Theme Song: There are no theme songs, just a bunch of violins.
Interesting Dated References: Seeking vengeance; Using terrible experiences to help you become a better person.
Best Line: “White man” this and “white man” that and on and on.
Social Context: Lots of ‘Nam vet and Native American cultural related issues must have been brought up in Fear in a Handful of Dust (the book upon which Fleshburn is based), however, the attempts to summarize issues into an easily digestible 90 minutes totally failed.
Summary: Crazy ‘Nam vet Native American Calvin Duggai got locked up in an insane asylum because of some inane crime he committed. After five years, he can’t take it anymore and escapes with a plan to track down, torture, and kill all of those responsible for his conviction. All the elements are in place: 1) ‘Nam vet, 2) Indian, 3) Insane, and most importantly, 4) Revenge. The next 90 minutes should run fairly smooth.
Our anti-hero, Duggai, stalks and abducts the following people, seen below, who he blames for his incarceration: Dr. Sam, the lead psychiatrist (I think), played by the pretty much overlooked Steve Kanaly who is pretty good in this, some guy named Earl who is battling some issues with his sexuality (played by veteran Macon McCalman), and Jay and Shirley Pinter (Robert Chimento and Karen Carlson, respectively).
And lest I forget to mention our Native American hero is played by Sonny Landham, everyone’s favorite former porn star, third-tier 80s action hero, and political candidate. That’s a lot of lesser-known acting talent shoved into one exploitative, Indian-revenge movie, that’s for sure. And with all those elements working together, you’d think we’d be getting something way better.
Duggai drives his captives in the desert, spouts off a bunch of shit about “the white man’s laws,” and then leaves the whites to struggle for survival in the desert. Conveniently, Earl gets injured and can’t walk, and for being a psychiatrist, Sam sure knows a ridiculous amount about survival in the wild.
And then that’s about it. Things turn into an adult Lord of The Flies-type situation with in-fighting, sexual tension, survival tips, random animal attacks, heat, sun, sun-induced insanity, and lots of grimacing. And Sonny Landham almost totally disappears. The only time we see him is when he’s doing an Indian chant, and those last for five seconds, before it’s back to our burnt-ass whites and their subsequent immediate attack by whatever animal Landham was just doing a chant about.
Eventually the two able-bodied men make a run for it through the desert. Jay gets killed, which leaves Sam free to resume the sexual tension he had with Jay’s wife, only he never goes back to check on her.
Sam continues to struggle through the desert, whilst taking time to bathe in a river, work on his tan, and generally enjoy himself. He then stumbles upon Landham and they proceed to wrestle in the water for like 30 minutes.
Dr. Sam is wearing the official summer outfit of my dad (cut-off jean shorts, no shirt). The only think missing from his cut-off jean shorts is a Skoal can in the back pocket. After much struggle, Dr. Sam takes Landham hostage, finds Shirley and Earl wandering on some rocks, and then the movie is over.
All the elements were there, but it doesn’t come together for Fleshburn. Typically, survivalist genre movies are well-liked in these parts, but something is lacking in this one. Since it was based on the book Fear In a handful of Dust, which was written by Death Wish scribe Brian Garfield, I’m willing to bet something was lost in translation. I’ll place that blame on director George Gage, who would go on to only do environmentally-minded, Native American documentaries, and who prior to this had only shot the Beta-friendly Skateboard: The Movie. There’s just too much dialogue. Oh, and I didn’t even get into all the shitty flashbacks and subplots about Sam’s wife committing suicide, Sam having a past relationship with Shirley, or Earl’s religious ramblings.
Poster and Box Art: The Betamax cover for Fleshburn is pretty misleading. They make you think this is some Rambo-in-the-desert type of shit, while throwing in a naked shadow-lady.
Here’s an interesting comparison of the American (left) and European (right) covers. No naked chick silhouettes or skylines for the Europeans. And more subtly, what’s with the changing of position of the knife hand?
The cover for Fear in a Handful of Dust, on the other hand, is totally awesome. Old Indian, shadowbox, knick-knacks … alright.