"Why didn’t fame hold off old age and death?"
Bubba Ho-Tep is a classic B-movie—low-budget, sensational, absurd, laden with subtext, and mind-boggling. Beloved cult actor Bruce Campbell (of the Evil Dead movies and TV’s Xena: Warrior Princess) plays an aging Elvis, one who faked his death, worked as an Elvis impersonator for decades, and now resides in Shady Rest, a dreary retirement home in the bowels of East Texas, where of course no one believes who he is. This Elvis is full of remorse: about the costs of fame, his inability to deal with his life, his drug use, and having abandoned his wife and only child.
Directed by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, The Beastmaster) and based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, Bubba Ho-Tep looms with the prospect of dying and old age. A recurring image of funeral workers taking the day’s dead away in a hearse haunts the film. The King himself, burdened with a bum hip from a stage accident decades before and a mysterious "bump" on his penis, mostly remains in his bed, regretting the past. "Why didn’t fame hold off old age and death?" he laments. A flashback shows an early ’70s-era Presley and his boys driving through the South like superstar gangsters. Here we learn how Presley switched places with the best of his many impersonators: Sebastian Haff, who liked drugs even more than Elvis and was the one who keeled over from an overdose in that bathroom all those years ago.
One of the King’s best friends at the retirement home is Jack (Ossie Davis), an African-American claiming to actually be John F. Kennedy. To explain how his appearance differs from Kennedy’s, he explains he was hustled underground by the CIA, his skin "dyed black" with his mind a little shaky due to missing "brain tissue." Jack’s room, decorated with photos of Jackie Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, diagrams of the "grassy knoll," and those streets in Dallas, reveals he’s as obsessed with conspiracies concerning "his" assassination (attempt) as anyone having poured over the Warren report. Mysteriously, he actually possesses a horrible scar on the back of his head and neck where Kennedy would have been shot.
Events take an even stranger turn when enormous Kafkaesquqe beetles begin showing up late at night at the rest home, attacking the elderly residents. After one of the bugs attempts to suck the soul from the King in a feverous action fight sequence, Jack does some research and surmises that an Egyptian spirit has descended upon the rest home and is trying to feed on the elderly residents, who lack the will and strength to fight back. This the mummy is doing all in an attempt to rise from the (evil) dead.
It is here that Bubba Ho-Tep begins to tackle the themes of rebirth, the immortality of the infamous, and of ageless souls that are introduced at the very beginning of the film. The first words flashed across the screen, after all, are:
Ho-tep (ho-tep’) n.
1. Relative or descendant of the 13
Egyptian Dynasties, 3100 – 1500 B.C.
2. Family surname of an Egyptian pharaoh
Bubba (bub’uh) n.
1. Male from the Southern U.S.
2. Good old boy 3. Cracker, red neck,
trailer park resident.
The film confronts American legends of fame using the ancient mummy mumbo-jumbo film genre (The Mummy, The Invisible Man). At one point flashbacks seem to emanate from the consciousness of the mummy itself, somehow merging with the legend of Elvis—ancient Egyptian rites, burials, naked servant rituals, a bus crashing off a bridge into a Texan swamp. In addition to JFK and Elvis, it would seem ancient Egyptian pharaohs and kings also wrestle with their places in the Cosmos. Another Shady Hill resident calls himself "Kemo Sabe" (the Lone Ranger), wears a mask, carries around silver six-shooters, and is one of the few residents who manages to fight off the beetles and Egyptian mummy. Fame has its benefits.
The King’s elderly roommate, Bull Thomas (Harrison Young), dies early in the film in what appears to be a tortured, meaningless death: he is in pain and forgotten by his family. When his young, sexy but insensitively cold daughter rifles through Bull’s belongings for anything that might be of use to her, Elvis chastises her for forsaking her father’s memory. Before she can throw them away, the King, perhaps cognizant of his own need to preserve images of the past, saves his friend’s Purple Heart medal and some photos of his youth. But the girl’s appearance manages to arouse in the King a smidgen of sexual desire, something he hasn’t felt in decades. It is from this trace of desire that Elvis begins to "get his Mojo back." The King finds himself aroused once again when a well-meaning, caring nurse (an inspired Ella Joyce) attempts to salve the cancerous "bump" on his penis. The King is back.
Minimal and devoid of shtick, Campbell’s performance as an aging Elvis is haunting and, amidst all the hilarity, almost tragic to Shakespearean proportions. This Elvis is human, and dogged by ghosts. A moment when he and Jack lament how badly they must have fathered their children is one of immense gravity, as absurd as it may seem. "We were the best fathers that we could be under the circumstances." Jack says. (When the King then wants to know what sex with Marilyn Monroe was like, Jack says, "That’s classified material," and then, "Whoooaaweeee!").
The monstrous, soul-sucking mummy is in many ways himself looking for redemption also, rising from the dead presumably to resume a life of lost chances, of unfinished business. Bubba Ho-Tep is shadowed by the tragic nature of all the souls that comprise American iconography, of fallen "American dreams." The film ends with a feverish fight between our aged American icons, Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy, fighting for the "redemption of their souls" against forces bent on stealing them. They lose the physical fight, but their souls are left intact, saved so that they may live on for all of us.