For some of us, witches and vampires are not the first things that come-to-mind at the mention of Black Sunday. We think of Robert Shaw, the Super Bowl and a Goodyear blimp armed to the teeth. That Black Sunday was heavily promoted as a disaster movie and predicted by some to be the next Jaws.
As a kid who grew up loving disaster movies of the ‘70s, that's what got me to see it, anyway. I even bought Thomas Harris’ original novel because the cover showed a blimp smashing into a stadium, terrified spectators fleeing in panic. I didn’t get very far into the book, however, because Harris’ prose was a bit too complex for my puny 13-year-brain to process. But since the movie also boasted Robert Shaw - of whom I was suddenly a big fan after his scenery chewing role as Quint - how could Black Sunday miss?
The movie was R-rated, so I had to sneak into the movie at the Southgate Quad…and emerged two-and-a-half-hours later thinking it sucked. Where were the explosions, burning bodies and massive scenes of destruction? Even the heavily-hyped blimp assault on the Super Bowl was an effects-shitty let-down compared to the non-stop death and mayhem of The Towering Inferno. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about terrorist plots or psychologically-unstable war veterans. I just wanted some spectacle.
Black Sunday isn't a disaster movie, of course, and obviously didn’t become the next Jaws. After a moderately successful theatrical run, it just sorta disappeared without anyone really giving it a second thought.
But perhaps the movie, too, was simply a bit too complex for my puny 13-year-brain to process. Seeing it years later - armed with more maturity and tempered expectations - I had to admit the story itself was really great (and sadly prophetic, but more on that later).
Bruce Dern (the 70s’ king of on-screen looneys) plays Michael Lander, an unstable Vietnam veteran who now pilots blimps at sports events. He's got serious issues with damn-near everybody and has the perfect chance to strike back with the help of Dahlia (Marthe Keller), a member of a Mid-East terrorist group, Black September. Together, they devise a plan to kill 80,000 fans at the upcoming Super Bowl by piloting a blimp into the stadium and using explosives to launch hundreds of thousands of rifle darts. Trying to prevent the disaster is Major Kabakov (Robert Shaw), an Israeli anti-terrorism expert who's nearly as ruthless as those he hunts down. Most of the film cuts back and forth between the terrorists putting their plan in motion and Kabakov tracking them down, culminating in a climactic showdown in Florida on Super Bowl Sunday.
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I’ve grown to admire the work of John Frankenheimer over the years and he’s now one of my favorite directors. While not quite a dark masterpiece on the level of The Manchurian Candidate or Seven Days in May, Black Sunday is cut from the same cloth, with concepts and characters that are definitely within Frankenheimer’s wheelhouse. Flexing his storytelling skills, he distills the more convoluted aspects of Harris’ novel into an effective, tightly-wound thriller, anchored by great performances from Shaw, Dern and an underappreciated turn by Fritz Weaver as beleaguered FBI agent Sam Corley.
Perhaps Black Sunday should have been the next Jaws, tapping into our fears of terrorism the way the latter exploited our fear of sharks. There have been countless films about terrorism over the years, but Black Sunday was the first to depict a large-scale attack on America itself. But back in 1977, the idea of extremists targeting us on the holiest of holidays seemed inconceivable, maybe even too ridiculous to be taken seriously.
Then, of course, 9/11 happened. Now we live in an age where the Super Bowl is a very possible terrorist target. In fact, shortly after 9/11, the US Department of Homeland Security declared the Super Bowl a National Special Security Event (NSSE), right up there with presidential inaugurations, State of the Union Addresses and major political conventions (the Academy Awards and Olympics have been designated NSSE's, too).
At any rate, it’s nice to see Black Sunday get a little belated love. Not just because it’s (unfortunately) more timely now than back in ‘77, but because it remains a fun, exciting thriller that's finally getting the domestic Blu-ray release it deserves. On this side of the pond, it’s previously been only available as a bare bones DVD with a middling transfer. In addition to bonus material that helps one appreciate the film, Arrow Video offers up a great restoration with vivid overall picture quality and multiple sound options (John Williams’ score, in particular, really stands out here). So for some of us, here’s another one of those overlooked gems we can scratch off our wish list.
“IT COULD BE TOMORROW” - Titled after the film’s tagline, this is an excellent 30 minute video essay by Sergio Angelini.
“THE DIRECTORS: JOHN FRANKENHEIMER” - Being that Frankenheimers is one of my favorite directors, I found this vintage doc from 2003 pretty engaging.
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Josh Nelson.
SUPPLEMENTAL BOOKLET (not reviewed)
REVERSIBLE COVER (?) - We were given a check-disc to review, so we aren’t 100% sure Arrow provides the usual two-sided cover. Let’s hope so because the new artwork is godawful.