SHADOW COMPANY: An Early, Unproduced Black And Dekker Special

John Carpenter might have brought the duo’s Vietnam-zombie epic to the screen.

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It has been over 30 years since Shane Black and Fred Dekker have shared big-screen script credit: The duo, who penned 1987’s Dekker-directed The Monster Squad (and also co-wrote the 2015 Amazon TV pilot Edge), reteamed for this week’s Black-helmed The Predator. Around the time of Squad, however, Black and Dekker busted out plenty of military hardware in a screenplay called Shadow Company, which started out as the first thing Black ever wrote.

Back in 1984, Black had abandoned his original goal of becoming an actor and was trying his hand at screenwriting. He lived with a group of college friends in a West Los Angeles house dubbed the Pad O’Guys; one of them was Dekker, who had already found some Hollywood success (like scripting a 3D Godzilla for Paramount and director Steve Miner). With Dekker’s encouragement, Black wrote Shadow Company, which he described at the time as a cross between Platoon and The Exorcist. “It is about missing-in-action soldiers who haunt their families after the war is over,” Black told New York magazine in 1990—after the project had morphed from what sounds like a darker horror piece to a more action-oriented one.

Shadow Company got Black noticed, and he received a number of studio offers to script other people’s ideas (including a rewrite gig on a sci-fi film called The Last Warrior), but he was frustrated by the development grind and decided to tackle another original. That screenplay was Lethal Weapon, which launched Black into the upper echelon of his field, and paved the way for his headline-grabbing seven-figure sales of The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. It also put new heat on Shadow Company, and in 1988, Black and Dekker collaborated on revisions for Universal, director John Carpenter and executive producer Walter Hill. This would have been Carpenter’s return to big-budget features after the box-office failure of Big Trouble in Little China had led him to do the much more modest Prince of Darkness and They Live for Alive Films and Universal.

The October 20, 1988 draft of Shadow Company is written with a combination of Hill’s short, punchy sentences and the wry asides to the reader that characterize both Black and Dekker’s scripts. The story begins in Saigon in February 1973, as the Vietnam War is winding down, and our hero is apparently Lt. Col. Frank Nikko—until he’s killed on page six by a platoon of silent, ruthless soldiers after a poker game in which the stakes include a life insurance policy and a severed pinky. This “Shadow Company” is under the command of Major Garrett Stark, who sends them off on a secret mission with the words, “You are not ordinary soldiers. Your training has purged you of the true enemies… Fear… Pity… Conscience…”

Sixteen years later, Vietnam vet Jake Pollard sees a news broadcast about the bodies of six American MIAs being dug up at a Cambodian temple, and about to be flown to the U.S. to be interred at a veteran’s cemetery outside the dusty town of Merit, CA. Realizing who the dead men are, Pollard hightails it to Merit, where among the residents are Kyle Traeger, a brooding 18-year-old who says things like, “Maybe pain’s the only real thing after all,” and his estranged (but not for long, of course) girlfriend Heather. Her ultra-religious mom Doris is the widow of one of the Shadow Company guys, and is now married to the town sheriff. Lurking around the perimeter is General Philip Woodhurst, who is supervising the transport of the six corpses and seems intent on their revival—they have been scientifically altered and are impervious to pain, physical damage, and even death. Sure enough, on page 33, the Shadow Company pull themselves out of their graves, and they help themselves to an armory’s worth of weapons and head into Merit to…well, kill as many people as possible, mostly. They don’t have a more specific goal, other than Woodhurst’s pronouncement that “They’ve brought the war home to those who betrayed it.”

As Shadow Company wipes out anyone in their way, the only one who might truly be able to stop them is Pollard, who has also stolen as much weaponry and dynamite as he can fit in a backpack. There are hints about a seventh member of Shadow Company, and Pollard claims to have known Kyle’s father Russell; later, to the surprise of likely no one who read the script, Pollard turns out to actually be Russell, that errant member of the Shadow Company.

Deep characterization and complex plotting are not hallmarks of Shadow Company. What it does have is lots and lots of juicy, crunchy action as the zombie soldiers lay waste to practically every person and building in Merit. As opposed to the sentimentalization of terrestrial and alien canines in The Predator, they even take out a dog. And unlike the blithely jokey disregard for human life seen in the new film, the bloodbath in Shadow Company is grimly straight-faced, though there are moments of dark humor. After Pollard literally shoots one of the military monsters to pieces, its severed head calls out, “Medic!” Elsewhere, an MP taking stock of the armory robbery notes a tripwire has been stolen—just as he steps on it. Boom.

Read in retrospect, Shadow Company fits comfortably in amongst the themes of Black and Dekker’s other work. Like many of the former’s scripts, from Lethal Weapon to Iron Man 3, it’s set at Christmastime, and as in Weapon, the climax sees two foes eschew heavy weaponry to go at it mano-a-mano. Early in his career, Dekker planned to collaborate with some friends on a horror-anthology feature, and his segment script concerned a Vietnam vet haunted by a mortally wounded platoon-mate he had killed so his screams wouldn’t alert the enemy. That story later became the basis for Miner’s House, which had the vengeful soldier physically returning as a uniformed ghoul. There’s even a connective thread to Black’s brother Terry’s script for Dead Heat, in which resurrected, unkillable attackers are blasted with round after round of ineffective gunfire.

Still, had it been produced, Shadow Company would have been a unique entry in the big-ticket action-horror stakes. While allegories for the Vietnam conflict can be seen in numerous studio thrillers, from Deliverance to Hill’s own Southern Comfort, and echoes of the war fueled the likes of Jacob’s Ladder, the idea of the battle literally coming home in undead guise had only previously been seen in Bob Clark’s cult classic Deathdream. This was a more personally horrific take in which a family must deal with their allegedly KIA son returning apparently alive, but actually a kind of vampire. (A remake, scripted by The Grudge’s Stephen Susco and updated for the Iraq War, had directors such as Eli Roth and Grace’s Paul Solet attached at various points in the 2000s, but never got filmed. Its title: Zero Dark Thirty, before Kathryn Bigelow used it for her 2012 award-winner. William Lustig and Larry Cohen also updated the idea for the Mideast combat in the satirical Uncle Sam.) Instead, Shadow Company is one of the era’s many epic unproduced properties that fans can read today (the script can be found online) and entertain themselves with gruesome, explosive visions of what might have been.