(While Deathdream is an evocative title, Bob Clark’s chosen title, Dead of Night actually makes more sense. However, since Blue Underground has released the film as Deathdream, this is how it shall be referred to here.)
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is a generally well-remembered cult film I rather dislike. I find Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby’s script arch and theatrical. Rather that criticize Clark and Ormsby’s earlier film I can instead confidently say it’s a film that I just don’t get. The Clark-directed Deathdream on the other hand, is not at all the mannered and decidedly-hammy horror-comedy CSPWDT is. While a few moments of witty banter remind of Ormsby’s comic impulse, this is a sober and straight-faced affair.
In a set-up which recalls Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, soldier Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is killed in battle in Vietnam. With this knowledge, the audience follows Andy on his journey home, looking very much alive. As to how Andy made it to North America is a mystery; we meet him hitchhiking. Andy’s folks are quite shocked to see their son, whom they believed to be dead. When Andy shows up in the middle of the night, the entire family wakes to greet him: father Charlie (veteran actor John Marley), mother Christine (Lynn Carlin), and sister Cathy (Alan’s then-wife Anya Ormsby). When Charlie exclaims “We thought you were dead” Andy coldly responds “I was.” Thinking this a joke, the family laughs nervously. Respecting Andy’s wishes, the family keeps his return a secret, and accommodates his every wish. As happy as they are to see him, they soon realize he isn’t the same old Andy; he’s changed.
Considering horror’s broad scope, the family melodrama is a relatively unexplored avenue. It’s practically novel to find a horror film in which a family is given full attention (or at least a horror film in which the family is not comprised of cannibals). While Deathdream is a film with various attentions, the potential for fracture in any family’s stability is a strong theme. Charlie finds out early on that Andy killed the truck driver who drove him home, yet can’t bring himself to notify the police. Charlie, an alcoholic, is accused by Christine of being a bullying, inattentive father. While there is little evidence of this, there may be a reason that Charlie turns against Andy while his wife is still in denial about Andy’s crime. For an unknown reason, Andy needs living blood to survive. Besides this, he seems completely emotionless, aside from a black sense of humor and a sick feeling of pity for those around him. In one disturbing scene, Andy strangles the family dog Butchy to death in front of neighborhood kids. From here mother and father become divided not only because of Andy, but against each other as well. While her character is never fully developed, sister Cathy seems to be the only character with any sense, the family member most unaffected by sham reasoning and willful ignorance. After Andy kills several more family acquaintances, Christine still stands by his side, even though Andy cares nothing for her.
The acting is uniformly great here. Both Marley and Carlin are Oscar-nominated actors, and all the supporting roles are great. Even Alan Ormsby and Bob Clark appear as extended cast, and both do a fine job. Backus isn’t asked to do much, but he does it well. Originally a theater actor, it seems Backus has spent the last 30 years acting in soap operas and soft-core porn. I’m quite surprised his career went in this direction, as he is a commanding lead presence.
In a final sequence potent with dread, Cathy tries to normalize Andy by bringing him on a double date with her boyfriend Bob (Michael Mazes) and Andy’s ex-girlfriend Joanne (Jane Daly). A disastrous trip to the drive-in seems to surpass even the final act in Bogdanovich’s Targets. Andy by this point seems to be decomposing, and fresh blood will no longer sustain him. Tom Savini worked make-up for the first time on Deathdream, and while the gore effects are minimal, they are convincing. Savini would later claim that he identified with the film, as he himself had been in Vietnam as a photographer.
Setting a scene at a blacked drive-in is in keeping with the dark, moody composition found throughout. “Dead of night” refers not only to a specific moment (Andy’s return), but the emotional and existential tone of the film as well. This is a dark film compositionally because it’s a dark film thematically. Bob Clark kept things dark in Black Christmas, but allowed strategic lighting as well; Deathdream is a film where Andy spends most of his time literally sitting in a darkened room. Also fully dark is Carl Zittrer’s fantastic score. The musique-concrete Zittrer would perfect on Black Christmas he tests here: layered voice, dense clouds of reverb, treated piano. In fact, Zittrer remained the go-to guy for both Ormsby and Clark on many of their later films.
While Deathdream may be dark, its darkness doesn’t come from a strong ontological position, it comes from an era-specific political ideology. The anti-war message of the film is unstated but read loud-and-clear. While it stands as a competent thriller, Deathdream is really an examination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Andy sits alone, hides behind an affected macho mask, keeps his family and friends at a safe distance, and often acts recklessly and violently. As it was in ‘72 (the year Deathdream was filmed), it is in '08. By taking a non-partisan stance on a measurable consequence, Ormsby effectively presents the breakdown of one family unit, via the destruction of one man’s soul, as a real consequence of war. With his sure hand, Clark masterfully gives style to Ormsby’s substance. A genre masterpiece.