Directed by: Bob Clark
Written by: Alan Ormsby
Produced by: Bob Clark, Peter James and John Trent
Reviewed by: Brett H.
“They actually told me my son was dead.”
Bob Clark’s following as a director has really grown since his films began hitting DVD and have become accessible to legions of fans everywhere. With movies such as Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and Deranged sharing shelf space alongside his classic, Black Christmas, it’s fitting that Blue Underground would dig deep into the well and release an unknown gem in Deathdream. Inspired by the Vietnam War’s effect on society and the families that were ravaged by it, Bob Clark broke new ground in being one of the first people to tackle the subject in a film. Canada was the place of refuge for many draft dodgers (on the flip side, some 30 000 Canadians volunteered to go to Vietnam to fight) and there were anti-war rallies at universities all over the country, much the same as in the U.S. With the country being caught between a rock and a hard place from a foreign policy standpoint regarding participation in the war, (Lester B. Pearson was Canadian Prime Minister from 1963-1968 and played a key role in the birth of both NATO and the UN), it seems fitting Toronto-based Quadrant Films would produce this film. Although it hasn’t received the sizable following that some of his other efforts have been graced with, it’s certainly not because of the film itself.
The Brooks family sit down to enjoy a meal together, but as it was the night before and many nights before that, their thoughts aren’t so much on the food they’re going to be eating rather than a person. Charles (John Marley) and Christine (Lynn Carlin) Brooks have their daughter’s company to enjoy, but their son Andy (Richard Backus) can’t be with them. He’s gone away, fighting a war (which is never stated, but obviously it is Vietnam) for reasons his family can’t agree upon. His father would like to believe that Andy joined to not be a sissy boy and fight for his country, whereas his mother believes that Andy went to war to please his father, a war vet himself. Just after the roast beef has been carved, a knock is heard at the door and the family gathers to receive a telegraph. Their son, Andy, adored by family and the community alike, will not be returning home.
Stricken by grief, Andy’s mother takes it the hardest. She never could come to terms with the situation her son was in and even during the prayer before the meal, everything was directed towards Andy, repeating how he promised to come home. Meanwhile, a soldier is hitchhiking and has been picked up by a kind trucker in need of company and that man eventually makes his way to the Brooks family doorstep… and into their house. Armed with a six-shooter, Charles goes and checks out the situation and is in awe at what he sees. Before his eyes stands his beloved son, Andy. The family is ecstatic and tells Andy that they were sent a telegraph that night saying he was dead, to which Andy replies, “I was.” The next day the trucker is found with a slashed throat and it becomes apparent that the Andy that went to war is not the same Andy that has returned.
I was familiar with Deathdream before I even knew the title existed. I had the pleasure of viewing (and taping onto a VHS) this film on Canadian TV under the title, The Night Andy Came Home (it was also known as Dead of Night), which bears a strange resemblance to a certain tagline of the greatest slasher of all time, Halloween. That’s not the only resemblance to John Carpenter’s classic that this film has, and it’s apparent from watching Black Christmas in addition to Deathdream that the people saying that Carp borrowed many ideas for his most revered horror epic from Bob Clark’s ideas and directing methods have a strong point. POV shots as well as outside scenes of the Brooks family house have that distinct feel, and this is coming from a film made in 1972. Much like Night of the Living Dead and other social-conscious movies of this era, Deathdream has gotten quite the reputation for being a landmark film in horror cinema, from those who have seen it at least.
Andy returns from Vietnam as a zombie (with a touch of non-traditional vampirism), essentially. He rarely speaks and has unmotivated, he doesn’t even want anyone knowing that he’s back. It’s a reflection of mental struggles that a soldier would have faced at this time and how although they’ve returned from Vietnam, the things they witnessed can never leave them and nothing can be normal again. Seeing as the acting is generally good, John Marley’s performance as the father especially comes to mind (not to mention Richard Backus as Andy), the portrayal of a family trying to cope with the potential loss of a loved one really hits home. Comparisons of the World War II generation and Vietnam generation are brought about; Andy is sensitive and more geared toward his mother, of which is totally against the manly man ways his father was raised with and subsequently lives his life by. Charles Brooks rules with an iron fist when he has to, but he genuinely loves his son but he realizes the situation he’s in since he has war experience as well. Andy’s mother is a different story, as she simply can’t quit harping on the situation and her constant wishes brings a sort of Monkey’s Paw aspect to the story. Her son comes back, but the price is high.
Andy rots more and more as he clings to his life after death by injecting the blood of his victims into his body, but even that doesn’t sustain him for long. He basically remains zombie-fied just long enough to please his mother and fulfill his promise to her; he does indeed come home. As he goes further and further into his odd state (and sure fate of dying once again), he begins to decay rapidly and look something like Regan from The Exorcist and it is pretty creepy. The film features the debut of special effects master, Tom Savini and the makeup is a reflection of the true talent he would demonstrate further on down the road. A realistic tie-in is the fact that Tom Savini was actually a photographer in Vietnam, so surely the sentiments expressed in Deathdream hit close to home with him. Andy’s choice of victims is a bit off the wall, but one could think of the blood he takes from people as a zombie-like form of heroin (some reports say 15% of Americans serving in Vietnam were hooked on the substance). To get the fix the addict needs, they’ll turn on nearly anyone, which is demonstrated in the film.
The ending to this film is the real treasure, truly thought provoking and sad and it appropriately begins to climax at a drive-in theatre. One of the scenes I enjoyed most was of a rocking chair continuing to rock after Andy had gotten off of it. It establishes the feeling that although Andy physically was on that chair, he was far, far away in mind and spirit; a common trait of ones that have experienced such tragedy. Blue Underground’s DVD is really great, the film looks better than ever before and is loaded to the brim with features, commentaries, interviews, extended endings, alternate title screens and more. I actually had a version of the film (the one I recorded), which had a title screen that is not present in the alternate openings on the DVD, too bad I taped over it. Bob Clark will be sorely missed in the world of cinema after his life was tragically taken when he has killed by a drunk driver, and those familiar with his works will without a doubt consider Deathdream one of his finest moments. A Canadian classic (even if it isn’t distinctly Canuck), Deathdream is worth coming home for. Buy it!
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