Take even a quick glance at the news, with revelations that the IRS has been targeting certain groups on a regular basis, that the NSA has been targeting, well, the rest of us, and with the man who dropped a dime on government wrongdoing now being hunted like a dog around the globe, you might get the idea that if Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, or any of the other founding fathers were to return today they might think our Fourth of July celebrations were nothing more than a cruel, ironic hoax. In 1972, as the war in Vietnam was plodding on to lord knows what point, director Bob Clark and writer Alan Ormsby said pretty much the same thing in Deathdream (aka Dead of Night), but so quietly and so creepily that most audiences didn’t even notice.
No miniature flags are waved in Deathdream, no parades pass by, no patriotic speeches are given and no Sousa marches are played. There is no indication at all that the film takes place anywhere near the Fourth of July. But there is a picnic in one scene, and in the opening shots a few bombs do burst in air (real ones, not fireworks), so that’s good enough for me.
After a brief and confusing prologue in which we see a group of soldiers gunned down in the jungle, we cut to your typical Middle American middle class household, in which a typical Middle American family (headed by The Godfather’s John Marley, the guy who slept with the horse, as Charlie Brooks) is sitting around the dinner table talking about their son Andy and when he might be coming home from the war. As per tradition, that’s when the ominous knock comes on the front door and the official telegram arrives with the news that Andy’s been killed.
Being the fretful, high-strung type, Andy’s mother Christine (Lynn Carlin) refuses to accept this, insisting Andy is still alive. And wouldn’t you know it (well, you would if you knew “The Monkey’s Paw” was the film’s original inspiration), later that night Andy himself (future soap opera star Richard Backus in his feature debut) shows up in the flesh on the front step. Everyone’s real real happy about this, for a little while anyway.
Now, in the early ‘70s a number of soldiers were beginning to return home from Southeast Asia feeling angry and bitter. Still others, after all they’d seen, had shut their emotions off completely, and still others were returning home dead. Andy finds himself in the uncomfortable position of returning home all three. I’m not really giving anything away with that last one, though it does take a while for his parents and the other townsfolk to catch on that he’s, y’know, a zombie. (No explanation is given for this; it’s just one of those things that happen sometimes.) He doesn’t look like a zombie, after all. He’s just quiet and antisocial and he’s lost some weight. His dad keeps insisting all Andy needs is a few days to adjust. But after a few days pass and Andy’s still less than his regular old chummy, back-slapping self, his dad starts getting suspicious, especially after Andy strangles the family dog and a couple locals start turning up dead. His mom, though, is absolutely convinced that everything’s just fine. Hear me? Everything’s JUST FINE. He’s the same old Andy he always was, who never ate or drank anything, never had a heartbeat, and always used to strangle dogs.
Given that he’s not required to show any emotion or do much of anything apart from sit in a rocking chair for much of the film, Backus gives a remarkable and disturbing performance, speaking his lines like the HAL 9000 and making no effort to hide the cauldron of hatred just behind his eyes as he glowers at everyone around him. Apart from the brief battle scene at the beginning and a brief car chase near the end, it’s not exactly one of those bang-zoom zombie pictures. In fact no flesh is eaten, though Andy does need regular injections of fresh blood in order to keep himself from rotting away, a struggle he starts to lose in the final third of the film. The film’s climax, as genre-contrary as it is, remains a quiet whopper that gets me every time.
After making their debut with the zombie comedy Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Clark (Black Christmas, Porky’s, A Christmas Story) and writer/director/fx man Ormsby (who also did the makeup here with his new assistant Tom Savini) decided they wanted to make a more serious film, and so crafted a quiet, somber, and melancholy horror movie with a tone and pacing reminiscent of George Romero’s Martin from a few years later. They also used the genre as a way to disguise a metaphor for the kind of devastating emotional effects warfare has on the men who are sent to fight. Even Andy’s blood injections are a subtle or not so subtle reference to the drug use among soldiers and the thousands who were coming home addicted.
There have been a number of films since Deathdream with a similar “dead soldier returns home” storyline. In the early ‘90s, William Lustig and Larry Cohen’s Uncle Sam used a vengeful soldier killed during the first Gulf War to satirize overbearing gung-ho patriotism. In the ‘80s there was a French film about a supposedly dead soldier returning home after WWII, but all that went to prove is that the French, like the English, simply shouldn’t try to make zombie films. Even if it wasn’t the first film to be made about Vietnam, in 1972 Deathdream was a very early, atmospheric and unique entry that never resorted to the typical clichés of either jingoistic or anti-war films. In fact it doesn’t have to be seen as a war movie at all (even if it is). You wanna see it as just another zombie picture, well, there you go. In a smart move they may not have recognized as a smart move at the time, the word “Vietnam” never even appears in the film and politics is never discussed, making it possible to apply Deathdream to any stupid and pointless war of your choice.
So as you slobber up the potato salad, casually toss firecrackers at the annoying neighbor kids, ooh and aah the fireworks in celebration of our independence from at least British tyranny, be sure to pause a moment to remember all those hundreds of thousands of young men and women since 1776 who have been sent overseas to fight for, well, something or other, only to come home all zombified.
Den of Geek Rating: 3.5 Out of 5 Stars