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)
The name Bob Clark is not often tossed around in conversations about the world’s most influential filmmakers. But, before he was wowing audiences with his Baby Geniuses opus (1999, 2004), Clark 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 other nostalgic, coming-of-age stories. Before that, he set the standard for teen sex comedies with Porky's (1982). Before that, he created one of the earliest, genre-defining slasher flicks, Black Christmas (1974). But I’d argue that his most important contribution to filmmaking was the comparatively obscure Deathdream (aka: Dead of Night,1974), which was the first major horror picture to deal with the consequences of the Vietnam War.
Deathdream was Clark’s second feature-length film and his second jab at subverting the themes of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), following Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (co-written/directed with Alan Ormsby, 1973). Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things was a sort of spoof, in which a pretentious hippie theatre troupe accidentally resurrects and is killed by flesh-eating zombies. It had a socio-political bite, but not on the apocalyptic scale of Romero’s film. Deathdream, on the other hand, might not match Night of the Living Dead’s scope, but it takes a sincere approach to allegorical horror.
Clark excels most when he’s exploring this type of dark emotional drama – even his comedies are dripping with cruelty and moral indifference. While many of these movies (even the Baby Genius films) fit firmly in the realms of exploitation cinema, Deathdream’s serious treatment of family drama and somber, dream-like atmosphere uses Clark’s typical sense of dread to strengthen the central allegory. In the context of the story, Andy is some kind of undead monster – an unknowable supernatural terror – but Clark’s stylishly bleak style makes it quite easy to reframe (most of) Andy’s actions 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 (the Tom Savini-assisted murders are genuinely shocking) probably should’ve led to a cold audience reception, but Deathdream actually enjoyed enduring success (comparatively speaking – it was not an immediate hit when released), which signified a public need to parse the post-traumatic stresses of ‘Nam.
The screenplay is credited to Clark’s constant collaborator Alan Ormsby and his story 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. This version makes odd pauses for jokes between dramatic and scary moments and is populated by Clark/Ormsby-esque quirky characters, but this central, sobering portrayal of parental grief – or, rather, familial grief, since Andy’s sister (played by Anya Liffey) is an important component – anchors what might have been opportunistic political exploitation. 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 and protects him beyond all rationality. Even those quirky supporting characters actually manage to solidify the tragedy, because their inappropriate jokes paint a larger picture of an ignorant homefront.
Deathdream is among the most important independent horror films of the 1970s and is, arguably, director Bob Clark and writer Alan Ormsby’s best film. It also pairs well with 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 as well as cinematic techniques during their murder set-pieces.
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 has remastered the original 35mm negative in 2K. The footage is presented in 1.85:1, 1080p video. Cinematographer Jack McGowan, who also shot Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and Clark were both quite fond of dark photography and this caused problems for other home video transfers. This remaster’s key improvements pertain to overall detail, which helps sharpen edges and strengthen texture, but the tightened element delineation during the darkest moments might be its greatest strength. The dynamic range is strong without hampering the gritty, melancholic look of the movie. Grain is reasonably heavy, but not black and “mosquito-y,” like the weaker SD versions. I don’t want to oversell it, because there are still plenty of fuzzy wide angle shots and print damage artifacts, but, honestly, until now, I had assumed that Deathdream was shot on 16mm, instead of 35mm. Colors are muted with consistent skin tones, greens, and other neutral hues. The only issue here is the way that the color saturation occasionally pulses during brighter sequences.
This is the “most complete version” of the film available, which means there are a whopping 15 seconds of extra footage not seen on DVD or VHS.
Deathdream is presented in its original mono sound and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The dynamically limited and thinly-mixed single-channel track does sound shrill at times, but there are no notable issues with distortion at high volumes. Dialogue is clear, if not a bit ‘crispy,’ and the minimal sound effects settle nicely alongside Carl Zittrer’s music. 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.
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.
A Recollection with Star Anya Liffey and Writer/Make-Up Artist Alan Ormsby (29:29, HD) – In the first of the new featurettes, 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), 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.
Alternate opening titles (3:28, HD)
Gary Swanson screen tests (12:31, HD) – Swanson was originally cast as Andy and can still be seen during the opening scene.
Alan Ormsby’s student film (10:12, HD) – Snippets from this black & white short about a white woman who falsely accuses a black man of assaulting her can also be seen in the Ormsby/Liffey interview.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.