I’m going to tell you straight up that I think Philip Michael Thomas is one of the coolest guys. I firmly believe his Ricardo Tubbs on Miami Vice is one of the slickest, most badassed characters ever seen on TV. I even specifically sought out and purchased PMT’s two albums of the 1980’s; 1985’s Living The Book Of My Live, which was easily found on both vinyl LP and (sealed) cassette, and 1988’s Somebody, which I don’t mind telling you I spent the mighty dollars to acquire on CD several years ago.
Now, some may say PMT was and/or is madly egotistical, and some may say that he was more-or-less a one-hit-wonder with Miami Vice, but I ain’t havin’ none of that. Fact is, the man is very self-confident, and I’ve never seen him be anything less than positive; he’s consistently upbeat, he takes pride in everything he does and he’s happy doing it. You just can’t beat that kind of optimism and work ethic. I’ve got nothing but high regards for Philip Michael Thomas, so anything you read in this review, please don’t take it as overt PMT-bashing. Dude’s one of my heroes. That said, I may be a fan, but that’s not going to stop me from making fun of his movie. And if there’s ever a movie that deserved to be made fun of, it’s Death Drug. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew needs to reform specifically to take on Death Drug. No, the Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic projects aren’t enough. I want those silhouetted theater seats, dammit!
Here’s the deal with Death Drug: it was originally released in 1978 as a somewhat blaxploitation-ish anti-drug film (we’re talking after-school TV special quality here) starring a then-unknown Philip Michael Thomas. I seem to recall reading an interview with PMT (in an old TV Guide, if memory serves) in which he referred to it as, I believe, Whack Attack, which may very well have been the original title. I’m unclear if it ever received any kind of theatrical release or if it went straight to TV and then the classroom-rounds, but at any rate, it apparently didn’t leave much of an impression. Or, more properly, it dropped like a lead balloon, straight into the sea of obscure film fodder, where so much sad celluloidic trash resides. This is where Death Drug would probably remain to this day, if it weren’t for a certain twist of fate and stroke of genius, albeit a genius that was well-intentioned but ultimately, incredibly, misguided…
Fast forward to 1986: Miami Vice is the hottest thing on TV, Philip Michael Thomas is loved by the masses, and suddenly, anything having to with either had the cash registers a’ringin’. A veritable symphony of hip cash flow was at hand, and what better way to get in on said symphony than by re-releasing the smash Hollywood feel-good Holiday hit, Death Drug? Baby, you gotta strike while the iron is hot! And frankly, this is a phrase never more applicable than when applied to re-releasing friggin’ Death Drug. When you’ve got a film like this, you’re only gonna get one chance. Well, maybe two, if you’re lucky (a second tangible chance has not, thus far, presented itself). So, in ’86, long-forgotten Academy Home Entertainment struck while the aformentioned figurative iron was hot and released Death Drug on VHS to the hungry masses, which is the very video you see in the helpful picture above. Well, they didn’t *just* put it out on video and then be done with the whole thing, though they could have. There’s more to it than that, which I’m about to get to.
Now, I’m not sure if this was PMT’s brainchild or some third party’s bright idea, but when it was finally decided that Death Drug should indeed be re-released to an eager public on the revolutionary VHS home video format, it wasn’t going to be released ‘straight,’ as the audience of two saw it in ’78. Oh no, this was something bigger, something more majestic, something more, more, more dangerous…
This blurb on the front cover is our first inkling that this release strives (strived? Strove?) to be something more. “Just The Way I Planned It” was the lead single off of PMT’s 1985 debut LP Living The Book Of My Life, and including the official music video of it on the tape as an extra enticement to purchase makes some sense. Including extra features on a video wasn’t anything new even then, and in later years, such as in George Lucas’ re-releasing of the Star Wars trilogy, the concept would be taken to new heights, with full-on retrospectives and whatnot included before or after films. So, since you can’t access extra features separately as you can on DVDs or Laserdiscs, it would be reasonable to think that they’d put PMT’s music video either before or after the feature presentation. Dare I say this re-release inspired George Lucas’ frequent re-releases of his Star Wars films?!?!
Here’s where the misguided thing I spoke of earlier now comes in: they didn’t just throw the music video on the tape as a bonus. Nope, in a show of “kinda sorta breaking the fourth wall,” they actually incorporated the music video into the movie. Not only that, but they actually filmed new segments that were also incorporated into the original Death Drug. These new bits don’t actually add anything and frequently contradict events in the actual movie, which we’ll look at a bit more in a bit. For now, all I’ll say is that it’s these new segments that take this release from “bad money grab” to “this thing is so bad you gotta see it ya feelin’ me dawg?!” Seriously, Death Drug, in this form, is sheer bad movie heaven. I’ll come right out and say that I haven’t seen the un-tampered-with original 1978 version, and I’m not even sure that cut of the film has ever been commercially available, but I’m confident in saying that no way could the ’78 edition be as entertainingly awful as this ’86 re-release. Bad, sure, almost undoubtedly, but it probably would have been only as bad as any other “message” movie. But this, this version, man, it’s something special. Also, notice the blurb’s declaration that this is an “uncut version.” Yeah, uncut my ass. Granted, I don’t have a ’78 print to compare it to, but it sure seems like the original footage here is often messed with; more modern-looking transitions between scenes and so on are sometimes used, and there are some scenes near the end that look to have then-modern video effects used for enhancement.
Also, did PMT really win an award for his performance in this film? Why am I seeing no reference to this anywhere but this video box?
We’ll get to all of that in due time, though. Since only approximately 11 other people have a copy of this VHS, let us take a look at the finer physical points of the actual tape. I could go on and on about this all being a Northeast Ohio Video Hunter exclusive, but I can’t muster the fake enthusiasm. Not when I have bizarre music videos and awkward intros waiting to be looked at.
There’s the back of the box. Click on the pics for enlarged versions. The description on the back is all hyperbole, but that’s to be expected; back before the internet and stupid online movie reviews like this one, it was up to the video boxes to really sell the movie to the potential buyer. Of course they’re going to play up the Miami Vice angle; that’s the reason this was put out in the first place. “Poignant drama,” yeah, sure, maybe if you’re a third grader being forced to watch this in a
sex ed drug-awareness class. Trust me, no one above the age of 10 is going to take this thing very seriously. Not today, and probably not back then, either. That said, that shot of PMT screaming is probably going to give me nightmares at some point, but I’ll risk it, for your sake. Never let it be said I don’t suffer for my art.
The finer credits on the back of the box. It’s safe to assume that these are the people you need to blame for all this. On the plus side, the listed running time of 73 minutes is pretty damn accurate. Even with all the goofy shit they added, I can’t believe that’s all the time this thing runs. Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise; how much Death Drug can one person really take, anyway? The film, I mean. So, how long was the original cut? A bit over an hour, maybe? Maybe this really was an after-school special, initially?
Academy went all out, baby! This is no ordinary slip cover! There are protective folded-flaps at both ends of the box, ensuring your copy of Death Drug won’t fly out of the sleeve when you throw it against the wall. These dual-flaps were the hallmark of only the most prestigious VHS releases of the time. I’ve got an original VHS release of Ghostbusters that uses this method, and man, you wanna talk chick-magnet!
(I joke, of course. The dual-flap thing is interesting, but more of a curse than a blessing; the creasing seen on the flap in the pic above is ample evidence that it’s often a pain in the ass getting my precious Death Drug out of the sleeve. How am I going to hold my thrice-weekly viewings of the film when I have to continuously fumble with the damn box just to release the tape? HOW, I ASK YOU?!)
The main and side labels of the tape. The extra UPC stickers and slightly-faded front cover prove this was a former-rental. Considering the tape’s quality is still pretty good (luckily, Academy shelled out the big bucks for an SP-mode recording), I’m guessing this was not the most popular of rentals. Note that this is a stereo Hi-Fi tape; watch this on a big screen TV and it’ll be like you’re really there.
Enough of my bullshit, it’s movie time! (CAUTION: There are spoilers ahead, as if anybody cares.)
The whole thing kicks off with a newly-filmed introduction by Philip Michael Thomas himself, looking like he just rolled in fresh off the Miami Vice set. I shouldn’t know this, but his shorter hair possibly places this around the third season of the show (for the first two, he had a bit of a ‘fro, not unlike the one seen in this actual movie). Yeah, I’ve watched a lot of Miami Vice. Please don’t think less of me because I know the finer points of PMT’s hairstyles. The filming quality of the intro is something akin to “home camcorder.” Seriously, it doesn’t look very professional at all. Also not professional looking? A few instances of very obvious editing in what would ideally be a continuous 2-minute intro, and several pauses that are ostensibly for dramatic effect but come off more awkward than anything.
PMT starts off by giving us the lowdown on what it takes to be an actor. According to him, it takes discipline, concentration, and sometimes, things that can’t be defined. Apparently, and he emphasizes this by pumping his fist (as seen in the left pic above), “There are times when you get a role where it’s easy, and other times when you gotta dig down deep deep deep inside yourself. You come up with things that fascinate even YOU.” Really, he says that. Supposedly, this is all meant to underscore what went into his performance in the smash hit Death Drug, because he then mentions how fortunate he was to play “such a role.” Uh huh, has nothing to do with the paycheck they’re throwing at you. At this point, he talks about the actual film. At the mention of his character being a budding musician, PMT awkwardly stops, walks over to a piano, plays a short tune and sings. His character may be a musician, as PMT is in real life, but this still really has nothing to do with anything and comes off incredibly random. We believe you PMT, we didn’t need a demonstration.
After he finishes that spectacle, he speaks a bit more about what we’re about to see before bringing it all home with “I tell you, this was one of the most incredible experiences of my acting career. [long awkward pause] I hope you’ll enjoy the dramatization.” 1) one of the most incredible experiences of your acting career? Seriously? PMT has done a lot of stuff over the years, but a glorified public service announcement ranks near the top? Go for the hard sell if you must, but sorry man, I ain’t buyin’ it. 2) Oh, we’ll enjoy the dramatization, but for all the wrong reasons.
The film begins proper with a news report on “another” angel dust-related death. I was at first prepared to label this sequence one of the newly filmed bits, but the more I watch it, the less I’m sure of that. The entire news segment sequence seems a bit too old; it doesn’t look as obviously new as the other, erm, new bits. Plus, look at that newscaster. Were people still dressing like that in 1986? I sure hope not.
Anyway, one Angelo Marcetti, ostensibly high on said angel dust, has been captured on film, foaming at the mouth and terrorizing a roller rink. Maybe he isn’t a fan of the shorty-short shorts so popular in the 1970’s? Since I’ve never been high on the crap, I don’t know if that’s an accurate representation of angel dust mouth-foaming. Looks more like the guy just didn’t towel off all his shaving cream. Still, he’s bald, he’s sleeveless, and he’s tattooed, so he’s clearly meant to be “bad news.” Are we stereotypin’, Death Drug? Gotta love the people in the background, milling about and/or calmly sitting on the benches, as if this occurrence isn’t worth getting the hell out of there over. Then again, pretty much everyone did drugs in the 1970’s, so maybe it wasn’t. I love the chick with her legs casually crossed like there’s not some guy on a murderous rampage right in front of her.
The shots at the roller rink are accompanied by a news reporter’s voiceover, who, despite his best efforts to sound frantic (and constantly asking “are we still rolling?”), comes off more as if he’s giving play-by-play during a baseball game. You almost expect him to declare “He’s heading for home!” Didn’t I hear this guy on a Meat Loaf album once? Eventually the cops show up, and briefly have Angelo subdued and cuffed. But, wouldn’t you know it, the guy is so high, he breaks the cuffs! Since I have zero experience with angel dust outside of what Death Drug tells me, is this something that could really happen? I’m being serious, will the stuff make someone so high that they have no concept of their own strength? Like, the kind of adrenaline rush a mother would get while lifting a car off her kid or something?
He gets away from the cops, but luckily, a slow moving taxi is busy rumbling down the street. Despite moving slowly enough to probably safely drive over a turtle without resulting in turtle death, a mere bump that under normal circumstances would result in little more than irritating the hittee causes Angelo to fly up over the hood and onto the ground, stone cold dead. It wasn’t the angel dust that killed him, twas taxi killed the beast. I think the cops tackled the guy harder than the taxi actually hit him, but in Death Drug‘s nightmare world, there is little room for logic.
Out of nowhere, accompanied by blaring sirens, it’s DEATH DRUG! In color! If you have heart problems, turn down the volume and brace yourself, because the abrupt title appearance and incredible stereo Hi-Fi sound could potentially blow you straight across the room!
Ah, our first look at PMT in the greatest role of his or anyone else’s career (or so his intro would have us believe). PMT plays Jesse
Michael Thomas, a budding Los Angeles musician [excuse me while I randomly play the piano for a moment] that for the time being works as a simple plumber. He’s just a working stiff with a plunger and a dream. Dare I say Death Drug was the inspiration for Super Mario Bros.? After all, you’ve got a plumber that ends up seeing all kinds of wacky shit, so hey, you never know. Someone should ask Shigeru Miyamoto if he knows who Philip Michael Thomas is.
Upon finishing up at his latest assignment, Jesse checks in with homebase (it’s worth noting that he has to look up to see where he just finished working in order to give details. “Yeah, I just finished that installation at the…laundromat.”). After checking in, Jesse cranks up the funky jams and heads back to headquarters, but not before lighting himself up a smoke. No, this isn’t the death drug yet. It’s just a regular ol’ cig. It’s weird seeing PMT actually smoking a cigarette; the guy is big into health and fitness, and if you see a modern-day picture of him, he doesn’t look too far removed from his Miami Vice days. So either the healthy lifestyle is working, or Philip Michael Thomas is a Highlander.
Death Drug doesn’t just star Philip Michael Thomas, it incredibly stars him! So much so that he gets two starring credits! This is a consequence of the new tinkering that was done to the film. It seems that the yellow credits are newly added, and the white credits are from the original version. The white credits are also tricky bastards; they roll up the screen à la ending credits, and thus briefly filling you with happiness before you remember this thing just started.
Besides PMT, there are some people in the cast that also had recognizable careers. Vernee Watson, Rosalind Cash and Frankie Crocker all had jobs before and (thankfully) after Death Drug.
Not only that, but the music is by The Gap Band! They’re even in the film! I’ve heard of them! They were pretty successful at the time of this movie, so how did Death Drug manage to score them? I have no idea. Maybe they just liked the anti-drug message. At any rate, it’s an added dimension of interest to the movie. Beyond the mockery aspects, I mean.
Following those credits are, erm, more credits! Wendee Winters never did much (not according to IMDb, in which this film is not part of her filmography, perhaps understandably so), but Larry McCormick had quite a career for himself. Even worked at L.A.’s KTLA TV-5. We’ll see him later in the movie. For now, it’s time for things to get movin’.
Jesse stops in at plumbing headquarters to get the skinny on tomorrow’s assignment. Apparently he’s going to have to put up with trainees. It’s mostly an inconsequential scene, except that upon being asked about his music (this is the first the film actually tells us about Jesse’s involvement with music, not counting PMT’s all-new, all weird, intro, so maybe it’s not totally an inconsequential scene after all), Jesse does the “okay” sign in a manner very similar to the one seen in Pod People. Granted, every time I see someone do the sign, a mental “It stinks!” goes off in my head anyway, but just like Pod People, this is in regards to music; never mind the fact that the two films aren’t comparable otherwise, that’s just too big a coincidence for me to ignore. So, for those keeping score at home, Death Drug possibly influenced George Lucas’ VHS re-releases of the Star Wars trilogy in the 1990’s, Super Mario Bros., and Pod People, though not necessarily in that order.
Someone should ask Juan Piquer Simón if he knows who Philip Michael Thomas is.
One thing Death Drug definitely has in common with Pod People? “It stinks!”
Jesse heads home, and we learn that he drives a pretty sweet car, which I’m this sure is an old Camaro. Is calling a Camaro in a 1978 movie “old” redundant? I’d like to be a smartass here, but it really is a sweet ride. More funky music plays, and the helpful shots of Jesse in the front seat groovin’ lets us, the viewing audience, know that he’s really got the music in him.
Jesse’s first order of business upon arriving home is to terrify his lovely wife, Carolyn, by jumping out at her like so many home intruders are prone to do. Whenever I try this, I either get punched in the face or incarcerated, but Jesse and Carolyn are really in love, so it’s okay (the fact I jump out at total strangers in the supermarket probably doesn’t help, either).
After several moments of odd kissy face and flirting, it’s revealed that not only does Jesse have an appointment at 10 AM on Saturday with a real, big time record company, but also that he’s been accepted into a music conservatory; his jubilation at this is expressed with a “Damn! Look out! Look out! DAMN!“ which, truth be told, I was all ready to make fun of, but if you saw my reaction to finding DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s And In This Corner… CD for $2.50 the other day, you’d know I have no room to talk (I was joking about jumping out at people at the supermarket, but I’m being serious now; I was overjoyed to find that album).
This calls for a celebration, so Jesse and his wife meet up with their two white friends and head to a disco to see The Gap Band (the film makes sure you know it’s The Gap Band by quickly flashing a shot of their album cover hanging on the wall, so even the most moronic of viewers will get it).
Amidst much Gap Band jammin’, which mostly consists of some very 1970’s dancing (except for Jesse’s white friends, who clap along but of course have no rhythm otherwise), Jesse spots his big-haired pot marijuana weed dealer, and follows him into the bathroom so he can replenish his pot marijuana weed supply. This, however, is not the death drug of titular fame.
The transaction goes down without a hitch, but a drug-dealer of a more nefarious nature sees what’s happening and decides to flaunt his own wares in front of Jesse. At this point, Jesse is offered “The stick with a kick, the tower of power! This comes from the heavens above!” It’s sherm, “coated from end-to-end with juice!” The first one is always free, so Jesse gladly takes it and heads back out to play some music for the people. Oddly enough, the drug-dealer shakes his head sadly behind Jesse, as if he’s disappointed in him. What would he have done if Jesse had refused? Nodded approvingly? What is he, a drug-dealer with vague morals? “Well, I hooked another one, but damn, I kinda feel bad about it!” (Obviously it’s a “what a sucker” type moment, but it still seems odd coming from a supposedly ‘hardened’ dealer.)
Jesse gets to sit in with The Gap Band! I don’t know if PMT was actually playing anything or not, but it’s definitely cool to see him sitting in with them. They jam for several minutes, and Jesse receives thunderous applause. Afterwards, Jesse sits down, his white friends get up to dance (admittedly, the girl isn’t too bad, but the dude dances about as well as I do, which is to say, not very), and his wife goes to the ladies’ room. Now’s as good a time as any, so Jesse lights up…
And so it begins. I’d like to say this is the first of the film’s many truly weird moments, but the Angelo Marcetti scene at the beginning was too goofy to ignore. Anyway, Jesse seems unsure of the sherm at first, but the stuff acts quick. In no time at all, Jesse’s feelin’ the tower of power.
How so? Well, he hallucinates that a white chick across the room that’s paying no attention to him whatsoever is actually a flirtatious black woman. I’m not sure if this as a racial thing or not. Is it the color that’s the main point of the hallucination, or the fact that the real girl isn’t paying attention to Jesse, but the fake one is? Or is it both?
Here’s the thing with Death Drug: it’s often listed as a blaxploitation film, but this is the only moment that’s really blaxploitation-ish. I mean, yeah, the primary cast is black, and it’s dealing with what’s often considered an “urban” subject, but there are several white people in the film, and dancing aside, they’re portrayed fairly positively (except Angelo Marcetti, of course). That is, most people in the film, black and white, care for Jesse, and aside from this one scene, race never really comes into the equation. So what exactly does it take to make a film a legitimate part of the blaxploitation genre? I’m no expert on them, but Death Drug doesn’t really seem to me like it belongs on that list. But hell, I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t really care one way or the other. A bad movie is a bad movie, and Death Drug is a really bad movie.
Busted! Carolyn comes back from the restroom and catches Jesse acting all doped up. She seems to cautiously buy Jesse’s claim that he’s merely looking at a painting, but it’s clear she has her suspicions. A close-up of Jesse staring at the sherm drives home the point that he digs it. Baby, that is IT. Jesse’s hooked.
Flash forward to Jesse’s Saturday morning meeting at the record company. From pretty much the moment Jesse walks in, they are determined to sign him. I always thought it took a bit more to get signed to a label, but I don’t know. When Jesse brings up the music conservatory thing, he is quickly told to forget about it, because he won’t have the time for such nonsense, Amidst promises of becoming as big as Donna Summer and The Bee Gees and the fact “You’re gonna make so much GODDAMN money, you won’t have the time to spend it!” the music conservatory is quickly forgotten. Jesse happily and incoherently babbles for a bit before walking on air out of there.
After Jesse’s gone, more talk about getting Jesse on the charts as soon as possible is thrown about. Doesn’t he need to professionally record something before they start talking about the charts? Is Jesse that much of a local legend already? At any rate, big-time producer man Mitch calls Jimmy (Iovine?) and tells him “Baby, have I got a diamond for you!” Get it, diamond? It works cause Jesse’s apparently a diamond as well as the fact that the record is supposedly gonna be a diamond seller. IT’S MUSIC BUSINESS TALK, CAN YOU DIG IT?
Now we come to one of the crown jewels of this whole stupid movie. I’ll try, but words can’t adequately express how awkward what we’re about to see is. Jesse shows up to talk to his Father in a retirement home. It seems that Papa Jesse has never been proud of Jesse’s career choice in music, preferring that he become a doctor or lawyer instead. Jesse’s Dad never says this on-screen, but his palpable anger and Jesse’s progressive freak out in the retirement home makes it clear that Jesse’s a disappointment in his Father’s eyes.
Jesse starts out calmly enough, explaining why he’s chosen to do what he’s doing, but his Father barely makes eye contact with him the whole time. Jesse becomes louder and louder in his pleading, and eventually starts blubbering, screaming “YOU’RE WRONG! YOU ARE WRONG MAN! MAMA UNDERSTOOD! MAMA UNDERSTOOD THAT MY MUSIC WAS GOOD! I”M GONNA MAKE YOUR PROUD OF ME! YOU’RE GONNA BE PROUD THAT I’M YOUR SON!” At that, Jesse’s Dad says his only lines in the scene, and indeed, the film: “I got no son.” Damn! I think it’s safe to say that Jesse’s Dad is a first-class prick. Given the awkward stares and trying-not-to-stares of the other residents, it’s clear that they share the viewing audience’s discomfort. Way to put a damper on the good record deal news, you old bastard.
Oh boy, it was already rough, but Jesse positively loses it at this. Between sobs, he manages to scream “DADDY! DADDY!! I LOVE YOU DADDY I LOVE YOU!! SAY SOMETHING TO ME!!! I JUST WANT YOU TO TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME!!!“ Jesse jumps up and screams that last line, and I guess this was one of those times PMT dug down deep deep deep inside and surprised even himself, because the force of his acting causes spit to fly out of his mouth and hang off his lower lip, which is to say the least, pretty disgusting. I know it’s supposed to be an emotional scene, but really, this is one of those moments where the viewer actually feels embarrassed for the actor.
Taken out of context, this part could easily be seen as the result of one of the film’s drug freak-out moments, but it’s not. I didn’t bother pointing it out then, but it was briefly mentioned earlier in the disco scene that Jesse’s Father holds some resentment, and this is the culmination of that half-formed subplot. It’s also clearly meant to be a catalyst for the drug-taking seen later in the film. It’s all very, very uncomfortable, nevertheless.
Also, Jesse’s Dad, he doesn’t look black at all to me. It almost looks like they found an old white guy, put a little makeup on him, and said “sit there and look pissy.” Not that I really care if his Dad is supposed to be white; love is colorblind, people (I’m the first to admit that I think Jesse’s wife is pretty damn cute). But, if that was indeed the case, Death Drug actually would have been pretty progressive in that respect, and I’ll give them props for making no mention of the fact Jesse has a white father if that’s what they were going for. Either way, it doesn’t make the scene any less awkward.
I’ve never been so thankful for a quick fade out into a newly filmed, oddly placed scene. Or so I thought…
It begins with an amateurishly produced and haltingly-narrated program called Music Today, which consists of footage clearly superimposed over a still-picture of a TV (they didn’t even get the picture lined-up straight over the screen). The program notes that Jesse Thomas was just yesterday working as a plumber, but today has a recording contract. I don’t know if they mean “yesterday” and “today” (should PMT have used the butcher cover?) in a literal or figurative sense, but since it will become increasingly obvious that they didn’t care whether the new footage matched up with the old or not, I wouldn’t be surprised if they meant it literally. The voiceover informs us that Jesse “Writes…and sometimes sings, his own music.” Sure, Jesse sat in with The Gap Band, but besides that, I think this is the first we’ve heard of him not singing his own stuff (though, in order to keep from going nutbar berserk, I’m systematically dumping any memories I’ve retained while watching this, so hell, they may have made a fleeting mention earlier).
Anyway, it’s announced that his record company is pulling off a massive promotional blitz. Unless an inordinate amount of time has passed between Jesse’s retirement home tantrum and this sad music program, a promotional blitz seems just a little premature. Taking the high road, it’s announced that Jesse’s upcoming album is dedicated to his Father. Personally, I’d say “suck it, pops!” is a must for the liner notes, but PMT has proven himself consistently more dignified than I.
Music Today has supposedly gone to a few clubs, all of which are already playing Jesse’s music. “His unique style of hard-driving rhythms has everybody dancing to a new and different beat!” Never mind that the music played during these clips is run-of-the-mill disco and thus hardly revolutionary for 1978 or 1986 or whenever the hell this is all supposed to be taking place at the moment. “Jesse Thomas, we’re watching this young man’s career! He’s on the charts with a bullet!” Wait, so they just said he had a new recording contract, but he’s already on the charts? I’m confused. I know record companies liked to move pretty fast back then, but Death Drug is stretching credibility to the limit right now.
Anyway, we’re then told that the record company is trying something new: a music video. Now, if this was period-correct, that would have been pretty ahead-of-the-curve for 1978, but since we know this is newly-produced footage, it rings hollow. Turns out Music Today is the first place anywhere to play said music video, which is a terrible, terrible choice on the record company’s part; high school students could produce something more professional-looking, and besides, Jesse is described as a local, meaning that the much-ballyhooed big-ass promotional blitz isn’t quite nationwide (that is, it’s a local L.A. program). Oh sure, you could argue that this is supposed to be 1978, and a national outlet on par with MTV wasn’t around yet, but don’t go poking holes in my mockery (plus, there’s no way in hell whoever put this together was paying that much attention to what he was throwing on screen). Besides, when the video comes on, it’s very obviously a product of the more fully-formed music video-age. Basically, the film at this point is implying that Philip Michael Jesse Thomas invented the modern music video. Sorry MJ, “Thriller” came just a little too late!
“Here’s the first showing anywhere of Jesse Thomas’ new song, ‘Just The Way I Planned It.'”
Folks, things are about to get weird. And remember, I’m a PMT fan. I have the album this is off of, and I have a vague understanding of what he was trying to go for (I think), but even I can’t fully process what we’re about to see…
Anything bad you could possibly say about the 1980’s is right here in this music video, front and center. Actually, that’s not even fair to the decade; there were plenty of good music videos. it’s just that this one is extraordinarily bad. I mean, one of the first things you see is PMT (I don’t care if this is supposed to be Jesse, this is from PMT’s album) with a hypnotic flashing third eye. The hell? And that’s one of the video’s more lucid moments, which is really saying something. There was some trippy shit in the 1970’s, but no way is anyone going to buy this is from ’78. This is 1980’s strangeness at its, well, strangest.
I’ll tell you right now, you’re going to see more of Philip Michael Thomas than you may care to. Between (and sometimes during) shots of PMT being endlessly caressed or otherwise surrounded by women, he tends to dance in a semi-mystical way. I’d imagine the line of thinking was that he was putting you under some bizarre spell. I take back what I said about that white guy dancing earlier. That was embarrassing, but this is straight-up bad. I may be a PMT fan, but I don’t want to see this shit. And the thing is, PMT can dance; he busted moves several times on Miami Vice, so I really don’t know what he was trying to go for here. Well, yeah, I do: he was trying to be sexy, and for all I know, it may have worked for some people. But as for me? Frankly, I just find it highly unsettling. Stuff like this seriously challenges my idealized perception of mid-1980’s culture.
Yes, women crawl all over him and rub his chest, all set against a pulsing-light backdrop. It’s many a male’s fantasy played out live and in person on your television screen. Forget epileptic seizures, this shit will make someone’s head fucking explode. I mean, I can talk about it, but the words that can accurately describe this insanity haven’t been invented yet. I cannot believe someone actually gave this video the greenlight.
They superimposed his head over a pregnant woman’s stomach. They superimposed his head over a pregnant woman’s stomach. What the fuck? What does this all mean and why is it happening?! And while we’re at it, what exactly has happened just the way he planned it to happen? I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think the actual song itself is that bad. I mean, it ain’t great, and the hell if I know what it’s actually about. I gather that it has something to do with him falling in love with his ideal woman, but then, why does he, at one point, continuously shout “Wisdom and knowledge and understanding!” over and over? Keep in mind this is the single edit on the tape; the actual album version has a computerized PMT voice saying “I believe in me! Soon the world will see! All my dreams will be reality! I don’t to be a could-have been, that’s too long to wait! If I wait till tomorrow, I might miss my destiny!” You don’t hear that on this special Death Drug version, but I guess that the overarching theme of the song is that PMT has planned on taking over the world with his unstoppable ambition, one pregnant woman at a time I presume. At least, that’s as near as I can figure it.
More insane 80’s video effects and PMT surrounded by the wimmens. I can’t explain any of this and I give up trying. I will say that there’s nothing disco-ish or at all similar to what has previously shown to be Jesse’s style of music. You could say it’s a funky 1980’s synth-pop R&B tune. I guess that’s what Music Today meant by “His unique style of hard-driving rhythms has everybody dancing to a new and different beat!” Dancing or running in terror? Did they mistake seizures for dancing?
You know, I’m sorry, I’ve got to step out for a breather. We’re almost halfway through the movie at this point, but really, I need to collect myself. The one-two punch of Jesse spitting all over himself at a retirement home and now this horrifying video has left me spent. Really, just wow, I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m legitimately upset. Hold tight for a sec, please. I’ll be right back.
What’s this?! Our intrepid Northeast Ohio Video Hunter, falling victim to the very substance plaguing our protagonist, Jesse Thomas?! Say it ain’t so, Northeast Ohio Video Hunter! Has Death Drug claimed yet another victim in a reckless rampage of cinematic irresponsibility?! Will our Northeast Ohio Video Hunter now be forced to spit all over himself and then produce his own psychotic music video?! Are he and Jesse two peas in a pod, as it were?! Has our beloved Northeast Ohio Video Hunter become beleaguered by a copious cacophony of nasty narcotics?! Look what you’re doing to yourself, man! You usually take a much better picture than that! Please don’t go down this path, Northeast Ohio Video Hunter! Death Drug just isn’t worth it!
Calm down, you more sensitive types; that was a Black & Mild cigar above, not an illegal substance, and I was using it for comic effect, though the comedic merits of the bit are admittedly negligible. Frankly, I just needed some kind of bridge between that mindfuck of a music video and the rest of the movie. For the record, I do usually take a better picture, not sure what was going on there (and that was the best of the lot). It was so cold outside that no way in hell was I heading back out for retakes, though.
If you disregard the Music Today and “Just The Way I Planned it” segments (an impossible proposition, I know), this is the first ‘actual movie’ footage since Jesse’s crying fit in the retirement home. As we join this shit in progress, Jesse is sitting alone in his living room getting stoned. And man, he is baked. Look at him! Has there ever been such a perfect representation of “stoned” on film, before or since? I sincerely doubt it. We’ve only seen Jesse toke up on sherm once at this point, and something has to have been cut-out between the retirement home scene and here. I mean, we can reasonably assume that Jesse needed to get really high after being rejected by his Dad for almost certainly not the first time. But, shots of Jesse becoming progressively more and more hooked on sherm would have went a loooong way towards setting up the scene we’re now at. But, I’ll give Death Drug the benefit of the doubt; I’d guess there were more establishing shots in the original cut that were subsequently excised in an effort to “improve” this re-release. I stand by my earlier statement of “uncut my ass.”
I just now realized that PMT as Jesse has some seriously stylin’ sideburns. Lookit them suckers! Anyway, Mrs. Jesse comes home, and it’s clear that she’s becoming wise to the fact there’s a real problem going on. Jesse lamely states he was just “meditating,” an explanation that wouldn’t fool your Grandma or mine. Among other inquiries, Carolyn asks Jesse “What was that strange smell coming out of the bathroom this morning?” which, you know, I’m not even going to touch that line. Jesse isn’t the sharpest when he’s stoned out of his gourd, because he says “It’s a new aftershave lotion, I guess.” which is only slightly lamer than the meditation explanation (poetry). Carolyn ain’t buying that, either, stating it smelled chemical to her. Yeah, some establishing scenes to help us make sense of all this would have definitely been nice.
Hallucination time! Jesse’s prepping for bed, and while combing his hair, his comb turns into goldayamn baby alligator! Or is it a crocodile? Someone give Jack Hanna a call, stat.
Could this perhaps be baby Elvis? A Miami Vice premonition?! Either way, Jesse’s giggles like a madman at all this.
The next day at work, Jesse smokes what turns out to be his last little bit of sherm, a revelation that clearly annoys him.
Jesse’s drug dealer must keep a strict itinerary, because Jesse knows just where to find him: at the tennis court! Now how the hell did he know that? I guess the filmmakers figured no one would be paying close enough attention to call this plot-point out, and frankly, I’m surprised that I caught it, considering my enthusiasm for ripping Death Drug a new one is fading fast.
Jesse needs more sherm, and while the drug dealer doesn’t have any on hand, his tennis partner does have some whack – hidden in the handle of his tennis racket. Seriously? Is that really something someone would have actually done? Altering his tennis racket to have a hidden compartment for drugs? Is he the James Bond of the drug world? What, occasionally he needs a fix so bad that he has to be prepared even when he’s on the tennis court? Or is he a fellow drug dealer, always prepared for action? I guess it’s a place no one would ever think to look. If there’s one benefit to this curious moment, it’s that my enthusiasm for Death Drug is completely recharged, and all it took was something that monumentally stupid to do it. Forget combs that turn into baby alligators, that drug-hidin’ tennis racket is where it’s at.
Jesse’s a bit cautious, but the dealer informs him “Yeah, whack! It’s heavy, brother! Man it’ll get you so high you’ll need a parachute to come down!” Jesse’s baited, but he still wonders if it’s as good as sherm. “It is as good? Would I lie to you Jesse? This is the whack baby! The cheap angel! This stuff’ll put more dips in your hips, more cut in your strut and more glide in your stride!” So, was the ability to rhyme a prerequisite for becoming a drug dealer in the 1970’s? Jesse’s sold, though, and he invites the dealer out to his truck to smoke some. The dealer solemnly informs him that he doesn’t smoke and never has. He then semi-lightly says it’s due to some “bronchial trouble,” which incredibly, Jesse buys. I guess drugs kill the brain cells that act as the body’s natural bullshit detector.
The self-righteous drug dealer is back!! As Jesse happily walks away with his new illegal substance, the dealer mutters “Sucka” and then shakes his sadly as he walks back to the court! A drug dealer that feels bad about the damage he inflicts, I love it!
Jesse heads out to the truck and lights up. We’ve seen some wacky shit already, but things ’bout to get straight up nutty, yo.
Jesse’s back to work when the whack starts doing it’s thang…
First off, a pipe turns into a snake and then back again. It’s a hallucination that isn’t too far removed from the sherm’s effects, and compared to the baby alligator, it’s even kinda lame. Jesse must agree, because he then has some more whack.
He then goes to check out a gauge of some sort. 10 bonus points if you know where that left screencap above was seen earlier (scrolling back up is cheating).
He’s so damn high that the image flips upside down and gets blurry in what is an almost-certainly newly-dicked-with moment that was altered for this re-release.
Jesse looks fairly confused by all this and decides to head back to plumbin’ headquarters. I could have easily wrote that without the extra screenshot, but I love the look of “The hell?” on Jesse’s face above.
Jesse is clearly pretty ‘out there’ at this point, but relatively agreeable, as evidenced by the cheerful manner he enters his place of employment, slappin’ fives and whatnot.
The bossman is giving the lowdown on what’s on the next day’s docket, when he (calmly and not angrily at all) tells Jesse that a panel cover at a school he worked at needs to be tightened. Now, I could empathize with Jesse up to a point here, because I don’t like criticism either, but his sourpuss face and the sound effect of a pounding heart make clear that he’s abnormally high and abnormally pissed off.
Lightnin’ quick, he slaps the clipboard out of bossman’s hand! I’ll admit this is funny as hell. Look at the boss’s face: “Say what?”
Unlike the retirement home visit, this scene is all drug-fueled. Jesse accuses everyone of trying to take his job away from him, attempts to beat the hell out of his boss, accuses everyone again, and runs off. After he’s gone, it’s surmised that Jesse’s on something. Now, if this were real life, Jesse’s ass would have been canned after slapping the clipboard out of his boss’s hand, never mind trying to fight him, but since this is a film, the boss says “Whatever it is, he’d better get off it quick!” It’s not a very realistic moment. Maybe there are jobs where you can get away with that, but in most places, you’d be fired and possibly charged with assault right quick. Who’da thought we’d find a moment of idealism this far into Death Drug‘s nihilistic, 1970’s-tinged nightmare world?
On top of making him hallucinate something crazy, the whack also gives Jesse an exceptionally pissy attitude. After his workplace freakout, he comes home and decides to work on his music. Upon the innocuous question of chicken or steak for dinner, he violently pushes his wife (who looks particularly adorable) away.
When she asks what the fuck is his problem (my words, not hers), he begins straight up beating on her! Granted, he’s hitting her with his sheets of music and probably isn’t actually hurting her, but it’s still major, major uncool. Screw this shit dude, put the nasty old man back on screen. He was a bitch, but in a funny way. I can’t make jokes about spousal abuse, not unless I felt like being a major league dick, which I don’t (I really, really don’t like seeing women being beat on). Yeah, I know, it’s supposed to realistically show the drug’s effects on the usually mild-mannered Jesse, and it probably made some grade-school kids cry when this was eventually shown to them, but as for me, it just pisses me off. This isn’t the Tubbs I know and love!
Jesse stomps out, and Carolyn calls her Mother. We’re not shown what she says, but I’m assuming it was to tell her that her Dad was right, Jesse’s a no-good bum that will never amount to anything.
Cut to an unspecified later time: Jesse’s in the studio, where his back-up band is laying down some tracks. I’m this sure they’re playing the exact same damn thing we heard in the disco scene, but the hell if I’m going back to make sure; I’ve come too far to start looking backward. Given Jesse’s satisfied “Yeah!” exclamations, things seem to be progressing smoothly. For the record, nothing sounds remotely like “Just The Way I Planned It.” Where’s those new and different beats Music Today promised us?
Jesse is only smoking cigs at the studio, but the whack is still in his system, and he starts hallucinating that the band is making faces at him. There’s no transitions or fades or anything, they just insert brief flashes of the band sticking their tongues out at him while nightmarish music plays in between shots of the real band jammin’. I admit I forgot about this, and the first shot of them taunting him actually did weird me out a bit. I guess I know what will be haunting me in my dreams tonight. The right pic above isn’t too objectionable, but that first one, straight up nightmare fuel man.
It’s a virtual carbon copy of Jesse flipping out at his place of work, as he concludes that everyone is messing with him, including the record company executives. He doesn’t try to fight anyone this time around, but he still storms out. Since they’re in a sound-proof booth, the band can’t hear him flying off the handle, and it’s actually pretty funny to see them talking and laughing amongst themselves, completely oblivious to the shitstorm going on behind them.
Cut to two days later: Jesse’s at his piano, and Carolyn is reading the mail when she learns the awful truth via letter (remember when people sent those?): they’ve cancelled his recording contract! Apparently they really didn’t appreciate his freakout. Honestly, it was bad, but it wasn’t that bad; just how sensitive is this record company? I thought uppity artists came with the territory? As far as studio temper tantrums go, Jesse’s was probably on the lower end of the spectrum, so geez, kind of a premature decision (especially if you take into account the big huge media blitz Music Today was babbling about earlier, as if that didn’t contradict every damn thing the actual movie shows us).
Considering music is his whole life, Jesse is surprisingly cool about it, stating he doesn’t even remember being there two days ago and was perhaps drunk at the time. Carolyn ain’t buying it, correctly guessing that he wasn’t drunk, he was stoned. Jesse counters that everyone smokes pot, which, c’mon, if weed was his only problem, he’d be a lot more mellow during all of this, and probably would have wanted chicken and steak for dinner a few days ago. I’ve never tried marijuana in my life and even I know that. Anyway, Carolyn states that he’s alienated everyone, he has a great gift that he’s throwing away, and so on, which Jesse pretty much ignores.
You know what I think is really digging at me throughout all of this? PMT looks and acts enough like Tubbs (except for the drug-taking and wife-beating, I mean) that all this is really weirdin’ me out. I mean, I see Philip Michael Thomas, I automatically think Ricardo Tubbs. If you’ve been a huge Miami Vice fan for as long as I have, it can be pretty jarring to see a character so close to Tubbs behaving in a manner so contrary to the smooth and stylish badass we’ve all come to know.
Cut to Carolyn and their white friend we saw at the disco earlier (aptly named “Melvin,” quite possibly the whitest name ever) walking through the park. Thankfully, he doesn’t try to dance this time. As they stroll along, amidst soccer games and whatnot, Carolyn unburdens herself, and then drops the bomb: she’s pregnant! Things just got taken to a whole ‘nother level! An unspecified amount of time has passed between this scene and the last, but it’s clearly “Later On!“
…Oh, sorry. The depressing late-1970’s atmosphere, California-setting, and mindless outdoor activities of this scene threw me; I thought this was Parts: The Clonus Horror for a moment.
So, as of now, Death Drug was a possible inspiration for: George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy VHS re-releases, Super Mario Bros., Pod People, and Parts: the Clonus Horror. The damn movie really got around! Ironically, the music video scene probably really was an inspiration…for copious amounts of drug taking by those that viewed it (and maybe even those that produced it). How’s that for ironic?!
Some time later, Carolyn is having a pregnancy-related check-up, when she lets it slip that Jesse is fucking up royally left and right (again, my words, not hers). This is the Quincy, M.E.-portion of the movie. That is, they drop facts left and right regarding the subject (in this case, DRUGS), ostensibly as part of the story, but it’s really just a vehicle to preach to you. Quincy did it all the time in it’s last few years, and I’d say Death Drug inspired those later seasons but I’m getting tired of that gag. Even my beloved M*A*S*H went the route a few times, a fact that often causes me to fall to my knees in despair, usually in public and without warning, sort of like Jesse in…wait we haven’t gotten that far yet.
Of course, since Death Drug is an anti-drug movie, it makes sense that they’d want to get some facts about the dangers and effects of whack or angel dust or PCP or whatever correct term I should have been using all along is. The Doc here calls it PCP, which, granted, I think PMT said in his intro, but that was so, so long ago at this point and I was too mesmerized by his impromptu piano playing to pay much attention to anything else anyway. If this was eventually shown to school kids, either in the classroom or as an after-school special, yeah, they’re gonna push the dangers, cautions, effects, and so on. Which, hey, mission accomplished. Oddly enough, watching Death Drug for this review is seriously reminding me of being forced to watch the 1987 TV-movie Strange Voices in health class my freshman year of high school (2001-2002). The copy shown was taped off of NBC in ’87, and occasionally someone had to get up to fast-forward through the ancient commercials, which probably annoyed everyone else but absolutely thrilled your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter (the voiceover promo for Late Night With David Letterman during the end credits was a particular high point, despite the derisive cackles of a tool sitting in the back of the classroom). Yeah, I’ve been into this crap for a loooong time. But, I digress.
Now’s as good a time as any to point out that, frankly, Death Drug is far too public service announcement-like to really work as a theatrical release. Not that that would have stopped one from happening, mind you, but given the amateurish, preachy nature of the whole thing, to me, I can’t see it working even in the grindhouses. It doesn’t work as a straight drama, it doesn’t work as a blaxploitation, but it does work as an unintentional comedy and thus utterly failing as something an adult would watch in any serious capacity. Hell, in this more jaded age, I can’t see kids beyond a certain age taking it seriously, either. And I’m just talking about Death Drug ‘straight'; this 1986 re-release is all kinds of a mess, which multiples everything I just said several-fold.
Doc takes Carolyn to the “PCP Treatment Center,” where many victims of angel dust are now residing, strapped down, jerking about, foaming at the mouth, staring off blank eyed, and so on. It’s admittedly uncomfortable, and to Death Drug‘s everlasting credit, despite all the silliness and heavy-handed anti-drug sentiments elsewhere in the film, this segment does indeed do what it’s supposed to. It seems like these scene were filmed in an actual hospital/treatment center, so for all I know, these were real PCP victims; I don’t know that for certain, and I’m not even sure they’d be allowed to do that, but if they were, man, that’s some unsettling shit.
Carolyn is understandably distressed that Jesse could end up like one of the people in the treatment center, and Doc stresses that he’s got to get himself into rehab, ASAP. According to Doc, PCP can stay in the system for months or years, and even then, hallucinations can reoccur without warning (this is a premonition, so pay attention), so the sooner he gets his ass in there, the better. Carolyn expresses doubt that he’ll actually go to rehab, and the whole thing is kind of left up in the air as she leaves.
So, what does it take to get Jesse to see what he’s doing to himself and his loved ones? Apparently, a slow-motion montage of he and Melvin running through the park, while Melvin tells him in not so many words what an idiot he is. Jesse is initially dismissive, and why shouldn’t he be? As far as interventions go, this one won’t be winning any awards. A leisurely jog through the park, Melvin? That’s the best you could come up with? Whatever happened to the tried-and-true method of locking someone in a room with everyone he knows and making him listen to what an ass he’s being?
A little somethin’ for the ladies! Thanks for the gratuitous shots of Jesse and Melvin’s packages, Death Drug! Nothing drives home an anti-drug message like disturbing camera angles! Considering Melvin’s been in this movie for like 12 seconds thus far (and this is the last we see of him), who’d have thought he would be one of the film’s unsung sex-symbols? I’m not sure if this is more or less tolerable than the volleyball scene in Top Gun. And of course, it’s all in slow motion. Just another of the many reasons Death Drug should never be shown to children.
Melvin’s intervention (if this can even be considered an intervention) seems to be hitting a dead-end until he obliquely points out that Carolyn is pregnant and it’s probably preferable that Jesse stops acting like a dick. Jesse’s knowing smile means that the message has hit home. Seriously, this is all it took? I mean, hey, great, but it comes off severely half-assed. Death Drug could and should have done a dramatic intervention scene, but I’m guessing the filmmakers were as sick of this movie as I am at this point.
Jesse comes home from the run, all kinds of happy at this revelation. Understandably, he’s pretty jubilant at the fact he’s gonna be a Dad. It’s a nice moment, and this is the most tolerable Jesse has been since, I don’t know, his meeting with the record company executives?
Carolyn’s face makes it clear that she has reservations about all this, though Jesse is oblivious and asks why she didn’t tell him. I’d be upset, too, if I learned of my wife’s pregnancy from my goofy friend during a disturbing and vaguely homoerotic jog. Of course, it’s pretty obvious why Carolyn hadn’t told him: HE’S BEEN ACTING LIKE A MADMAN LEFT AND RIGHT! What should she have said? “Honey, I’m pregnant. Please plan your psychotic outbursts around said pregnancy. Kisses!” I guess PCP doesn’t do much for your deductive reasoning, does it, Jesse?
But, Jesse swears up and down that he’s off the drugs for good, which he attributes to a “long conversation with Melvin” (Carolyn’s words fell on deaf ears, but Melvin’s are like gold, apparently). She initially still has her reservations, but eventually Jesse falls into her arms and all is forgiven.
Jesse’s on the road to recovery! Accompanied by the most generic, lifted-from-a-1970’s-PSA music in history, an inspiring montage of scenes showing Jesse, erm, recovering is flashed before our eyes. This is one of those montages that gives the illusion of progress, without actually showing any real work being done. An extended sequence showing the struggles of trying to get past the addiction (withdrawal and whatnot) would have done wonders as a beacon of hope (or something) during the whole dreary anti-drug message the movie punches you in the face with. I don’t mean that in a figurative sense, either; literally, Death Drug punches you in the face with it’s anti-drug rhetoric. Watch the movie, you’ll see.
As evidence that he’s no longer a raving lunatic, Jesse and Carolyn are shown frolicking at the playground. Check him grabbing his wife’s ass, which is certainly preferable to beating on her with sheet music. PROGRESS!
More inspiring shots, this time of Jesse working out. Rocky it ain’t, but I’m convinced his happy-go-lucky jump during a jog is a high-watermark in all of cinema. He’s feelin’ good, gettin’ fit, assuredly ready to tackle life without the aid of killer drugs once again. PROGRESS!
The final proof that Jesse is back in fightin’ shape?
Ahhhh yehhhhhh! Jesse is BACK! No you perv, there is no nudity or further examples of dirty, dirty sex in Death Drug, which is more proof that this would have been a disappointment in the grindhouses. No pun intended.
Don’t forget, though, that this is a film from the late-1970’s. Films from the late-70’s almost never had happy endings, and man, Death Drug‘s ending isn’t just unhappy, it’s downright insane, and remember, we looked at a music video where PMT was caressed by a group of ladies and then had his face superimposed over a pregnant woman’s stomach. It takes a lot to top that. Ladies and gentlemen, the shit is about to hit the fan.
Jesse and Carolyn are innocently shopping at the grocery store when it turns out all of that playground rompin’ and sexin’ up was for naught. Remember what the Doc said: hallucinations can reoccur even well after the usage of PCP has stopped, and that is now what’s about to happen. Not only does Jesse hallucinate something awful, but there are also flashbacks of all the shitty things he’s done throughout the movie.
First, Jesse hallucinates that rats are crawling all over produce, and takes off his shoe to beat them to death, which of course alerts Carolyn to the fact that something is askew with her hubby. Can’t say I blame him, though; rats are vile, disgusting creatures that need to die. And while we’re at it, mice can go straight to hell, too. I’m about to get a snake just so I can feed those little fuckers to it. Save whatever pro-vermin rhetoric you may have, cause I ain’t havin’ none of it. This may be a hallucination, but Jesse’s heart is in the right place. Keep fighting the good fight, man!
In the time honored tradition of…something, Death Drug employs the classic “soda bottle” vision to further illustrate that Jesse is currently out of order.
Also, much of this supermarket sequence features video effects that were almost certainly employed for this video re-release. Furthermore, the film and accompanying audio is often slowed down to a crawl, to further give the illusion that Jesse is really trippin’ now. Obviously, it’s supposed to give the non-tripping viewer the illusion of what it’s like to hallucinate via PCP, but they ended up bogging the whole thing down. No joke, this sequence feels like it goes on for hours. It’s a safe bet that this climax in the original ’78 cut moved much faster and therefore less insane (relatively speaking, because even un-tampered with, this all had to be nuts). Bottom line: the new video effects stick out like a sore thumb.
Jesse runs into some chick with a hat that I guess reminds him of snakes. Some of the video effects render the image pretty unrecognizable. I give the producers credit, though: if this is what it’s really like to trip, would anyone find it an appealing prospect?
More bottle-vision. Yeah, he thinks there are snakes on her hat. He should employ the snakes to eat the rats. Work within your hallucinations for a solution, Jesse! Be a go-getter!
Watch out for snakes! (And honk if you love Eegah!)
Even the self-righteous drug dealer is granted a flashback, this time with a neon glow. I wonder if this (and other) flashbacks were part of the original version and then spruced up for this release, or if they were added in ’86 in order to really drive the point home?
Booga Booga! Jesse naturally bolts in terror from this imaginary monsters. Though, you know, he had the guts to slam his shoe down on imaginary rats, so why not take a swing at these SOBs, too?
Among the rest of the havoc he wreaks, Jesse also takes the time to climb on top of some shelving, King Kong-style, and declare that “I could have all of you killed!” before winging what looks to be a bag of flour at the onlookers.
Shortly thereafter, he imagines that spiders are crawling all over him, and desperately tries get them off, succeeding only in tearing his shirt as well as his skin. Aside from one very real tarantula, the spiders are of the clearly fake-variety. The Giant Spider Invasion would be proud! Actually, maybe not, considering that movie used quite few live-versions of those little bastards.
Amongst much cutting between hallucination-vision and real-vision, the amount of tearing/damage to Jesse’s shirt goes back-and-forth, but my main problem with this scene is that they put the bottle-vision (ostensibly Jesse’s viewpoint prior) behind Jesse’s head, over his shoulder. Tsk tsk Death Drug! I’m not sure why that inane bit irks me more than all the other, more psychotic stuff in this sequence, but it does. I’m complex (I think).
Watch out for
snakes empty boxes! Jesse has caused a rampage throughout pretty much the entire supermarket at this point, and there’s nowhere left to go but out the back. It’s interesting to note that Jesse had some pretty bad freakouts before, but nothing quite like this frenzied run through the store. I’m not being a smartass here, but is that a realistic depiction of this kind of re-occurrence? This seems waaay worse than anything we were shown when he was actually using whack. Also, even though an undetermined but-supposedly-lengthy amount of time has passed between Jesse’s decision to go straight and this rampage, Carolyn doesn’t look any more pregnant now than she did before. Maybe I’m reading too much into this. I’m complex (I think).
Wasn’t this thing in one of the Star Wars movies? The cantina scene, maybe? Who shot first, Jesse or Han? I totally just had the image of George Lucas digitally entering Philip Michael Thomas into Star Wars. I’d buy the hell out of that.
(I know the mask looks nothing like Greedo, save it.)
Uh oh! Remember Angelo Marcetti from way back at the begininng? In a bit of circular plot structure, things are about to end about as well for Jesse as they did for Angelo.
Well, the two situations aren’t totally identical. 1) Angelo didn’t stand out in the middle of the road and scream “YOU WANNA PIECE OF ME?! COME AND GET ME!!” at an oncoming truck (because this is clearly going to end only one way, I hate to admit this, but his screaming that is unintentionally funny), and 2) the truck is going quite a bit faster than the two miles per hour taxi. I’m not sure why Jesse was terrified of snakes but has no problem challenging a much larger and far more dangerous moving object. Yeah, yeah, I know, he’s hallucinating, it doesn’t have to make sense.
Not satisfied with the possibility of the truck driver seeing him and thus swerving out of the way or hitting the brakes, Jesse decides to run into the damn thing. As you can surmise, the results are not positive.
Understandably, Carolyn isn’t exactly thrilled with the outcome. Damn, what a downer. As was so typical of 1970’s movies, just when you think things are going to turn out okay, they, well, don’t. Also, astute readers will notice they reversed this image for the back of the VHS box.
So, what follows that kick in the ass? Moving montage of Jesse not being stoned? Touching funeral scene? Life going on?
Nope! Out of nowhere, it’s real-life L.A. broadcaster Larry McCormick, coming to you from a Grandmother’s living room! There is no transition, no fade-out-fade-in between Carolyn crying and this scene, it’s just abruptly there. Obviously, this is a newly-filmed bit, and in its own bizarre way, just as ‘out there’ as what we just saw, only more understated. You know what? This is my most-hated sequence in the whole damn movie. Oh sure, PMT’s intro was awkward, and the music video was weird as hell, but this, this pisses me off, because it’s just so fucking stupid.
Larry McCormick breaks regularly scheduled programming to bring the announcement of Jesse’s death. Granted, yeah, it’s tragic, but let’s be honest: he wasn’t Elvis, and he wasn’t John Lennon. He seemed to have had a following, sure, but I highly doubt he was big enough to warrant interrupting programming. Anyway, “John Singer” is on location, and he gives us information (most of which we already knew, but this is Death Drug attempting to be realistic, however momentarily) about Jesse’s drug problems, rehab, and so on. John tells us that when checking into rehab, Jesse registered as “Thomas Jackson” (a nod towards Michael Jackson, perhaps? Did MJ do anything at the time that would make such a reference worthwhile?). It’s also announced that Jesse was in rehab for 8 weeks. Okay, remember that, between his intervention and now, Jesse was in rehab 8 weeks. Two months, if you will.
After a reminder about the top story of the hour, Larry is with Michelle Lewis (I’m guessing this is Wendee Winters), an executive with Jesse’s former record company. When they were filming this, whoever wrote this kept in mind that Carolyn was pregnant at the time of Jesse’s death, but conveniently ignored the fact that the record company dropped him after his freakout in the studio. In this alternate universe, Jesse released not one but multiple albums! Okay, I’ll buy the whole “Just The Way I Planned It” thing earlier, that’s not totally out of the realm of possibility, I guess, but whole entire albums? Apparently, not only was Jesse working on an album at the time of his death (what, did the label pick him back up during his stint in rehab? Should this be presumed part of the inspirational montage prior to the supermarket freakout?), but he also had an album already released, Tradewinds, which supposedly went platinum, and is now expected to go double platinum! What. The. Fuck. Maybe, maybe if they would have filmed new scenes explaining all this before Jesse died, it would be easier to take, but as it stands, a large part of the actual Death Drug movie as we’ve seen it is being ignored. And these aren’t faults in the plot that you’ve got to really search for, either; anyone paying even a bit of attention should be able to call this bullshit out. And remember, this thing only runs 73 minutes; it isn’t on long enough for anyone to even forget anything, because, damn, it’s only 73 minutes!
Also, supposedly Jesse’s PCP problem came to the record company’s attention only after Carolyn told them about it, but they all kept their eyes closed to the problem. What, was that freakout in the studio just a star’s temper tantrum? The letter informing him he’s dropped from the label was just a joke? It’s all just a monumental load of horseshit compared to what we’ve already seen.
Beyond all that, this scene is also awkward as all hell. Between Ms. Lewis’ teary-eyed exclamations that Jesse was a “genius” and remarks that his songs were full of “pure innovation,” I’m dangerously close to putting my fist through the TV screen (well, PC screen, in this case). And not once does any of this come off as even remotely natural; it all feels entirely forced and, honestly, just plain weird. Why is this scene here? What possible purpose does it serve? Who thought it would be a good idea?
Before signing off, Larry announces once again the death of Jesse Thomas, except now he calls him a “popular rock star.” Rock star? That’s their description for him? Did he open for Van Halen, too? I hate this movie so, so much.
The idiocy isn’t over, though! Not by a longshot! We’re not done with awful, newly-filmed footage, no way! After the “news report” is finished, an aerial shot of L.A. traffic is shown, before cutting to Music Today, which is reporting on Jesse’s funeral procession (to be fair, it looks like they’re superimposing footage from the original version of Death Drug on the screen). Now it’s time to start contradicting the contradictions! It’s reported that the whole Music Today thing we saw earlier was only a few weeks ago in movie-time, right after Jesse was signed (again, him producing a charting single/music video right after being signed is stretching it, but that’s the least of the film’s problems at this point). According to Music Today now, “It’s a tragic end… to a great career, that was just beginning.” Hey, didn’t you hear? It wasn’t just beginning! He had a platinum album! Or did the monumental success of Tradewinds somehow fly under Music Today‘s radar? I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised the new footage is contradicting the old footage, since they didn’t care what was said in the new segment we just saw, either.
Also, according to Music Today, Carolyn was unable to attend the funeral, because she was busy giving birth. Unless they kept the news of Jesse’s death a secret and him frozen for several months, Carolyn didn’t look remotely pregnant in the supermarket, let alone ready to give birth. If this cut of the movie is ever released on DVD or Blu-Ray (yeah, likely), it should come with a warning label: “The inconsistencies of this movie will cause high blood pressure. Watch at your own risk.”
That idiotic segment does provide a transition into Carolyn giving birth, though. Her screaming Jesse’s name while painfully giving birth to a baby boy should come as an overwhelmingly sad moment, but honestly, the film getting back to something that kinda sorta makes sense is more of a relief than anything. Does that sound overly fucked up? I just don’t care anymore.
Fade to five years later (the subtitle looks newly-placed, which is shocking considering it actually makes sense within the context of the film!). Carolyn and Jesse Jr. are placing flowers on Jesse’s grave in honor of his birthday. As Jesse Jr. runs off to play, Carolyn ‘talks’ to Jesse, telling him how his father is spending a lot of time with Jesse Jr. (maybe some of that love and attention would have saved Jesse from ultimately being squished by a truck, you geriatric fart), as well as the fact Jesse Jr. is a natural at piano and loves to dance to the demo tape Jesse made (note: no mention of a platinum-selling album is made. Go figure!).
While Carolyn begins crying and saying how unfair it is that Jesse’s gone, Jesse Jr. plays over by a fence. As Jesse Jr. looks on, the self-righteous, rhyming drug dealer that hooked Jesse on PCP in the first place strolls by, giving his same exact pitch to a new customer! Yeah, like the movie hasn’t fucked with us enough by this point, they had to end on that downer. Yeah, I know, there are no happy endings with drugs, I get it.
Annnnnnd…freeze on Jesse Jr., roll credits, the end (almost). The credits reveal that I’ve been spelling Carolyn as “Caroline” this entire time and now have to go back and fix all 9000 instances of that usage. The credits also later reveal several names that can’t possibly be real, but that’s all I’m gonna say about that. I keep feeling if I single a credit out, they’ll somehow eventually stumble upon this review and come away with hurt feelings. I couldn’t live with that.
Hey, check out the slick video effect that brings us to PMT’s outro! Pretty snazzy, Death Drug! I’m not sure why PMT is watching the static on a TV as we leave the movie, but I love it.
PMT babbles a bit about Jesse and drug abuse, which is no less awkward than before, except instead of playing piano, he’s now playing pool. This, of course, makes even less sense than the piano moment, because not once did anyone play pool in the movie (and hell, I’m not sure anyone even said “pool” or “billiards” or what have you in the movie). It has nothing to do with anything, but I guess it’s meant to show how “casual” PMT is.
PMT hypothesizes a bit about what real-life drug abuse victims would say if they were right there in the room with him. I’d guess they’d mention what a bad idea this whole thing was, but PMT instead says they’d say “No matter how hard it gets, no matter how much your friends tell you how good things can be, how high – ‘you can get so high man that you’ll need a parachute to come down! And tomorrow man we’re gonna be rockin’ and rollin’ and reelin’!’ See, with drugs, tomorrow never comes.” Aside from the questionable quoting of Chuck Berry, I guess it’s a nice, though slightly rambling, message to end on. If nothing else, it reinforces my guess that this movie was ultimately meant for schoolchildren.
PMT brings it all home with “My name is Philip Michael Thomas. Thank you for watching, but most importantly, thank you for listening.” And then, just like the opening credits, we head into a second set of ending credits.
Bang up job, guys. I guess I can’t really blame them for the inconsistencies, though, because taking the time to look at the finer points of the actual film would have meant really watching it, and as we’ve seen by now, that’s not an easy choice to make or stick with.
That’s it, the end. Goodnight, farewell and Amen, Death Drug.
So, what’s it all come down to? If they had re-released Death Drug as it originally appeared in 1978 without all of the newly filmed crap, they wouldn’t have had a hit on their hands, but things would have turned out better, from a watchable-movie-standpoint. Oh, it still would’ve been bad, or at least certainly very preachy and heavy handed, but the anti-drug message would’ve come through a bit more seriously. As it stands, though, this 1986 is a mess, through and through. All of the silly additions only distracted from what the film is supposed to be about (and for our purposes, that’s a good thing). So, who was this targeted at? Schoolchildren? Miami Vice fans? Music fans wanting the latest video hit? All of the above? None of the above? Death Drug aims at several targets without definitively hitting any of them. As a serious piece of work, that’s a bad thing. As a mockable mess, it’s perfect.
If I ever have the opportunity to interview Philip Michael Thomas, I would love to ask him about some of the finer points of the making of this film. Of course, if he ever reads this review, he’ll probably want nothing to do with me. It was all in good fun, PMT! Please don’t hate me!
Today, Death Drug is unavailable (as far as I know). If you want it, you gotta do some Ebay snipin’ for a used VHS. I’m sure there are grey-market copies floating around out there, too, but I really have no idea about any of that. Honestly, I’m surprised this hasn’t been released as a cheapo $1 DVD, because it seems like a perfect candidate for that treatment. Okay, maybe not the exact version I just spent 97 hours reviewing; I’m sure all the new footage and the music video and so on are under separate copyrights or some shit, but the original 1978 cut? Someone get it out there! There is no better chance of an impromptu slam-dance by me in public than if I found a budget DVD of this film.
Death Drug, specifically this 1986 VHS re-release, is heavy-handed, preachy, frequently ridiculous, and ultimately depressing. At no point is it ever actually “good.” So, yeah, this thing is a must-see, absolutely. Get yours on Ebay today! Thank you and goodnight.
“I’m never doing a movie review like this again.”