Deathdream (Dead Of Night) (1973)

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“Why is he so different? He won’t talk with us. He won’t eat with us. He sits out in the yard all day long, or up in his room. Why won’t he at least let us tell anyone that he’s home?” This is what Charles Brooks (John Marley) wonders about his son Andy (Richard Backus), recently returned from Vietnam, and a ghost of his former self. “I went through it too,” adds Charles, “but when I came back I didn’t act like that!”

A veteran of the Second World War, a patriarch par excellence and the sort of man who happily sent America’s innocent youth into Indochina, Charles had bullied his sensitive young son into signing up for service – but Vietnam, a war still waging at the time Canadian director/co-writer Bob Clark made Deathdream (aka Dead of Night), was, at least in moral terms, an altogether murkier engagement than the fight against Hitler and Tojo, and ended up a conflict at home as much as abroad in an ideologically and generationally divided America. The Brooks had not been expecting Andy’s return – after all, they had earlier received a letter from the army reporting his death in combat, even if his doting mother Christine (Lynn Carlin) had refused to countenance that her beloved son really was dead. So his unannounced arrival late one night is regarded by the Brooks as a welcome miracle – and in a way, it is, given that the rumours of his demise were not in fact false. After all, the film’s opening sequence unequivocally shows Andy killed in action, shot in the head as he helps a fallen comrade. 

Like Clark’s previous, much lower-budgeted feature Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) – also written with Alan Ormsby – Deathdream features supernatural resurrection, with Andy seemingly conjured back to life by his mother’s prayers and devotion. Yet unlike that earlier, simpler film, Deathdream comes with an obvious and devastating subtext. Andy may be a vampiric wraith, requiring blood – and willing to kill for it – in order to maintain a semblance of renewed life; yet his zombie-like withdrawal, his sleeplessness and his affect-free propensity to violence, though certainly all markers of the undead genre, are also symptoms of the PTSD that afflicted so many Vietnam vets, themselves unrecognisably transformed by their wartime experience, and back in a country that they themselves could no longer see in the same way. So this is horror with a strong, accusatory sociopolitical message attached, as Andy’s reemergence comes also to represent a whole nation’s return of the repressed.

“I can’t believe a soldier would do a thing like that,” says a waitress, at the news that a hitchhiker dressed in military uniform had murdered his ride. “Andy wouldn’t kill anybody,” Charles protests to the kind-hearted local doctor (Henderson Forsythe) who already suspects Andy’s involvement. Christine may have been in deep denial about Andy’s death, but what these comments show is a community, and indeed a society, unwilling to face up to the realities of what young men were doing in Vietnam on their behalf. As Andy tells Charles, chillingly: “There are millions of soldiers, dad.” In the end, everyone, it seems, would prefer people like Andy – and what they represent about US foreign policy – to stay dead and buried, so that the veneer of homespun civilisation, American-style, can remain in place. It is an uncomfortable conclusion, in a film that uses acceptable forms of horror (the walking dead!) to reflect and allegorise real traumas that are a lot less acceptable. 

Clark’s film is based very loosely on W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 short story The Monkey’s Paw, and has in turn cast its own influence on Homecoming, Joe Dante’s contribution to the Masters of Horror TV series from 2005 about casualties of the Iraq conflict returning to cast their vote against war. Deathdream is a strange film, told in the plainest of styles, yet somehow managing to be haunting and oneiric. Clark would return to horror once more with his proto-slasher Black Christmas (1974), before hitting it big with the nostalgic teen sex comedy Porky’s (1982). 

Summary: Bob Clark’s sort-of vampire sort-of zombie film comes with a smart and accusatory subtext about America’s disengagement from its own wars.

© Anton Bitel