Drugs, ‘Blue Sunshine,’ and the Failure of the Hippie Generation
The urban legends surrounding LSD during the 1960s were as frightening as any horror film. Tripping babysitters place infants in ovens; gun-toting police officers go insane after accidentally getting dosed; careless acid freaks permanently blind themselves by staring directly into the sun. They all feature the same alarmist hyperbole or outright fabrications seen in so many pieces of “straight talk” drug education propaganda from that era, and can be a wonderful source of campy good fun.
Writer/director Jeff Lieberman’s 1977 sophomore effort Blue Sunshine seizes on this absurdity by taking the nightmarish fantasies concocted by conservative groups and putting them in a world where they’re actually true. It’s a great bit of “Drugsploitation,” but the cult film is so much more than clever satire and suspense. Blue Sunshine is also a window into the disappointment, bitterness, and disillusionment felt by a generation towards the bloody demise of 1960s flower-power idealism.
The film follows Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King), a man who stumbles upon a terrifying epidemic of violence and mayhem that’s set to overtake America. Back in 1967, a strain of LSD called Blue Sunshine was created by a campus drug dealer at Stanford University and sold to 250 other students. The drug seemed harmless enough but triggers a terrible side-effect: everyone who dosed ten years prior turns into hyper-destructive lunatics. They appear normal at first but then come the headaches, terrible nightmares, and rapid hair loss, until finally these thirty-somethings devolve into an army of homicidal maniacs.
In an atempt to figure out how to stop the rash of killings sweeping the city, Zipkin tracks down Blue Sunshine’s creator, Ed Flemming (Mark Goddard). Unfortunately, Flemming is now a politician campaigning for a seat in congress, and is willing to do anything to silence Zipkin and have his past sins buried.
Lieberman has said in interviews that the inspiration for Blue Sunshine came about simply from asking the question, “but what if they were right?,” regarding those old scaremongering anti-drug pamphlets from back in the day. That might be true, but his film also has an incredible amount happening just below the surface. A decade before its release, the hippie movement was in full swing and America was in the throes of the “Summer of Love.” This was a massive countercultural event where an estimated 100,000 flower children traveled to San Francisco to live and preach a philosophy of peace, free love, and nonconformity.
“You could strike sparks anywhere,” writes Hunter S. Thompson in his masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, and that we were winning.” Thompson – a realist who believed deeply in his country but was also skeptical of almost everything and everyone – had been swept up in the movement’s wave of optimism. So when that perceived momentum towards a new utopian ideal suddenly halted and receded, he and so many others experienced a palpable sense of defeat. The Manson family, Altamont, and the losses of both counterculture and civil rights icons all acted as the death knells of the hippie movement, leaving a generation of lost souls in its wake.
In Blue Sunshine, we see that time and distance has transformed that sense of mourning into bitterness. This resentment is aimed not only at the lost potential of the period, but towards the reality that so many former hippies went on to become everything they strived to set themselves apart from. This is most obvious in the character of Ed Flemming.
The person we see in the decade-old photograph uncovered by Jerry Zipkin is a man lightyears away from his present day incarnation. Sporting long hair, a seashell necklace, and the dazed (almost pious) look of a guru, he is a far cry from the clean-cut politician Zipkin later meets. The once radical Flemming has traded in his freaky hair and mind-expanding substances for well-cut suits and a chance to ascend to a new station that promises power and privilege.
His arc is a familiar one. Many from that era abandoned more radical schools of activism and attempted to effect change by becoming a part of the system they used to speak out against, the argument being that they could change its mechanisms once they had been embedded inside. Unfortunately, it’s obvious within moments of Zipkin’s first meeting with Flemming that the politician is more interested in self-preservation than helping his fellow man.
Initially he’s all smiles, handshakes, and “aww shucks” down-home charm. It’s the type of superficial front saved for potential voters, and it’s clear Flemming has the act pinned to a science. But the moment Zipkin asks about Blue Sunshine and his relationship with a local police detective who has inexplicably murdered his entire family, Flemming immediately shuts down. The man’s true face appears as his warmth evaporates, leaving a cold impersonal exterior. Suddenly sensing a threat to his political aspirations, he dismisses Zipkin, signaling for his hulking aid to intervene.
Whether or not he is aware of the terrifying aftereffects of the substance he created is unclear, but what’s obvious is this: when his drug-dealing past catches up to him, Flemming doesn’t give a damn about the tragedy that befell the detective’s family or its connection to Blue Sunshine. All he cares about is how it might threaten his professional career. Power is the one thing on his mind now, and nothing will take away his chance to grab it. He is a chilling character if only for the fact that he and his actions feel steeped in a realism that is familiar and discomforting.
Beyond Flemming, there’s also the unnerving and ingenious design of Blue Sunshine’s maniacs that hints towards a sense of disenchantment with the flower-power movement. Essentially inverted hippies – bald, blank-faced, and hyper-violent – these oblivious-ticking-timebombs have since left their bohemian lifestyles behind and become upstanding members of society. They are police officers, political aids, the neighbor down the hall that’ll watch your kids with nary a moment’s notice. They embody and exaggerate the shift in political and social philosophies made by so many people of that generation from one extreme to another. Liberalism to conservatism. Idealists to materialists. Counterculture to the establishment.
In reality, the swing from one end of the spectrum to the other was (and still is) a subtle one, which is somehow far more unsettling. Over the course of the next decade, most ex-hippies went back to the suburbs, returning to their middle-class lifestyles. But others went on to become CEO’s, powerful lawyers, and (like Flemming himself) affluent politicians. The same people who tried to change the world by promoting harmonious coexistence slowly lost grip with their values and grabbed hold of a way of life that stood against everything they once believed. It’s not as dramatic as rapidly losing all your hair, taking whatever weapon is close by, and suddenly laying siege to everything and everyone around you in a berzerk rage, but it might be equally as frightening.
Blue Sunshine’s critiques of the hippie movement are certainly bleak, but it’s the film’s black sense of humor that ultimately keeps it from becoming (for lack of a better phrase) a total bummer to sit through. Just when things get a little too real and a tad too depressing, you get to watch a crazed maniac lumber Karloff-like through a crowded discotheque, tossing bedazzled dancers around like sacks of potatoes while the actor’s bald-cap does its damndest not to slide loose from his head. Moments like that are the sugar that makes Blue Sunshine’s socio-political commentary go down smooth. Coupled with that humor is also a thread of optimism that runs through the story in the form of its hero, Jerry Zipkin.
In a film full of turncoat flower children, Zipkin is the hippie that moved on from the movement but never lost touch with its ideals. He stands up for equal rights (the former lawyer recently quit his job at a prestigious firm due to their refusal to hire more women), is a pacifist (he makes a marked decision not to use lethal force during his final confrontation with Ed Flemming’s towering fixer who also happens to be a Blue Sunshine burnout), and even still sports the luscious locks so many of his peers have sheared off by then. If Blue Sunshine is a cinematic world where raving anti-hippies represent creeping conservative greed and selfishness, then Zipkin stands for the folks who never let those insidious influences take hold of them.
Ultimately, what makes Blue Sunshine such a standout from that era is that it has something to say but doesn’t take itself so seriously that it enters the realm of hand wringing. Maybe that’s the reason it doesn’t come up in discussions of other “important” 70s horror movies, or maybe it’s the fact that it continues to be woefully underviewed. Whatever the reason, its reevaluation of the hippie generation and its legacy is a memorable one, and makes Blue Sunshine (like the drug itself) a movie that will stay in your system long after that first post-watch high.