Sole Survivor (1983): Flying the Unfriendly Skies

I hate to fly. If at all possible I will avoid it at all costs, but sometimes you have no choice. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m on a jumbo jet or a commuter plane; my stomach will be tied up in knots either way. See I have a fear of heights in general, and it doesn’t get much worse than looking down through the clouds at the Earth thousands of feet below. Needless to say, I am not going to fight anyone for a window seat. There’s just some part in me that dreads falling through the air unable to do anything apart from curse and flap my arms in a vain attempt to sprout feathers and fly away. I know there’s lots of bad ways to go, but being involved in a plane crash rarely ends up with you being on a high rated and beloved TV series. More often than not it ends up with someone trying to match up dental records with whatever pieces of you they can find. However today I watched Sole Survivor (1983), and now I’m not sure what would be worse, being in a fatal plane crash or living to tell about it.

Denise Watson (Anita Skinner) had the unfortunate luck to live to tell about it. While every single person on her flight was torn asunder, Denise fell to earth securely strapped to her chair with only minor injuries. After the crash she starts having a strange feeling that she is being followed and that something is out to get her. Her boyfriend Brian (Kurt Johnson) thinks she is just suffering from survivor’s guilt, but when Denise complains of zombie like people attacking her and her friends, Brian begins to believe there is something more nefarious at work. Denise might have escaped death once, but now it is using its recent victims to bring her into the fold.

As you might be able to tell from the synopsis, in many ways Sole Survivor is a forbearer of the Final Destination films. In fact, the first Final Destination movie revolved around a group of teens who survive a plane crash so it is very similar indeed. Unlike those films which revel in the death scenes more than anything, Sole Survivor is a tense horror-thriller that has some decent depth to it. Survivor’s Guilt is not an unknown phenomenon, and it commonly effects survivors of accidents, epidemics, combat, and even people who avoid major layoffs at work. In many cases, the guilt will lead to depression, self blame, and in extreme cases even suicide. The "haunting" of Denise Watson by the zombies and their attempts to off her can be seen as a metaphor for her own guilt. In the beginning of the film, we see Denise in the wake of the disaster, and I can’t imagine having to see such carnage much less know you are the only one that survived it. Naturally the film plays up the supernatural overtones with the shadow of death hovering over Denise and her friends, but unlike Final Destination it never turns death into a mere slasher out to get his jollies killing people with a variety of Rube Goldberg devices.

Sole Survivor was writer/director Thom Eberhardt’s first film, and the script is well written though I can only imagine how pleased he was with the homonym heavy title. Eberhardt would go on to direct the valley girl vs. alien film Night of the Comet in 1984 before going on to lighter fare with the 1988 Sherlock Holmes comedy Without a Clue and perhaps his most well known film 1992’s Captain Ron. For a first film, Sole Survivor is very well directed with a great cinematic atmosphere that gives the film a dire quality. This was also the first film for cinematographer Russell Carpenter, and he does a great job so it’s no wonder that a few years later he would shoot the similarly creepy film Lady in White.

Grounding the film is the acting of Anita Skinner. This was Ms Skinner’s second and last film following a small role in 1978’s Girlfriends which garnered her a Golden Globe nomination. Try as I might, I could find nowhere that mentioned why Anita stopped making film appearances, but she gave a great nervous performance in Sole Survivor and could have made a great addition to many more genre films. This was also the last film for Kurt Johnson who played the boyfriend, Brian. He unfortunately passed away only three years after the film was made at the age of 34 years old. Johnson reminded me very much of John Hamm in both his look and performance and profile. There are also a couple of minor performances that I have to mention. Scream Queen Brinke Stephens shows up in a minor role as well as the one named wonder Leon who is probably best remembered as the black saint that comes alive in Madonna’s "Like a Prayer" video.

Sole Survivor may not be as thrilling as the Final Destination movies that it would inspire, but it surely is a much more memorable film. While some of that could be attributed to creepy killers that linger around Denise, what will really stay with me is the subtext of the film. So if you enjoy horror films of the ‘80’s that strayed from the slasher genre that was the norm at the time, I definitely recommend you check this one out. I just hope it’s never my in flight film or I’m going to have some serious issues.

 Bugg Rating


  1. Threw this into my Netflix queue as soon as I finished reading your review.

  2. I love this one. Some genuinely creep scenes. The little girl at the hospital in particular.

    I also liked the concept of death jumping from person to person and using that person's body as a vehicle to commit murder.

    Great review.

  3. vivian smith smythe-smithMay 31, 2010 at 7:28 PM

    Lightning Bug, if this film is "more memorable" than Final Destination why did you only award it 2 and a half bugs?, perhaps 3 or even 3 and a half would have been more appropriate.

  4. I think dying int he plane crsash would be worse than surviving it. I'll take my chances with the zombies.

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  6. I've heard a lot about this movie and reading your writeup made me want to see it even more! The parallels to "Final Destination" interest me quite a bit. I love getting a feeling for what may have inspired other films.
    Good read!

  7. saw this last night. great creepy little thriller. good characters too, realistically flawed instead of hammy and annoying as most 80s horrors are. you don't feel cheated at the end with a healthy sense of dread


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