ARROW BLU RAY RELEASE: Black Sunday (1977)

Black Sunday was an always on HBO film in my childhood — the HBO Guide from January 1978 confirms this, I would have been six years old — and it was pure childhood trauma. There were my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers under attack by a terrorist piloting the Goodyear blimp! It was too much for my young mind to handle and I had nightmares of seeing that happy little zeppelin turned into a tool of death.

Director John Frankenheimer was the only director who could make this. That’s because he had already built a relationship with Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company head Robert Lane while working on the movie Grand Prix. In fact, Lane once told the director,  “You’re the only person I’ve ever worked with who has kept his word.”

The film could use Goodyear’s blimps on four conditions: the terrorists couldn’t work for Goodyear, when the blimp blew up it couldn’t show the logo, the Goodyear logo couldn’t sell the movie and the blimp itself couldn’t kill anyone.

The other part of the deal that allowed this movie to capture the Thomas Harris — yes, the same man who created Hannibal Lecter — novel. That was the National Football League. Only one man could pull off the kind of carny hustle to get camera crews the access to not only shoot all around Super Bowl X — even during the final half hour of the game as the Steelers beat the Cowboys — and bring back the teams to the Orange Bowl two weeks later to get the footage of the blimp menacing the players and crowd. That would be Robert Evans, who also got the crowd from United Way volunteers, provided that Frankenheimer would make a movie for the charity and Robert Shaw narrated it. That said, those aren’t the Cowboys and Steelers in that final scene, it’s players from the Miami Dolphins.

Bruce Dern is incredible in this film, owning every scene he’s in as Michael Lander, a pilot who flies the blimp over NFL games while seething with anger, seeing all these free people when he spent years in a tiger cage as a Vietnam War POW, a time when he was court-martialed upon his return and soon left by his wife. His dream of killing himself and as many people around him as possible and his relationship with terrorist Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller) may be the way that he can make it happen. They have a plan of detonating a bomb and thousands of small razor-sharp objects into the Super Bowl audience to achieve her plan of calling attention to the plight of the Palestinians and punishing the U.S. for supporting Israel.

Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw) kills all of her Black September terrorist cell except for Ilyad, as he finds her unarmed and naked. He comes to regret sparing her life once he learns the level of death and destruction that she has planned. He, his partner Robert Moshevsky (Steven Keats) and FBI agent Sam Corley (Fritz Weaver) get on the trail of the terrorists, who remain many steps ahead of them at every turn.

Black Sunday ends with a thriller helicopter chase and the blimp literally crash landing inside the Orange Bowl before Kabakov climbs onto the blimp and attempts to stop it. You have to keep in mind that these are real stuntmen in this scene without a green screen pulling off an incredible stunt, something we rarely see in cinema these days.

In Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino edited the scene where Elle Driver attempts to murder The Bride in the hospital as a homage to the nurse scene in Black Sunday. He also used the split screens in homage to the trailer for this film.

I definitely remember reliving this movie — as I usually did in my child years — through Mad Magazine. In issue #195, Dick DeBartolo and Mort Drucker redid the movie as Blimp Sunday.  

Paramount planned for Black Sunday to be their biggest blockbuster of the year. After all, it had the highest-ever pre-release scoring films from test screenings and they thought this would make more than Jaws. A few things went wrong. It was banned in Germany and Japan. The movie Two-Minute Warning came out before it played theaters. And the movie that became the biggest story of 1977 was Star Wars.

Another theory? Comment cards during Black Sunday‘s first showings in Los Angeles discovered that 91% of the audience was disappointed that the blimp didn’t blow up the Super Bowl and kill everyone.

The Arrow Video blu ray of Black Sunday has the film in a high definition 1080p presentation, along with extras like new audio commentary by film scholar Josh Nelson; It Could Be Tomorrow,“ a new visual essay by critic Sergio Angelini that explores the film’s adaptation and production, and its place within the pantheon of 70s terrorism thrillers; The Directors: John Frankenheimer, an hour-long portrait of the director from 2003, including interviews with Frankenheimer, Kirk Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson, Roy Scheider, Rod Steiger and others; an image gallery, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain and an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw. You can get it from MVD.

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