What was fun for me was… my father was a military guy, and my grandfather was a military guy, and my other grandfather was a military guy. So we have a lot of Navy and Marine in there, and I got to play an Army guy, which is the opposite of that a little.

— Casper Van Dien, Scifiwire (7 July 2006)

I say having a 250-pound black man call me a “little buddy” frightens the hell out of me.

— Hawk (Casper Van Dien), Slayer

Here’s an idea. The U.S. military sends an elite fighting squad into a South American jungle to find and kill evildoers. The bad guys not only kick the troops’ asses, but also absorb their methods and weapons and — most disturbingly — their bodies. It’s not only that the U.S. squad is under-informed and under-prepared for the mission, though that’s true too. The more immediate problem is that the bad guys are vampires. And being undead, they’re hard to kill.

Based on this brief description, you’d be inclined to dismiss Slayer out of hand. Worse, this Sci Fi Channel movie looks shoddy: the effects are silly and the action is poorly cut, with lots of bursting blood squibs and reaction shots filling in for expensive stunts. Lynda Carter shows up for a few minutes, playing Colonel Jessica Weaver, but she’s relegated to observing the younger stars as they bumble through their dialogue. Granted just one instance of slayage herself — with a niftily dead-on shot at film’s end, she takes out a vampire with a gun that shoots pointy sticks — the Colonel is alternately maternal and hard-nosed, worried about her goddaughter (in harm’s way just because) and sending her team on supernaturally dangerous missions without a hint of preparation.

The best realization of the military’s cavalier recklessness is Hawk (Casper Van Dien, who looks and acts pretty much the same as he did in 1997’s Starship Troopers), a square-jawed heroic type who brings flowers for the colonel’s secretary. When he and his men first run into a pack of vampires in the jungle, they only spend a few minutes karate kicking and shooting before they realize that, as young Sergeant Alex Juarez (Alexis Cruz) puts it, “Madre de dios! You have to put wood through their hearts!” After five minutes of fighting — where the primary effect is squishing sounds on the soundtrack — Hawk and his team win, then wonder how come the vampires are out in the daytime. You know, because it’s against the vampire rules.

While its premise and execution are overtly derivative (see: Predator, John Carpenter’s Vampires, Solo), Slayer works through an illuminating politics concerning U.S. military actions and local populations. When the U.S. troops roar into town with all kinds of firepower, everyone else better get out of the way.

Following the first attack (and the opening credits), Slayer begins again, “six months later.” At a base in San Diego, the Colonel informs Hawk that she’s already sent his best friend Grieves (Kevin Grevioux) with a team to kill some more vampires (because, apparently, they didn’t quite “finish the job” the first time), and he’s not been heard from recently. Before you can say “Gulf War 2,” Hawk learns of a second reason he needs to move quickly, namely, his ex-wife, Laurie (Jennifer O’Dell), is conducting maggot research in the same area, because, well, not only did the U.S. military not “finish the job,” but it also neglected to inform the public the vampires exist.

Hawk rushes down to the odiously named “Agua Caliente,” where Laurie is tracking green squishy thingies and Grieves and company are beset by vampires. Even armed with big wooden stakes and primed for hand-to-hand combat, they fall to the undead, who don’t so much lumber as they bounce off walls and tree limbs, due to what seems imprecise wirework (Ray Park, who played Toad in X-Men, appears here as vampire twins, the only nimble body/bodies in sight). Even as Laurie attracts the attention of Javier (Tony Plana), a gentle-old-man-seeming vampire, Grieves is vanquished by the buxom Estrella (former Miss Puerto Rico Joyce Giraud), who tends to perform her monstrousness in one mode: cocked head, garish-red mouth, and vacant eyes.

Tracking both Laurie and Grieves, Hawk takes flack from his men for his “God complex,” which the film will go on to affirm as a good thing, because he is, in fact, always right, and everyone else needs him to save them. His casual bias looks vaguely righteous when he and his men are surrounded by jungle and darkness. When Alex points out that an amulet left behind by the vampires is “Incan,” Hawk is impressed but also dismissive, playing proud ugly American in a strange land: “Well, excuse the hell out of me!” Alex defends himself, “My grandmother used to teach Latin culture in school, I had to learn the stuff!” Hawk makes his exasperated face and waits a beat for this ostensible laugh-line to sink in, then instructs his men to “Saddle up!” à la John Wayne.

For all Hawk’s arrogance, the film takes great pleasure in the not-saving, especially in the cheesy, spurty, grunty gyrations the vampires impose on their victims. Estrella especially takes glee in her mayhem, challenging each “latest” big man to take out the previous one: when she casts her lusty eye on Grieves, he resists until he can’t. Once bitten, however, he dives right in, slaying his predecessor with a spear to the chest and slurping from a bucket full of blood.

Grieves’ enthusiasm illustrates that vampirism is the ideal means of conscription: once “recruited,” soldiers need no more convincing of mission or motive. Half well-trained leader and half-dark-sided by the “natives,” Grieves is all campy excess, flashing his fangs and savoring the taste of blood that’s been “sweetened” by the victim’s adrenalin. He immediately wants to make Hawk his “little buddy” for eternity — their several showdowns take place in the jungle, a cave, and a warehouse area with chainlink fencing that provides artful framing for low-angle action compositions (and, surely coincidentally, shots that recall U.S. prison camps). Grieves turns the vampires into a squad that abides by military rules… until they get to the carnage part. Then it’s all fog of war.

But if Grieves learns to combine cultural imperatives — “native” and invaders — by contrast, Hawk and his men are risibly heavy-handed. When an old woman tries to sell Hawk a set of dog tags (apparently recovered from one of the soldiers already eaten by vampires), he not only resents it, but also tries to threaten her into submission. Her grandson aims a shotgun at him, and suddenly, Hawk has to pay extra for the tags. Afterwards, Alex suggests that Hawk went too far when he threatened to turn the grandson “into a popsicle with his gun.” Hawk scoffs, “He didn’t even know what a popsicle was.” Way to go, GI!


RATING 5 / 10