Touchstone and Beyond: A History of Disney’s “Summer of Sam”

Touchstone and Beyond: A History of Disney’s “Summer of Sam”

Summer holidays have started and what better way to get into the relaxing mood of hot summer days than to dive into a time capsule and land on the streets of New York City with Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam.

You will feel the heat and the grime of the city, as well as the fear that residents had for the Son of Sam killer during this epic look at that dangerous season.

The Plot

New York is struggling during the summer of 1977. A killer is roaming the streets targeting young couples, in particular women with brown hair. Known as the Son of Sam or the .44 Caliber Killer, New Yorkers are on high alert.

Amidst the chaos of the murders, we watch as four friends, Vinny, Dionna, Richie, and Ruby survive the threat of this madman, and observe how their lives are impacted by the Son of Sam’s reign of terror.

Events are so unpredictable, and the cops are so desperate for success that they will turn to a mobster named Luigi to help find the killer. In New York City during the summer of 1977, no one is safe, until the killer is caught. However, the paranoia brought to the city could be just as dangerous to the citizens as any bullet fired from a gun.

Cinematic Compliments

Summer of Sam brings so much chaos to the screen, and while the murders are brutal and graphic, it’s the ripple effects of the murders that brings the most pain to the citizens of New York. To be so scared for your life that you would be willing to dye your hair or wear a wig when out in public gives the audience how fearful people were. The film does an excellent job at showcasing how the fear impacts the people.

The cast is great. It’s hard to pinpoint one person who stands out the most, because together they are all crucial in weaving this story of life during that summer and how the killings affect their lives. John Leguizamo is a compelling lead, but the rest of the cast as a team make this film outstanding. Mira Sorvino is brilliant as Dionna. She is one of the few characters in the film that has a significant growth in her personality. It’s the after effect of the Son of Sam murders that gives Dionna the strength to grow and change.

Spike Lee is a genius. As director he chose a hot button topic, was able to avoid glorifying the subject, and told a story about the lives of people and how they are affected because of these murders. Lee has woven a tapestry of life in New York City during this infamous summer that shows the depth of the people, the diversity of their life, and the heat and claustrophobia of the city that never sleeps.

Cinematic Complaints

If you are looking for a film that dives deep into the life of the Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz, then Summer of Sam is not the film for you. Berkowitz’s story is an incidental supporting character on the periphery of the movie.

Fun Film Facts

  • Spike Lee has a cameo in the film as a reporter.
  • The movie was supposed to be closer to a biopic about David Berkowitz but after complaints from the victims’ families, Lee reportedly shifted the focus of the movie to the supporting characters and retitled the movie from Son of Sam to Summer of Sam.
  • Sarah Michelle Gellar was originally cast in the role of Ruby.
  • The role of Eddie was intended for Danny Aiello.
  • The film originally had a NC-17 rating because of the orgy scene at the nightclub. Two minutes were cut to achieve an R rating. Mira Sorvino found the club orgy scene to be demoralizing and hated filming those scenes.
  • Michael Imperioli, co writer on the film, was originally supposed to play the part of Richie but had to drop out due to a conflicting schedule with The Sopranos. He has a small role playing the club owner Midnight.
  • The film crew dealt with a lot of problems shooting on location. Racist graffiti and vandalism plagued the production.
  • Idina Menzel was cast as Richie’s girlfriend, but her scenes were cut in the editing process.
  • During the fight at the conclusion of the film, Adrien Brody broke his nose.
  • Richie was supposed to be the main character in the film, but John Leguizamo impressed director Spike Lee with his improvisation during shooting that Lee allowed Vinny to become the main character.
  • The fight in the cemetery between Vinny and Dionna was improvised. Apparently, Mira Sorvino did not know that John Leguizamo was going to spit on her.

The Golden Popcorn Bucket Award

Summer of Sam was not a box office success and while many critics may have been divided behind the goal of Lee’s film, I think Summer of Sam gets a 4 Golden Popcorn Bucket Award. The film chronicles the life of the citizens in New York during a difficult and terrifying period. The movie doesn’t glorify the killer but shows how his reign of terror included more than just firing a gun. At the same time, Lee was able to craft a film that showed how when a community is attacked, the first people to be questioned are those that stand out or look different. Without directly addressing racial issues, Spike Lee has brilliantly showcased how racial inequality is never far away, and always at surface level within any community.

Coming Attractions

Next week to celebrate the July 4th holiday we look back at a patriotic tale with Touchstone’s 2004 blockbuster, The Alamo.

Production Credits

Directed by Spike Lee

Produced by Touchstone Pictures / Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks


  • John Leguizamo as Vinny
  • Look at Sorvino as Dionna
  • Adrien Brody as Richie
  • Jennifer Esposito as Ruby
  • Ben Gazzara as Luigi

Release Date: July 2, 1999

Budget: $22 million

Box Office Gross

Domestic: $19,288,130

Bill Gowsell has loved all things Disney since his first family trip to Walt Disney World in 1984. Since he began writing for Laughing Place in 2014, Bill has specialized in covering the Rick Riordan literary universe, a retrospective of the Touchstone Pictures movie library, and a variety of other Disney related topics. When he is not spending time with his family, Bill can be found at the bottom of a lake . . . scuba diving

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Touchstone and Beyond: A History of Disney’s “Summer of Sam”