Anyone who’s ever lost someone they love--be it a parent, lover, or beloved family dog--knows what it’s like to dream that he or she or it is still happily breathing as if nothing final ever happened. Bob Clark’s Deathdream (aka Dead of Night) knows that, and like many a similar tale before it (some even also called Dead of Night), the film taps into the innate sadness of mourning.
With skin peeling.
Quick Plot: Andy is a soldier in Vietnam meeting a quick end as a sniper bullet takes his life. Back home, his overbearing mother Christine begs him to come back.
Of course, those who've read The Monkey’s Paw or seen that Simpsons episode know that such a supernatural second lease can’t be good. Despite his mother’s happiness, Andy’s father Charles and sister Cathy can’t look past the utter oddness of Andy’s behavior. Even the family dog isn’t comfortable in his presence, and if that's not a sign that something is amiss, I'm not a crazy cat lady.
There’s also the small matter of a dead truck driver and family physician, both of whom saw Andy just before their grisly ends. The real strain, however, seems to be on Charles and Christine’s marriage, something that clearly came second on Christine’s list of priorities.
Deathdream was directed by Black Christmas’ Bob Clark with a screenplay by his Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things cohort Alan Ormsby. There’s nothing overly revolutionary about Deathdream’s story, but the Clark/Ormsby approach is something truly special. Rather than focus on the supernatural, Deathdream is far more concerned with its characters, namely, Christine and Charles.
Played by veteran actors John Marley and Lynn Carlin, Charles and Christine are the real heart of this film, a middle-aged married couple who might be more in love with other things. For Christine, it’s Andy, her favorite child and blatant obsession. Charles seems a little more balanced, although one gets the feeling that his monkey’s paw wish would be more aimed at resurrecting his beloved dog than wife. Lost in the middle is their daughter Cathy, a nice enough young woman who watches her family fall apart but doesn’t seem important enough to any of them to make a difference.
Deathdream is a sad, haunting little film that finds its true horror in the utter devastation of a family torn apart. We don’t know Andy before his enlistment, but an awkward double date is enough to show us how much everything has changed (and not JUST because, you know, he’s a talking zombie in a turtleneck). Deathdream isn’t a an out-and-out anti-war film, but the sentiment does come across in a subtle, never forced manner. The tragedy of the film stems more from a woman’s inability to accept her son’s death, but to ignore the implications certainly misses some of the deeper points.
Also, the film is FREAKY.
Though there’s never any doubt that Andy has come back as something of a monster, the slow reveal of just how awful his condition is comes across quite effectively. With huge glasses and a Joker grin plastered upon his pale face, Andy seems like a walking vampire in the sun. It’s incredibly creepy, and yet once we learn a little more about Andy, made much more sad.
For such a character-based genre film like Deathdream, it’s a strange but kind of perfect choice to open so quickly. Within seconds, Andy is shot, killed, and sent home. The economy with which Clark and Ormsby establish the basic plot is impressive and smart
I suppose youngest child Cathy gets a little lost in the shuffle of, you know, having her older brother killed in the Vietnam War then return in talking zombie form.
Never marry a man who can’t carve a roast beef
Everyone changes eventually
World War II was quite the war!
Deathdream is a hearty recommend but only when you’re in a particular mood for melancholy horror. The film takes its time in showing the unraveling of the Brooks family, and while there ARE some shocking moments, the film is more eerily sad than actually scary. Pour some wine, grab a nearby household pet, and watch Deathdream (currently on Netflix Instant) knowing everything is okay.