Movies in the 1970s managed to reflect the anxieties that had many Americans locking their doors for the first time. Nuclear waste–fueled monsters and communist agents were replaced by a new generation of hot-button boogeyman, from black revolutionaries to Manson Family–like doped-up hippies to ethno-street gangs to the devil himself. And a new genre was created with the returning Vietnam vets. After decades of studios working in cahoots with the military to celebrate and recruit future soldiers, propaganda was replaced in the Hollywood of the ’70s with new box-office hits: B-movies featuring veterans returning from the unpopular war in Vietnam, who were often misunderstood, vilified or turned into antiheroes. Through the years vetsploitation films managed to grow and evolve. Take a look at 10 of the B-list and better relics from that era of badass and beleaguered vets, a retro starter list to watch over the long Memorial Day Weekend.
Skyjacked (John Guillemin, 1972)
Real-life gun nut Charlton Heston stars in what may be the Citizen Kane of vetsploitation movies. Not only was Skyjacked one of the MGM box office toppers in ’72 (along with blaxploitation hit Shaft) but it helped influence the films that followed. The great scenery-chewing Heston pilots a commercial jet that is eventually and hilariously hijacked by pissy confused vet James Brolin, who aims to defect as a hero to Russia. Luckily the Soviet police don’t want the headache and just shoot him when he deplanes. As a straight thriller, it’s mostly a yawner, but the over-the-topness makes it watchable. Of the many goofy contradictions, my personal favorite is when Brolin easily beats up real-life football hero Rosey Grier, but when it comes to fighting the 50-year-old Heston, he gets his ass whooped. The Chuck don't care if you served in The Shit, Bro.
Earthquake (Mark Robson, 1974)
More Charlton Heston! Nothing spells “second date”’ less than a horny psycho vet, as demonstrated by the come-home combatter played by Marjoe Gortner creep-stalking a Studio 54–wigged Victoria Principal around a crumbling Los Angeles in Earthquake. The one-time kiddie evangelist and subject of the twisted 1972 documentary Marjoe, Gortner became a compelling actor. Here he plays second fiddle to an all-star cast, including Heston, Ava Gardner, Walter Matthau and amazing pre-CGI models depicting the destruction of Los Angeles.
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
In Taxi Driver, now considered a classic of the era, Robert De Niro plays a over the-edge vet fueled by loneliness, who gets a mohawk and then goes vigilante to save a tween prostitute played by Jodie Foster, in a breakout role that got her an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress when she was 13 years old. The film racked up three other Oscar noms: Best Picture, Best Actor (for the agro-perfect De Niro) and Best Original Score (coolness supplied by Hitchcock’s main music man, Bernard Herrmann, nominated posthumously). But, let’s face it, Taxi Driver is really just vetsploitation’s finest, dressed up as an art film.
Black Sunday (John Frankenheimer, 1977)
A year before Bruce Dern got his Oscar nomination for his crazy ’Nam vet in Coming Home (losing to Christopher Walken’s crazier vet in The Deer Hunter), he played the lone-nut vet in the Goodyear Blimp–attacks–the Super Bowl thriller Black Sunday, based on the book by Thomas Harris (The Silence of the Lambs). Dern has been seduced by Middle East terrorists but meets his match in a hard-ass Israeli agent, the great British actor Robert Shaw, fresh off of Jaws. The film also features Fritz Weaver, looking upon impending doom.
Rolling Thunder (John Flynn, 1977)
In the mean, lean neo-noir Rolling Thunder, nutso vet William Devane is joined by his war buddy, Tommy Lee Jones, to go all G.I. Joe on the Tex-Mex goons who killed his family and stole his coin collection … and his arm! Screenplay by Taxi Driver nihilist scribe Paul Schrader.
Cannibal Apocalypse (Antonio Margheriti, 1980)
Mixing vetsploitation with the spaghetti-zombie genre is the great grossout Cannibal Apocalypse. John Saxon and his unit (including Tony King and Giovanni Lombardo Radice) so enjoyed eating Charlie in ’Nam that it makes life in suburban Atlanta just unappetizing. Eventually Saxon gives in to his urges all at once. With the wife away, he tries to seduce and bite into his teenage neighbor! Then after some ’Nam flashbacks that look as if they could have been shot behind a Six Flags, Saxon and his men start to get their nibble on, unleashing a cannibal virus and turning the town into a zombified hunger-pang smorgasbord, with full-on mayhem. The heroes are … the cannibals! It's just some fallout from fighting in that bullshit war, man.
First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)
As the Lawrence of Arabia of vetsploitation, the wandering Sylvester Stallone bums into a sleepy Pacific mountain town after learning the vet pal he'd come looking for died from Agent Orange exposure in First Blood. Burly sheriff Brian Dennehy doesn’t take kindly to vets but unfortunately doesn’t realize that John Rambo isn’t one of those John Kerry peacenik do-gooders but an ultra badass ex–Green Beret who becomes John Wayne on steroids when pushed too hard. First Blood, based on the novel by David Morrell, was the first in the Rambo series, which spawned a bunch of testoterone-fueled sequels that (to my mind unfortunately and terribly) turned the vet into an American flag–waving Reaganite and created a subgenre: P.O.W. movies.
Forced Vengeance (James Fargo, 1982)
In Forced Vengeance hard-core vet Chuck Norris shows off his killer karate moves against the Hong Kong mob that wants to take over the casino where he works as a part-time security guard. And, yeah, he gets even.
Thou Shalt Not Kill … Except (Josh Becker, 1985)
The Evil Dead posse made this ultra-low-budget Michigan flick (with a story by Bruce Campbell) where the woodsy jungle of suburban Detroit hilariously stands in for ’Nam in the flashback scenes. In Thou Shalt Not Kill … Except, aka Stryker’s War, the vet tries to adjust to society but has to reassemble the old unit to take on a machine gun–toting Manson Family–type cult, led by Sam Raimi (whom today's fans know as the director of Spider-Man film franchise for Marvel, Nos. 1-3).
Jacob's Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990)
In maybe the last of the Vietnam vetsploitation–era films, the vet has become almost a ghost. Tim Robbins’ wobbly vet in Jacob's Ladder sees dead people, and even though the guy is a total mess and is just a shell of a man, he does manage to seduce the sexy Elizabeth Pena … or does he …?