I could easily dedicate this blog to just “post-Night of The Living Dead zombie films of the 1970s” as the genre was simply flooded after the cult film success of the Romero classic that defined the word zombie for decades to come. In fact to show how niche the genre got, just last week I reviewed the sublime and campy 1977 underwater Nazi zombie film by Ken Weiderhorn, “Shockwaves,” about a group of extremely loyal soldiers (they’re dead) of Adolf who still live and fight for the Third Reich while vacationing in the Caribbean. Someone else who definitely took inspiration from Romero was director Bob Clark, who knocked out a couple of rare underrated films in that genre, 1972’s “Dead of Night” (Deathdream) and 1973’s “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things,” before bizarrely going off to make the seminal holiday film, “A Christmas Story” and the equally seminal but repulsive ten sex comedy, “Porky’s.”
“Deathdream” could easily be lumped into another genre that was also quite overloaded during this time period, the misery the returning Vietnam veteran film. The intense drama of those Vietnam era films is very much in place in “Deathdream,” with the caliber of acting from two of its leads, John Marley and Lynn Carlin, who were last seen together in Cassavetes “Faces” carrying much of the sadness of this horrific and well thought out film. It is the story of a US Soldier, Andy Brooks (Richard Backus), who is shot and killed in Vietnam, and as he lies dying, he hears his mother’s plea to “come back home.” The family receives Andy’s official death notice from another soldier, but his mom Christine (Lynn Carlin) still believes in her heart that the message is a lie and someday her son will come home. Unfortunately, Christine is right and Andy is on his way home, but Andy has been changed by the war; he rarely speaks, and for some unknown reason, he murders and drains the blood out of a truck driver who has kindly given Andy a lift home.
Andy sneaks into his family’s house soon after the killing, and after being warmly greeted by his family, Andy is still very quiet, avoiding seeing anyone outside of the immediate family and exhibiting small moments of rage, which seems just about right for a soldier just recently removed from combat. The next day, while lounging outside, Andy is greeted by the mailman, a longtime friend of the family, who gleefully explains how his experiences during World War Two were vastly different than Vietnam. This enrages Andy, and he finds refuge in his old bedroom where he pathologically rocks in rocking chair all day and night, drawing the concern of his father Charlie (John Marley) who will also recount how he never behaved like that after his service in World War Two. It is in these scenes where Bob Clark reminds the viewer of the old adage that was once uttered by the head of the Veterans Administration; “When a soldier returned from World War Two, everyone bought him a drink. When a soldier came back from Korea, he bought his own drink. And when a solider came back from Vietnam, he has to buy everyone else a drink.” Even though the town is adorned in flags and patriotic symbols, there is little patience for the PTSD exhibited by the soldiers who served in Vietnam, and in “Deathdream,” the PTSD is transformed into a need for Andy to drain the blood from the living in order to continue being part of this society that may not have time for him. More than most political metaphors that the zombie genre has carried over the years, this one really hits home.
Though there are a few scenes where a kind of comic relief is put in, the overall mood of “Deathdream” is dire and extremely sad. Attempts to reintegrate Andy into a world that no longer exists for him by his family are met with brutally violent ends, physically manifesting any soldier’s genuine contempt for those around him who have no desire to understand his pain and sacrifice during that unpopular war. The unrelenting and tragic end of this film, involving Andy’s parents and sister, show a commitment by Clark to illustrate the level of impact that war takes on a solider and those around him, even when the soldier is met by the best intentions of loved ones who even offer psychological counseling as the Brooks family offers their son Andy. “Deathdream” though brutal, hammers home the sad truth that if your son were even able to come home, he may never actually be home again.
Deathdream Trailer from 1972:
As stated earlier, what truly pulls “Deathdream” together are the performances of Carlin, Marley, and Backus who take a minimal amount of dialog top help create a terse, heartfelt film that makes for a very necessary statement piece on the particular plight of Vietnam veterans. “Deathdream” succeeds by using grotesque horror methods to illustrate the struggle of Vietnam vets in ways that even award winning films like “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” sometime fail to execute.
Director Bob Clark showed a clear talent for being able to draw top flight performances out of his actors in his early career. Several years after “Deathdream, Clark would direct legendary actor, Jack Lemmon, to an Oscar nominated performance in the equally forgotten 1980 drama, “Tribute.” It is a pity that the end of Clark’s career would be filled with the likes of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rhinestone,” and “Baby Geniuses,” as there was a true maverick talent that seemed to be destroyed after the unbelievable financial success of his “Porky’s films. Sadly, Bob Clark was killed in 2007 in a car accident with his son Ariel, a tragic end to a talent who for at least a decade was making interesting films, both in and out of the Hollywood system.
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