top of page
  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

Deathdream 4K UHD Review

Blue Underground

4K UHD Release: May 21, 2024

Video: 1.85:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color

Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Run Time: 88:28

Director: Bob Clark

Note: This is a new review, but I ended up recycling a lot of ideas from my original Deathdream and Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things Blu-ray/4K reviews. If you’re only curious about the upgrade in video quality from the Blu-ray to 4K UHD, please skip to the Video section. Content exclusive to this collection is highlighted in red.

Grief-stricken suburban parents (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) refuse to accept the news that their son, Andy (Richard Backus), has been killed in Vietnam. Andy returns home soon after, but something may be horribly wrong. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)

Despite the enormous impact of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombie fiction took years, at least until the release of his second apocalyptic opus, Dawn of the Dead (1978), to fully embrace the mechanics of his particular living-dead mythology. A small contingent of films – such as Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death (French: Les Raisins de La Mort, 1978), Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead movies (1972-75), and Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Italian: Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti; Spanish: No profanar el sueño de los muertos; aka: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, 1974) – embraced gory flesh-eating antics, but more filmmakers were interested in expanding Romero’s idea of contagious psychosis, which they connected to hot-ticket current events. Movies like David E. Durston’s I Drink Your Blood (1970), Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine (1978), Romero’s own The Crazies (1973), and David Cronenberg’s Shivers (aka: They Came from Within, 1975) explored zombism as the result of countercultural thought and psychedelic drug use or posed questions about the terrors of war, the ethics of medical experimentation, and the dangers of bureaucracy.

Writer and director pair Alan Ormsby and Bob Clark had the distinction of making two unique zombie movies during the early post-Night of the Living Dead era. The first was Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972), a snide, near-spoof of Night of the Living Dead that offered a satirical slant on the ways Romero’s film and his generation’s rhetoric changed monster movies. The second was a bleak allegorical drama called Deathdream (aka: Dead of Night, 1974) that, despite being a Canadian production, was the first major horror picture to deal with the consequences of the Vietnam War. Both films use Night of the Living Dead as a jumping off point and both indulge in E.C. Comic-inspired irony, but they are otherwise strikingly different in their approach. 

Clark was an easily overlooked, but enormously influential filmmaker who had a truly unlikely run of cult hits throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Working from a book by Jean Shepherd (In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, 1966), he created the holiday-themed cult movie in A Christmas Story (1983). That film now plays for 24-hours straight on American television every year and its formula has become the basis for similarly nostalgic coming-of-age stories. Before that, he set the standard for teen sex comedies with Porky's (1982). Before that, he and screenwriter Roy Moore created arguably the earliest and one of the most genre-defining slasher flicks in Black Christmas (1974). Despite his penchant for comedy, Clark excels when he’s exploring dark emotional drama and raw exploitation concepts. Even his comedies tend to be underscored by cruelty and moral indifference. 

As a straight-faced tragedy, Deathdream is somewhat rare among Clark’s films (very nearly every one of his post-Murder by Decree [1979] movies are comedies). Its somber, dream-like atmosphere only strengthens the director’s patented sense of dread and, in turn, strengthen the central allegory. In the context of the story, Andy is some kind of unknowable, undead monster of supernatural origin, but the bleak tone makes it easy to reframe most of what he does as the actions of a disturbed mind. He’s wracked by PTSD and his violence is driven by the penance he thinks he is owed for his sacrifices (he shouts “I died for you – why shouldn't you return the favor?” during the first on-screen murder). This unrelenting grimness, coupled with the painful relevance of the subject matter and a lack of common horror movie thrills (I suppose that the Tom Savini-assisted murders are genuinely shocking) probably should’ve led to a cold audience reception, but Deathdream ended up enjoying slow-building and enduring success (comparatively speaking). It also played a part in signifying a cultural need to parse the post-traumatic stresses of the Vietnam War.

Ormsby’s screenplay is a variation on W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, a 1902 short in which a mummified monkey’s hand grants wishes with horrific/ironic consequences (in one of this disc’s special features, Ormsby claims that he also based his script on Irwin Shaw’s 1936 play, Bury the Dead). The concept was the basis of everything from Tales from the Crypt comics and episodes of The Twilight Zone to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (pub: 1983) and the Wishmaster movies (1997, 1999, 2001, 2002). However, Deathdream stands out as one of the most literal adaptations due to its use of grieving parents, which mirror the original story’s final spooky moral.

Deathdream makes odd pauses for jokes between dramatic and disturbing moments and is populated by Clark & Ormsby’s usual mix of quirky characters, but the central, sobering portrayal of parental grief – or, rather, familial grief, since Andy’s sister (Anya Liffey) is an important component – anchors what might have been simply another opportunistic exploitation film. During conversation, Andy’s family vocalizes the real-world’s angst and confusion when Vietnam vets began returning from the unpopular, unjust, and particularly brutal war. His father is incapable of understanding that his son’s war experiences are different than his own in WWII and keeps spouting platitudes about masculinity, while his mother can’t fathom her baby’s emotional break, cracks, and irrationally defends his behavior. Even those quirky supporting characters actually manage to solidify the tragedy, because their inappropriate jokes paint a larger picture of an ignorant homefront. 

Deathdream pairs well with George Romero’s Martin (1978) – a similarly understated and mournful portrayal of a young man who may or may not be an ancient vampire. The two films share themes (mostly of alienation, but also vampirism as a metaphor for drug addiction), as well as cinematic techniques and style of murder set-pieces.

Further listening:

  • Bill Ackerman and I covered Deathdream on the second part of Genre Grinder’s first look at Alternative American Horror from the 1970s. Take a listen here!

  • Patrick also included it as one of the 101 ACTUAL Scariest Movie Moments. Listen to that one here!


Deathdream was released on US VHS by Gorgon Video under the title Death Dream (two words) and was relatively easy to find at mom & pop video stores. Later, Blue Underground released the first official widescreen DVD in 2004 and this remained the only version for quite some time. Blue Underground maintained release rights and remastered the original 35mm negative in 2K for the film’s first Blu-ray release. That was a very good transfer and, given the grittiness of the original material, I honestly assumed it was the best the film would ever look on home video and was somewhat skeptical when they announced a 4K UHD. Fortunately, this collection was made using yet another new remaster. It was scanned in 4K 16-bit from the original 35mm negative, meaning that both the 2160p UHD and the included 1080p BD (which will be sold separately as well) are upgrades on that already fantastic 2K restoration.

I cannot take accurate screencaps from a UHD, but I have included some comparison sliders from the 2024 Blu-ray (right) and the 2017 Blu-ray (left) to illustrate the changes from transfer to transfer. Specifically, the color tone is a little warmer and the palette is slightly more eclectic, but not at the risk of cinematographer Jack McGowan’s stark and gritty compositions. The 1080p screencaps also reveal the sometimes subtle difference in grain texture with the older transfer exhibiting more blotchy machine noise.

Some inherent flaws, such as amplified fuzz during the darkest sequences and inadvertent focus issues (there are a lot of tricky extreme close-ups and tight focus pulls that play havoc with clarity) are magnified by the increased clarity and higher resolution, but the overall look remains natural and filmic. The Dolby Vision upgrade, which cannot be seen in my caps, is relatively subtle, but makes a notable difference during sequences that were oppressively dark on VHS and DVD copies. Rather than brightening the entire image and sapping the intended bleak appearance, the HDR does a nice job boosting what limited lighting is available.


Deathdream is once again presented in its original mono sound and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The single-channel track is dynamically limited and a certain high volume shrillness remains from previous releases, but the louder environmental effects overlap neatly and there are no notable distortion issues at high volumes. Dialogue is clear and consistent, though a bit crispy at times. The sound floor dips low enough to cut the tails off of a handful of mumbly performances. Composer Carl Zittrer, who worked with Clark on seven different movies between Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and A Christmas Story, blends mournful string motifs, experimental vocal tracks, and standard-issue horror stings into a stark, but potent musical landscape, one which supports Clark’s eerie atmosphere. The music is often the loudest element and has a real richness, considering it’s not a stereo mix.


Disc 1 (4K UHD)

  • Commentary with co-producer/director Bob Clark – This commentary with the late director, moderated by David Gregory, was originally recorded for Blue Underground’s DVD. It’s a low-energy, but fact-filled affair, thanks to Gregory’s continued efforts as an interviewer.

  • Commentary with co-writer/make-up artist Alan Ormsby – The second track is also moderated by Gregory and was recorded for the BU DVD. It’s a bit more lively than the Clark track and, despite obvious overlap in subject matter, the differing point-of-view offers an alternate version of events. It’s too bad BU was unable to get both Clark and Ormsby on the same track, because they compliment each other nicely.

  • Commentary with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson – The first brand new extra is a commentary with the ever-popular team of Mondo Digital head Thompson and Howarth, author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015), who discuss the film’s rise in cult prominence, restoration improvements over the years, the careers of the major cast & crew members (with emphasis on Clark), other Monkey’s Paw adaptations, Deathdream’s main themes and connections to zombie cinema/fiction, other films that subvert American idealism, and connections to Romero’s Martin.

  • Dead of Night trailer

Disc 2 (Blu-ray)

  • Commentary with co-producer/director Bob Clark

  • Commentary with co-writer/make-up artist Alan Ormsby

  • Commentary with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson

  • The First Andy (12:23, HD) – In this new interview, actor Gary Swanson, who was replaced by Richard Backus after filming started and only appears in the pre-credit sequence, chats about his screen test (which is available on this disc), why he believes he was replaced, shooting the Vietnam War sequence, and his experience with the war as someone lucky enough to not have been drafted.

  • A Recollection with Star Anya Liffey and Writer/Make-Up Artist Alan Ormsby (29:29, HD) – Ormsby and his collaborator/ex talk about their early work, including footage from 8mm shorts, meeting Clark, the making of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Deathdream, and Deranged (co-directed by Ormsby and Jeff Gillen, 1974), and some of Ormsby’s post-movie-making endeavors.

  • Notes For A Homecoming (19:08, HD) – Carl Zittrer recalls his career as a composer and his contributions to Deathdream (which included finding the film’s producers).  

  • Flying Down To Brooksville (5:21, HD) – The final brand new Interview is a short piece of nostalgia with production manager John ‘Bud’ Cardos.

  • Tom Savini: The Early Years (10:00, SD) – An early career retrospective with the make-up effects master.

  • Deathdreaming (11:43, SD) – Lead actor Richard Backus talks about the casting process, Ormsby’s script, and working with Clark and the cast.

  • Gary Swanson screen tests (12:31, HD) – Again, Swanson was originally cast as Andy and can still be seen during the opening scene.

  • 3:14 (10:12, HD) – Snippets from Alan Ormsby’s black & white student short about a white woman who falsely accuses a black man of assaulting her can also be seen in the Ormsby/Liffey interview.

  • Alternate Deathdream opening titles (3:28, HD)

  • Dead of Night Trailer

  • Still galleries – Posters & ads, U.S. pressbook, publicity stills, behind-the-scenes, make-up effects, video, Alan Ormsby's movie monsters, and Alan Ormsby's creations

The images on this page are taken from the 2024 remaster BD – NOT THE 4K UHD – and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.



bottom of page