If you were blessed enough to be alive during the video store golden age, you’ll remember New World Video’s Def-Con 4 VHS box. It had a space ship in the background and what looks like a skeleton in a space suit buried in the sand. Crazy stuff, and it worked like a charm. The box art was the hook. The title, Def-Con 4, was also a bit cryptic. This was way before Def Comedy Jam or even Def by Temptation (1990), s0 most civilians were clueless as to what it meant. It actually stands for Defense Condition, with a scale of 1 through 5 to tell how bad things were about to get. Five is business as usual while one is imminent nuclear conflict. So, four is more of a social distancing thing. Surely, not enough to merit a skeleton in a space suit.
That assumption was pretty correct in that the hardcore space horror flick you thought you were getting wasn’t nearly as visceral as anticipated. The classic video store bait and switch. And, because you took it home and paid for it, you were gonna watch it. Such a less than scrupulous sales tactic did yield the positive benefit of films that normally wouldn’t have reached as many viewers to get watched and appreciated, even it they weren’t as they seemed. Def-Con 4 was one of them. It made my personal cut and deserved all the trouble of getting the VCR out of my parents’ room and hooking it up to the one in living room to a make bootleg copy. It lived on the same tape as Tuff Turf (1985), another New World Video classic.
There are films that I’ve never stopped watching since junior high, and then there are others that I’ve watched dozens of times in junior high and then not again until 30 years later. For the latter, I always ask myself what I liked about it then, and how I may see it differently now. Def-Con 4 is still good, and now I see it through the lens of The Walking Dead.
The early protagonists of Def-Con 4 are three space station astronauts with the grim task of pulling the trigger on retaliatory nukes if the USSR fires first. There’s the family man, Howe (the late Tim Choate: Babylon 5 TV series), the player, Walker (John Walsch: Self Defense 1983), and the serious scientist, Jordan (Kate Lynch: Meatballs 1979). After initiating the firing sequence and seeing the attack zones on the screen, they speculate on how bad things really are. Their fears are confirmed when Howe gets a call from his wife describing the devastation and paranoia among survivors. They crash land on a Nova Scotian beach and encounter Terminals, cannibalistic humans gone feral from radiation sickness. Howe makes it out of the space capsule and discovers Vinny (the late Maury Chaykin: War Games 1983). He’s a survivalist that, for some reason, wears a kilt. He also keeps a private school girl named J.J. (Lenore Zann: X-Men The Animated Series) in his cellar.
Howe’s trouble really starts when J.J.’s boyfriend, Gideon (Kevin King: Iron Eagle 1981), captures them and brings them into a compound that looks like it was designed by the same person that decorated Jason’s house in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981). He’s like Neegan, capitalizing on the skills of his subordinates while ruling through some snappy, narcissistic dialogue and a sociopathic hair trigger. He’s still wearing the same private school blazer that J.J. has on, accessorized by some army surplus flair.
The rest of Def-Con 4 follows Howe and his unlikely allies trying to escape the compound, which is pretty disappointing if you’re expecting a full blown apocalyptic road movie, but it’s a surprisingly good film with some honorable, sympathetic, and scary characters. The cast was exceptional and made up of working actors that never achieved the fame they deserved. Tim Choate was a truly great actor that took the whole “stranger in a strange land” arc and tempered it with the everyman angle all with a smooth southern drawl… in Canada nonetheless! Sadly, he passed away in a motorcycle accident in 2004. Kate Lynch has made her mark in other cult classics, but was unfortunately severely underutilized in this film.
If you recognize anyone in Def-Con 4, it would be Maury Chaykin, a prolific character actor throughout the ’80s and all the way to his death in 2010. Kevin King could’ve definitely held his own as the leader of a group like the Saviors. Lenore Zann made some really fine ’80s horror classics, and then went on to become a Canadian politician. If I could pay the highest compliment I could to Def-Con 4, it’s that this is one of the few films with the provocative and deceptive box art that both you and your parents could’ve both enjoyed together.