Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except (1985) Retrospective

Jack Stryker took two bullets in the leg in Vietnam and was carried back by one of his men. When he returns he tries to live a peaceful life in his cabin and resume dating his girlfriend, Sally. Meanwhile, a vicious cult let by Sam Raimi, who believes he is Jesus Christ, has been slaughtering people and doing blood sacrifices. When Stryker finds Sally gone, and her grandfather, Otis, used as a human dartboard, Stryker brings together his army buddies, gives them a stash of guns from under his bed, destroy an outhouse, and create a war zone not unlike Vietnam to destroy the evil cult.

David Goodman, Scott Spiegel, Tim Quill, Bruce & Don Campbell, unknown, Ted Raimi, and Tim Philo Stryker's War (1981)
David Goodman, Scott Spiegel, Tim Quill, Bruce & Don Campbell, unknown, Ted Raimi, and Tim Philo Stryker’s War (1981)

Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except was originally produced in 1980 as a Super-8 film entitled Stryker’s War, designed to get interest from investors; Campbell and Becker drafted the story ideas while returning home from the Tennessee set of The Evil Dead. The interior sets were primarily Bruce Campbell’s garage in suburban Detroit, Michigan, dressed up as either a military base or Stryker’s house. The Vietnam scenes were filmed in Hartland, though the overhead shots consist solely of stock footage.


Bruce Campbell also served as assistant sound editor on the film, where he re-used many of the Foley effects created for The Evil Dead. The film’s release was, like The Evil Dead, handled primarily by press agent Irvin Shapiro. Shapiro suggested the final title, over Becker’s objections; this is similar to Shapiro’s summary retitling of The Book of the Dead to The Evil Dead.

Bruce Campbell in Stryker's War (1985)
Bruce Campbell in Stryker’s War (1985)

Sheldon and I spent the next couple of months working on the story and writing the script. The end result was a 185-page script that was very, very serious and not much fun. I was displeased and told Sheldon so. He didn’t really care because he had already moved onto another script.

I moved back to Michigan and subsequently worked on EVIL DEAD down in Tennessee. Throughout the shoot my mind kept drifting back to BLOODBATH. On the drive from Tennessee back to Michigan in a big Ryder truck, Bruce Campbell and I discussed this story idea. I already had an approach that I wanted to explore since the idea of the marines fighting the Manson family was so warped, why not tell it like an all-American John Wayne movie? Attempt to get a rooting interest going for the marines instead of just feeling bad for them, then ashamed of them as the first draft had done. Bruce and I kicked the story around for hours as we drove north. When we finally had the entire story worked out, and Bruce had fallen asleep, I pulled into a restaurant, had coffee, and wrote everything down on the back of a placemat

Back in Michigan I got a job as a security guard at a construction site from 5:00 P.M. to 5:00 A.M. A lot of time to do very little. So I brought a little, portable typewriter with me each night and began writing the 2nd draft of BLOODBATH. After several weeks of work, I had a 38-page script that I rather liked. Wanting to differentiate this version from the last one, I renamed it STRYKER’S WAR. I made copies, gave it to all my buddies in Michigan, and sent a copy to Sheldon. My Michigan buddies all liked it and agreed to help me make it into a movie. Sheldon, on the other hand, blew a gasket. He yelled at me for a solid hour about how bad it now was and how terribly I had ruined a good idea. I then raised $5,000 dollars to shoot the pilot film.


Principal photography began on the Super-8 pilot version Aug. 25, 1980, with Bruce Campbell starring as Stryker and Sam Raimi as Manson, and finished on Sept. 2. We then shot inserts and pick-ups whenever people were available for the next three weeks. Armed with the 45-minute pilot version of STRYKER’S WAR, I then attempted on my own to raise several hundred thousand dollars to make it as a feature film. In the course of the next year I got absolutely nowhere. I did write and rewrite the feature version of the script many times, but was unable to raise any money. Undaunted, I took the pilot film and the feature script to Hollywood, got an agent at ICM. I began hanging around Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. I bothered Corman’s assistant, John Schouwieler, so often for the next several months that he finally let me in to see Roger Corman. As I stepped into Roger Corman’s office it finally struck me that he was one of the senators in THE GODFATHER PART 2, which I hadn’t realized until then, and I said so. He smiled. “Yes, I was. I’m sorry, I don’t have a job for you.”

That was that with Roger Corman. I took a number of meetings, but they all came to naught. My agent at ICM never called me back once in 5 months. So I dropped STRYKER’S WAR and moved on with my life…

Scott Spiegel
Scott Spiegel

The film opens in Vietnam, 1969, with actual location footage shot by co-writer Sheldon Lettich, who also served as second-unit director and technical advisor. “He was in “Nam,” “We used some footage from a short film he’d done called FIRE FIGHT.” This segment serves as the prologue, as the rest of the film was shot in and around Detroit during an on/off four-month schedule and brought to release print for around $250,000. The microbudget is easily offset by the uniformly strong ensemble acting, the crisp, profane dialog, and the strong action sequences which climax in a bloodbath worthy of Sam Peckinpah. – producer writer Scott Spiegel

Four years went by. Scott Spiegel and I, now partners, had spent the previous year and a half vainly attempting to raise money for a slapstick feature (we’d shot a 16mm pilot this time, which we knew we could not produce for a penny less than $600,000. After 18 grueling months of meetings with prospective investors, we had raised exactly $18,000. On August 17th, my birthday and the day we were supposed to start shooting, it was totally apparent to both of us that we had failed. Desperately, I suggested going to L.A. Scott countered, suggesting, “Then let’s shoot the feature version of STRYKER’S WAR.”


“With $18,000” I queried. “How much did the Super-8 version cost?” asked Scott. “Five grand.” “So, we’ve got almost four times that much.”

I seriously considered what he said, then uttered the fateful words that have launched so many other great and foolish enterprises, “Sure! Why not?”

We planned to start shooting Oct. 1, come hell or high water. Everything that took place in the woods, which was a lot of the film, would need lighting and I didn’t have the money for a lot of lights or a generator, certainly not a real movie generator that was quiet. With 400 speed film I could easily get an exposure in the woods or anywhere else for that matter with very little lighting, so I decided that the grainy look in 35 mm would be part of the gritty aesthetic of the film. Quite frankly, I think this worked out fine. The high-speed film stock blew up to 35mm without a problem.


In the next six weeks Scott and I put together our gigantic cast (there are about 100 different actors in the film), our small, completely untrained, crew, and a million period props and vehicles from the 1960s. We began principal photography on the feature version of STRYKER’S WAR on Oct. 1, 1984. By Oct. 10 we were completely out of money. Somehow or other we wrapped on Nov. 21.


My mother and father, having just watched us pull off damn close to a miracle, now miraculously stepped in and financed the rest of the picture. They put up $80,000 between them.

I edited the film in 16mm on a KEM flatbed with just my pal, Paul Harris, there as the one and only assistant, synching and keeping track of all the film. Then Bruce Campbell stepped in as supervising sound editor.

The film premiered at the Universal Theater in Warren, Michigan to a standing room only crowd of 700 people on Sunday, Oct. 13, 1985. Irvin Shapiro called one day and said, “The new title of your picture is THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT.”

Irvin Shapiro
Irvin Shapiro

“That doesn’t sound like a title, that sounds like a tag-line,” I replied.
“Nevertheless, that’s the new title of your picture.”
I was flabbergasted. “THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT” I repeated, certain I must have heard him wrong.
I considered it for a moment, then said very honestly, “I don’t think I can live with that, Irvin.”
“Do you want me to represent your picture?” “Yes.” I most certainly did.
“Then the new title of your picture is “THOU SHALT NOT KILL… EXCEPT.”
And so it was.

Brian Schulz as Sergeant Jack Stryker
Robert Rickman as Sgt. Walker J. Jackson
John Manfredi as 2nd Lt. David Miller
Tim Quill as Lt. Cpt. Tim Tyler
Cheryl Hausen as Sally
Perry Mallette as Otis
Pam Lewis as Mom
Jim Griffen as Dad
Cult Members
Sam Raimi as cult leader
Connie Craig as bald cult girl
Ivitch Fraser as young cult girl
Terry-Lynn Brumfield as sleazy cult girl
Ted Raimi as Chain Man
Kirk Haas as the Stabber
Al Johnston as big biker
Chuck Morris as puke biker
Scott Mitchell as Mad Hatter
Scott Spiegel as Pincushion
Glenn Barr as Archer
Marek Pacholec as Bat Man


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