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Monday, June 28, 2010

Deathdream (1974) review


Richard Backus (Andy Brooks), John Morley (Charles Brooks), Lynn Carlin (Christine Brooks), Jane Daly (Joanne), Anya Ormsby (Cathy Brooks), Henderson Forsythe (Dr. Allman)

Directed by Bob Clark

The Short Version: Terrifying and vividly engrossing Vietnam era zombie horror picture from celebrated director, the late Bob Clark. It's an unusual and wonderfully skin crawling horror experience punctuated by thought provoking social commentary akin to the best of George Romero.

Charles and Christine Brooks receive a telegram one evening that their son Andy has been killed in Vietnam. Christine, refusing to believe that her son is dead, wishes for his safe return. Later that night, Andy comes home much to everyone's astonishment. But something is not quite right with Andy. Bodies begin turning up drained of blood and Andy seems to be a different person from when he left.

Bob Clark's second venture into horror territory is a notch above his previous zombie picture. It's another zombie movie, but one with a bit more to chew on cinematically speaking. Most of the crew and actors from that CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS return here as well. It was saddled with several titles over the years such as DEAD OF NIGHT (the one on this print), DEATHDREAM, THE NIGHT WALK and THE NIGHT ANDY CAME HOME.

Alan Ormsby's script is infused with social commentary on the situation in Vietnam. Much is made of various families wondering if, or when their loved ones will return home. One of the most notable parallels with Vietnam is that many of the survivors were changed individuals once they made it back to the USA; cold and detached from society, many underwent therapy in an attempt to "return" to normalcy. Once Andy comes home, he is a totally different person. It's as if an alien has taken over his body.

But something more sinister is going on here. Bodies begin turning up, including a dead truck driver found the following morning after Andy's surprise appearance. Christine is so enamored by her sons arrival, she is oblivious to the bewildering and horrifying things that are going on around her. Only Andy's father, Charles, realizes something is wrong with his son. This is made especially evident in a scene where Andy maliciously kills the family dog in front of the neighborhood kids(!)

As the film progresses, Andy becomes more and more detached from his family save for his mother and even at this point, she knows what has happened but because of the strong bond to her son, she refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong. He also begins wearing gloves and sunglasses by the point he meets up with his old girlfriend, Joanne. After their first meeting since his homecoming, she feels a coldness from him and is noticeably frightened of him. This comes to a head during the violent conclusion when they and another couple go to the drive-in where the exploitation aspects of the film take over. The final scene is both saddening and disturbing in an EC comics sort of way.

Bob Clark truly delivered one of the best horror movies of the 1970's. Reminiscent of Romero's work, the social commentary is subtly balanced with the horror trappings. The symbolism of the Vietnam war offers thought provoking parallels. So much is left to the imagination, although there are a few brief bursts of shocking violence such as the death of a small dog, a man ran over by a car and a nasty reveal during the finale. Still, one script addition is pretty obvious. DEATHDREAM is essentially an even darker reworking of W. W. Jacobs short story, 'The Monkey's Paw'. With slight variance, that tale, just like Clark's movie, preaches the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for."

Again, as in CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, the make-up is very good as are the few gore shots. This was Savini's first solo outing and he shows signs of where he'll be in a few years. Savini, himself, a photographer in Vietnam, channels much of what he saw in that war and utilized those shocking images in his vast special effects filmography. The score is from the same composer who did the one for Clark's BLACK CHRISTMAS and this one is just as bone-chillingly nerve wracking as that films disturbing soundtrack.

I remember seeing this movie the first time on local channel 48. It never stood out to me then, but later on, I rented it under the DEATHDREAM title and really enjoyed the film a lot. The DVD from Blue Underground is a lovingly compiled package loaded down with features including featurettes, two info-loaded commentaries, the original script and a voluminous gallery section among other things. Released under a handful of titles, DEATHDREAM never made much of a dent, but is remembered by a small, but strong contingent of cult fans. Never boring, it's a slow creeper that benefits from some choice performances and several sincerely spooky moments that will likely raise more than a few goosebumps.

This review is representative of the Blue Underground special edition DVD


Carl (ILHM) said...

This was another film I didnt appreciate as much initially, but on the second viewing I was able to identify the subtexts came to really like the film a lot. It is the preferable allusion to post-Vietnam horrors over CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE and COMBAT SHOCK, only because COMBAT SHOCK is such a devastating and depressing watch.

venoms5 said...

This is one of my favorite horror movies of the 1970's. Truly an underrated gem. I was ecstatic when I read BU was releasing this in a special edition. It was so cool to see it looking that good on DVD. There needs to be a book on Bob Clark's movies. Not just his horror pictures, but everything.

I hear his MURDER BY DECREE is the best adaptation of Jack the Ripper. It's still sitting on my shelf. Might have to check it out sometime this weekend if possible.

Jay Shatzer said...

Bob Clark is amazing and Deathdream is definitely one of his best. Stands right up there with Black Christmas and Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. There's just something special about this flick that I never could put my finger on, but it stays with you for a long time. Great atmosphere and nice review.

venoms5 said...

I love this movie, too, Jay. One of the best of the 1970's in my opinion. Not only does it tell a creepy little horror story, but it also draws clear parallels with the war in Vietnam at the time. It's a shame this one doesn't get more discussion.

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