The 'Sunshine' Cult: Jeff Lieberman's Far-Reaching Rays at Anthology
This weekend, the Anthology Film Archives screens prints of three of cult filmmaker Jeff Lieberman's trippy, no-budget horror films. All are worthy: Just Before Dawn, a knowing riff on Deliverance, is Lieberman's favorite of the three, and the showing of Squirm, an amiably corny chiller about killer worms, features a Q&A with Lieberman and star Don Scardino. But it's Blue Sunshine, the 1977 acidhead-as-monster movie, that stands apart.
Shot at the end of 1976 and into early 1977, the influential film gradually amassed an eclectic but hardcore following over the years. Its champions include Gremlins filmmaker Joe Dante and even the late critic Andrew Sarris, who praised "Lieberman's directional talent" and the film's "intriguing premise" in this paper when Blue Sunshine screened on TV in 1982.
Blue Sunshine stars a young Zalman King as a wrongfully accused fugitive seeking to clear his name for a series of killings perpetrated by a flashback-addled LSD user. Lieberman recently explained that he wanted to make a film that facetiously explored the government's misinformation surrounding the side effects of acid and other hallucinogens. For example, Lieberman gravely mocked hysterical fears of drugs and their far-reaching effects by having his monstrous druggies lose their hair, a sly parody of hippie stereotypes. Blue Sunshine is, as Lieberman himself has suggested, modeled after atomic-age horror films, like the 1954 giant killer-ant film Them! "Those films did the same exact thing with radiation that I did with LSD," Lieberman said recently. "Only there was nothing you could do to fight radiation. If there's a nuclear war, you're fucked."
The long-lasting appeal of Lieberman's film is improbably inclusive. For example, because Blue Sunshine has a dramatic scene in a dance club in which blaring music drives an acidhead crazy, the film was screened in 1979 at CBGB while disco-hating punk bands, including the Ramones, performed. The film has also lingered in the minds of contemporary filmmakers such as Panos Cosmatos, whose extraordinary 2011 avant-garde pastiche Beyond the Black Rainbow is heavily influenced by Blue Sunshine.
Lieberman recently visited the now-defunct Montreal-based Blue Sunshine psychotronic film center, a small commune of film buffs who worship Lieberman's film. In coaxing Lieberman out of the tristate area, the group did what the Cannes, Edinburgh, and London film festivals could not. Lieberman says he didn't attend the 1977 festival premieres of Blue Sunshine because, while both Edinburgh and London offered to put him up in a hotel, neither offered airfare. "I didn't even know what a film festival was back then," Lieberman says.
Although Lieberman is flattered by all of the attention his film has earned him over the years, he wears Blue Sunshine's weird popularity lightly. He clearly appreciates trippy cinematic homages like Cosmatos's film, as well as the attention lavished on him by the psychotronic center's recent sold-out, albeit intimate, screening. But even that was a little frustrating, given that the center screened a DVD of Blue Sunshine and not a print. "Screening my movies on 35mm film, that's better than any homage," Lieberman says.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.