, blood-blackened fingers outstretched toward the camera. Sam’s brother and adored genre perennial Ted Raimi is also present in a smaller, equally insane role, as an industrial chain-swathed, mask-wearing flunky, giggling and brandishing a revolver. The movie was clearly shot on the fly, and the production value and plotting are a little slapdash, but for a movie made in 1984 for just over $200,000, it holds together surprisingly well.
Whenever Synapse launches a big release like this, you can pretty much be assured they’re going to go all-out, and Thou Shalt Not Kill is no exception to the rule. The disc contains a 30-minute reunion featurette with Ted Raimi, Becker, and other members of the cast and crew, plus a separate extended interview with Bruce Campbell, who was precluded from starring in the film by SAG regulations, but nonetheless devoted his personal time to the production in a behind-the-scenes capacity out of gratitude and brotherly support. Thou Shalt Not Kill was adapted from a 48-minute short film called Stryker’s War shot by Becker on Super-8, and the short is included on the disc as well, available for the first time in an official and licensed capacity. There are also multiple commentary tracks, an alternate title sequence (scrapping the film’s original title was a move instigated by the film’s producers, who felt, apparently correctly, that it would help boost international sales), and a couple other stuffs. Most charmingly, Synapse threw in some reversible cover art for the clamshell, with the reverse image pretty much directly lifted from the movie’s early VHS release.
Picture and sound quality for the film itself is predictably low, but that’s to be expected for anything so cheaply shot. If you’re a fan of B-grade genre films, interested in Campbell or Raimi, or you just like to see movies with lots of gore, Synapse’s Blu-ray is a worthy addition to your library, as well as a fitting tribute to the homegrown, trigger-happy filmmaking team that originally created it.