Fear, loathing and inexplicable baldness are the order of the day in Jeff Lieberman's second feature film, Blue Sunshine, a terrific chiller from 1978, and quite likely the director's masterpiece. In the film, strange things are happening to ordinary everyday 30-somethings. The symptoms include accelerated hair loss and irritable moods followed by violent and psychotic behaviour. Jerry Zipkin who witnessed an old college friend succumb to the condition (and is mixed up in his accidental death) investigates the phenomena and discovers that the each of the persons involved dabbled with a substance in the late sixties known as Blue Sunshine, a powerful and volatile strain of LSD...
On paper Blue Sunshine sounds like a conventional enough story, playing like a 70's paranoid thriller in the vein of The Parallax View, spliced with the Hitchcockian device of the wrong man forced to clear his name. Thankfully, Blue Sunshine is something far more special, a spiky, fast-paced, loud and determinedly eccentric film, full of off-kilter touches, something akin to one of Cronenberg's early films (especially Rabid) fused with the offbeat rhythm of a Larry Cohen film. Lieberman might have swapped the sinister swamplands of Squirm for the big city sprawl of Blue Sunshine, but the landscape here is no less menacing. Lieberman has a talent for creating images that get under the skin of the audience - in Squirm, a plate of spaghetti was fraught with danger while in Blue Sunshine, the sight of bald heads (foreshadowed by repeated shots of a foreboding full moon in the credit sequence) is, on some subconscious level, deeply unsettling. Perfectly in sync with Lieberman's visuals is Charles Gross' idiosyncratic score using instruments like gongs and bells to add another layer of weirdness to the film.
As with Lieberman's debut, the film inspires any number of readings - on one hand it's a riff on 60's drug paranoia films like Hallucination Generation, (1966) but on a deeper level the film takes a swipe at the betrayed idealism of the children of Aquarius. Unlike Hunter Thompson's drug casualties of the 60's, the permanent cripples and failed seekers, Blue Sunshine's victims have become the kind of well-adjusted people in positions of responsibility their younger selves might have rebelled against, and in a cruel twist of fate the hedonism of youth have caused their well cultivated lives to spectacularly unravel. Interestingly in 1990 Jacob's Ladder trod similar territory with Vietnam vets experiencing disturbing delayed reactions from doses of hallucinogens administered during the war.
Much has been made of Blue Sunshine's leading man, future soft-core erotica director Zalman King (Wild Orchid, Red Shoe Diaries) and his ability or lack of, to carry the film. King is certainly no David Hess, but his performance, uptight, intense and erratic perfectly suits the mood of the film, and whether intentional or not, one is never quite sure if King's Jerry Zipkin is on the level. Worth mentioning that Zalman King displayed a similiar kind of intensity when he appeared as Jesus no less in the very interesting (but hard to see) Passover Plot made just prior to Blue Sunshine in 1976. Also notable among the cast is Robert Walden (the rat-fucker from All the President's Men), and in a nice bit of casting, Mark Goddard, most famous for his role of marooned space cadet Don West on the TV show Lost In Space, plays the politician who a decade earlier was dealing Blue Sunshine to the students at Stanford.
Despite the original negative being destroyed at the lab where it was being stored, Synapse's 2003 DVD of Blue Sunshine was a valiant attempt at restoring the film to what it looked like in theatres in the 70's. And for the most part, the restoration team, working from a 35mm print found in the UK have done a commendable job. The 1.85 anamorphic image looks relatively sharp and has strong colors but the film does look a little worn and grainy. Still, there are worse looking discs in your collection and Synapse have tweaked the image about as far as possible. The audio is much better and makes for an immersive experience. If the image quality was less than perfect, Synapse makes amends with an impressive array of extras - Lieberman is on hand for a director's commentary and returns for the 30min interview Lieberman on Lieberman. Also included is Lieberman's rare 20min short film from 1972, entitled The Ringer (which includes optional commentary), plus there's a short restoration piece, the theatrical trailer and a stills gallery. Synapse also issued a second edition of the DVD accompanied by the soundtrack CD. Despite it being a limited edition (a generous 50,000 units!) this 2-disc version has been available for years but copies of this edition are beginning to dry up so if the film has been on your wish list now is the time to grab it. Another DVD edition of Blue Sunshine was issued in 2011 by New Video DVD but the Synapse is the one to pick up.