Summer of Sam

USA 1999

Film still for Summer of Sam

Reviewed by Geoffrey Macnab


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

New York City, the summer of 1977. Bronx married couple Vinny and Dionna dance at a nightclub; Vinny sneaks off to have sex with Dionna's cousin just near where serial killer 'Son of Sam' is about to kill another couple. On his way home with Dionna, Vinny sees the victims and thinks Sam may be stalking him. Ritchie, Vinny's best friend, has embraced punk rock; the local Italian-American guys think he's a freak. Ritchie's stepfather tells him to move into the garage. He strikes up a relationship with Ruby, one of Vinny's former girlfriends. Vinny claims to love Dionna, but continues to cheat on her.

The police ask local gangster Luigi for help in catching Sam. The city is sweltering and a lynch-mob mentality is developing. Learning he's a dancer in a gay porn club as well as a punk, the local guys decide Ritchie must be Sam. They try to get Vinny to help them catch him. Meanwhile, Vinny's marriage is breaking up. Dionna moves out of the apartment. Full of self-pity and high on drugs, Vinny betrays Ritchie to the neighbourhood thugs who beat him up. Ritchie's stepfather rescues him, telling the thugs that the real Sam, David Berkowitz, has already been caught by the police.


Summer of Sam, set in New York during the heatwave of 1977 when serial killer David Berkowitz was terrorising the city, has been largely misrepresented by the press. A New York Times article in June quoted relatives of Berkowitz's victims railing against its director Spike Lee. "He feels that murder is entertainment," said one. Berkowitz himself, now serving six consecutive life sentences, expressed his disappointment that the film was raking up "what is best forgotten."

Berkowitz, however, is only a minor player in the movie he helped inspire: Summer of Sam could just as well have been called Summer of Reggie (while Berkowitz was on his killing spree, baseball player Reggie Jackson helped the Yankees win the World Series) or Scenes from an Italian-American Marriage. Lee's real interest is in the relationships between members of a close-knit neighbourhood in the Bronx. With tensions aggravated by the sweaty weather and the fear of a serial killer in their midst, it's a community which is close to boiling point - similar to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood in Do the Right Thing. Lee captures brilliantly the creeping sense of paranoia that affected the city and the strange, macabre thrill of having its own serial killer. (To avoid Sam, who reportedly favours brunettes, women begin dying their hair blond or wearing wigs.) With such craziness in the air, it doesn't even seem incongruous when the killer begins to think a black labrador is talking to him, enjoining him to "kill, kill, kill."

The film begins and ends with veteran journalist Jimmy Breslin speaking directly to camera about "the summer of Sam". His presence at once evokes the metropolis we know from Weegee photographs and gritty cop dramas, and creates a strange kind of nostalgia. In Summer of Sam, as in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead (set in the early 90s), we're seeing a New York which no longer exists. Mayor Giuliani may have cleaned up crime (homicides are now at their lowest since 1961, Breslin tells us) but he has also taken the heart out of the city. But Summer of Sam also fits loosely into the serial-killer genre, a line which stretches from M (1931) to Se7en. Several plot points even rekindle memories of Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926): as the lynch-mob mentality gets out of control, an innocent man is targeted simply because he doesn't fit in.

Lee, who adapted an original screenplay by Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, isn't above playing up the Italian-American stereotypes. Family loyalty and religious guilt figure as prominently here as they do in Scorsese's movies. Well over two hours long, Summer of Sam isn't taut, either. It is an ensemble piece full of flamboyant minor characters (Tony Olives, Joey T), all of them played beautifully but none developed in any great depth. Ben Gazzara's patriarchal mobster has one big scene in a restaurant, but is barely glimpsed after that; Bebe Neuwirth (Vinny's boss) and Patti Lupone (Ritchie's mother) seem similarly underused.

Lee's focus is more on Vinny's crumbling marriage to Dionna and his friendship with Ritchie. Mumbling, cursing, intensely physical, John Leguizamo's Vinny comes across like a diminutive version of Brando's Stanley Kowalski. Adrien Brody is equally striking as the punk who wanders round New York "sounding like a British fag," and looking as if he has just escaped from Carnaby Street. Berkowitz then is only there to provide the historical context for what turns out to be one of Lee's very best films - a sprawling, brilliantly acted character study which touches on love, friendship and betrayal, while also managing to recreate the last days of disco without a note of self-parody.


Spike Lee
Spike Lee
Jon Kilik
Victor Colicchio
Michael Imperioli
Spike Lee
Spike Lee
Director of Photography
Ellen Kuras
Barry Alexander Brown
Production Designer
Thérèse Deprez
Music/Score Conductor
Terence Blanchard
™Touchstone Pictures
Production Companies
Touchstone Pictures presents a Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks production
Executive Producers
Michael Imperioli
Jeri Carroll-Colicchio
Production Supervisor
Jay Cannold
Production Co-ordinator
Betty Chin
40 Acres Liaison
Earl Smith
Production Manager
Jon Kilik
Location Supervisor
Greg Routt
Location Department Co-ordinators
Oronde E. Giddings
Natalie Arango
Location Consultant
Al Valentine
Post-production Supervisor
Miles Ferguson
Assistant Directors
Mike Ellis
Tracey Hinds
Roger McDonald Lee
Michael Pinkney
Script Supervisor
Andrea Greer
Aisha Coley
Associate Director:
Karen Gilman
Creative Consultant
Black Nexxus Inc
Camera Operators
Jeffery J. Tufano
Peter Fernberger
Richard Eliano
Pat Capone
Steve Drellich
Steadicam Operator
Larry McConkey
Visual Effects/Animation
Rhythm & Hues Studios
Visual Effects Producer:
Chad Merriam
Visual Effects Supervisor:
Todd Shifflett
CG Supervisor:
Betsy Asher Hall
Compositing Supervisor:
Betsy Paterson
Special Effects Co-ordinator
Steve Kirschoff
Graphic Designer
Donald Robinson
Associate Editor
Allyson C. Johnson
Art Director
Nicholas Lundy
Set Decorator
Diane Lederman
Costume Designer
Ruth E. Carter
Wardrobe Supervisors
Michael Tavares
Darlene Jackson
Wardrobe Co-ordinator
Monica Kitchen
Key Make-up
Anita Gibson
Make-up Artist
Joseph Campayno
Key Hairstylists
Michelle Johnson
Leonard Drake
Anthony Gueli
Main/End Title Design
Balsmeyer & Everett, Inc
Trumpet Solos:
Terence Blanchard
Edward Simon
John Anderson
Nick Rodwell
Bass Clarinet:
Anthony Pike
Julie Andrews
John Pigneguy
Hugh Seenan
Paul Gardham
Richard Bissill
Maurice Murphy
Andy Crowley
Peter Davies
Richard Edwards
Steve Wick
Steve Henderson
Frank Ricotti
Gary Kettel
Wilf Gibson
Roger Garland
Peter Oxer
Rebecca Hirsch
Perry Montague-Mason
Patrick Kiernan
Boguslav Kostecki
Emlyn Singleton
Manon Derome
Gillian Findlay
Mike McMenemy
John Bradbury
Eddie Roberts
Vaughn Armon
James McLeod
Benedict Cruft
Dermot Crehan
Simon Fischer
Steve Levine
Warren Zielinski
Everton Nelson
Mark Berrow
Cathy Thompson
Antonia Fuchs
Mike De Saulles
Jonathan Strange
Julian Leaper
Gillian Cohen
Peter Lale
George Robertson
Ivo van der Werff
Elizabeth Watson
Katie Wilkinson
Andrew Parker
Gustav Clarkson
Catherine Bradshaw
Justin Ward
Bruce White
Don McVay
Bill Benham
Anthony Pleeth
Anthony Lewis
Martin Loveday
Cathy Giles
Helen Liebmann
Paul Kegg
David Daniels
Frank Schaefer
Mick Sterling
Jonathan Tunnell
Double Basses:
Mike Brittain
Paul Cullington
Robin McGee
Mary Scully
Paul Morgan
Simon Benson
Orchestral Leader
Gavyn Wright
Music Supervisor
Alex Steyermark
Music Co-ordinator
Linda Cohen
Executive in Charge of Music for Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group
Kathy Nelson
Music Editors
Maisie Weissman
Lori Slomka
Score Recorder/Mixer
Geoff Foster
Second Engineers
Ricky Graham
Peter Mills
"Summertime Blues" by Eddie Cochran, Jerry Capehart, performed by The Who; "Fernando", "Dancing Queen" by Benny Andersson, Stig Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, performed by Abba; "Boogie Nights" by Rod Temperton, performed by Heatwave; "There But for the Grace of God Go I" by Kevin Nance, August Darnell, performed by Machine; "Let No Man Put Asunder" by Bruce Gray, Bruce Hawes, performed by First Choice; "Fooled around and Fell in Love" by/performed by Elvin Bishop; "Running Away" by Ron Ayers, Edwin Birdsong, performed by Ron Ayers; "Come Rain or Come Shine" by Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, performed by Mike Starr and The Terence Blanchard Group; "Psycho Killer" by David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Martina Weymouth, performed by Talking Heads; "Galaxy" by Sylvester Allen, Harold R. Brown, Morris Dickerson, Leroy Jordan, Charles Miller, Lee Oskar, Howard Scott, Jerry Goldstein, performed by War; "Everybody Dance" by Bernard Edwards, Nile Gregory Rodgers, performed by Chic; "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" by Ann Orson, Blanche Carte, performed by Elton John and Kiki Dee; "Let's All Chant" by Michael Zager, Alvin Fields, performed by Michael Zager Band; "Love Is the Message" by Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, performed by MFSB; "Skull Grenade" by Curtis Gove, James Baggs, John Michael Brown, Damian Branica, Lorne Behrman, performed by L.E.S. Stitches; "Dance with Me" by Peter Brown, Robert Rans, performed by Peter Brown; "Best of My Love" by Maurice White, Albert Phillip McKay, performed by The Emotions; "Hello from the Gutters" by George Tabb, Michael Harper, Evan Cohen, performed by Adrien Brody, Jennifer Esposito, Jessica Galbreath, Darielle Gilad, George Tabb, Michael Harper, Evan Cohen; "La Vie en rose" by Louiguy, Edith Piaf, Mack David, performed by Grace Jones; "Got to Give It Up" by/performed by Marvin Gaye; "Short Shorts" by Bob Gaudio, Bill Crandall, Bill Dalton, Tom Austin; "It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me" by Ekundayo Paris, Nelson Pigford, performed by Barry White; "Baba O'Riley", "Won't Get Fooled Again" by Pete Townshend, performed by The Who; "Don't Leave Me This Way" by Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, Cary Gilbert, performed by Thelma Houston; "Theme from New York, New York" by Fred Ebb, John Kander, performed by Frank Sinatra
Otis Sallid
Choreographic Co-ordinator
Raymond Mapps
Dance Instructor
Paul Pellicoro
Sound Design
Blake Leyh
Sound Mixer
Rolf Pardula
Re-recording Mixer
Tom Fleischman
Supervising Sound Editor
Kevin Lee
Dialogue Editors
Kimberly McCord
Hal Levinsohn
Harry Bowles
Jack Rubenstein
Sound Effects Editor
Glenfield Payne
David Boulton
Supervising Editor:
Kenton Jakub
Gina Alfano
Marko Costanzo
George Lara
Supervising Editor:
Ben Cheah
Andrew Kris
Tim O'Shea
Jennifer Ralston
Technical Adviser
Richard Paul
Guitar Consultant
Tristan Avakian
Stunt Co-ordinator
Jeff Ward
John Leguizamo
Adrien Brody
Mira Sorvino
Jennifer Esposito
Anthony LaPaglia
Detective Lou Petrocelli
Bebe Neuwirth
Patti Lupone
Ben Gazzara
John Savage
Michael Badalucco
David Berkowitz, Son of Sam
Michael Rispoli
Joey T
Mike Starr
Roger Guenveur Smith
Detective Curt Atwater
Saverio Guerra
Brian Tarantino
Bobby Del Fiore
Arthur Nascarella
Ken Garito
Al Palagonia
Joe Lisi
Tony Olives
James Reno
Jimmy Breslin
Spike Lee
John Jeffries
Lucia Grillo
Nelson Vasquez
Officer Cruz
Darielle Gilad
Debbie Cadabra
Michael Harper
Jessica Galbreath
Evan Cohen
George Tabb
Michael Imperioli
Victor Colicchio
Peter Maloney
Detective Timothy Dowd
Christopher Wynkoop
Sam Carr
John Turturro
voice of Harvey the Black Dog
Ernie Anastos
Jim Jensen
Melba Tolliver
Phil Rizuto
Yankee broadcaster
Reggie Jackson
Danielle Burgio
Lisa France
girls in parked car
Peter Epstein
Jill Stokesberry
Joseph Lyle Taylor
Kim Director
Bill Raymond
Father Cadilli
Mildrid Clinton
Emelise Aleandri
Italian women at murder site
Michael Sorvino
bowler at diner
Phil Campanella
2nd bowler at diner
William H. Burns
Ernest Mingione
Frank Fortunato
Dan Zappin
Simon's male friend
Murielle Cohen
Christina Kolbe
Simon's female friends
Charlotte Colavin
Clayton Barber
Joie Lee
Bed Stuy woman interviewed
Rome Neal
Mark Breland
Bed Stuy men interviewed
Susan Batson
Bed Stuy woman interviewed
Evander Holyfield
man in riot
Toneda Laiwan
Dot, Atwater's girlfriend
Janet Paparazzo
Jodi Michelle Pynn
young women shot by Son of Sam
Jennifer S. Badger
woman victim
Jeff Derocker
man in car
Nick Oddo
Damian Achilles
wounded man
Joanne Lamstein
woman in car
Gabriel Barre
Johnny Nasso
Norman Douglass
stunt driver
Tara McNamee
woman victim
L.E.S. Stitches band
John Michael Brown
Damian Branica
Lorne Behrman
Curtis Gove
James Baggs
Rozie Bacchi
Brian's girlfriend
Grace DeSena
Joe T's girlfriend
Zoe Bournelis
Anthony's girlfriend
Ashleigh Closs
Frank Cadillac
Patty aka Man with Weird Eyes
Daniel J. Courtenay
guitar store owner
Michael Prozzo
Kathryn Hudd
Rocco's girlfriend
Antonio Torres
man pulled from car
Pamela Wehner
lady at block party
Dionna Colicchio
Victoria Galasso
Danielle Tutelian
girls at block party
Mario Macaluso
Italian chef
Andrew Lasky
Officer Cruz's partner
Richard Paul
detective with decoy dummy
Ray Carlson
crime scene cop
Alexander J. Vega
Steven Croft
limo driver
Mary Jo Todaro
Jacqueline Margolis
ladies in window
Iris Alten
lady in car window
Valerie Mazzonelli
lady with dog
Hal Sherman
arresting detective
Nicholas Brown
young Detective Petrocelli
Downtown Pictures
12,790 feet
142 minutes 7 seconds
Dolby digital/Digital DTS sound/SDDS
In Colour
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Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011