I love holiday horror films. To me, they demonstrate the genre's ongoing commitment to ruining even the happiest of occasions with visions of nightmarish terror. There was a time when Halloween was the only holiday associated with evil and darkness and that set it apart as the isolated capsule of fear. But then, one by one, the other, more joyful, holidays became targets for horror interpretations. It's gotten to the point that no festive celebration is without its own signature slasher or identifiable bloodbath.
So far we have rung in the new year with the immortally schlocky New Year's Evil, delivered a big heart-shaped massacre with My Bloody Valentine, had Mike Bracken transport us to the Emerald Isle for a St. Patty's Day feast of Dead Meat, and been not-so-terrified of the Easter Bunny-gone-wild flick Night of the Lepus. Now there are two holidays in May, but I thought covering the 1980 film Mother's Day was a bit too on-the-nose. Instead, I thought I would observe Memorial Day with a special horror nod to the armed forces. So as you prepare to sit poolside, ingest ample amounts of barbecue, and herald in the summer, take a moment to support our troops by watching Deathdream. Deathdream is the story of a young soldier named Andy who dies in Vietnam. Well, he dies in so much as he gets shot and his family receives a telegram that he has passed on. Much to their surprise, Andy shows up one night out of the blue alive and well...or alive anyway. Gradually, his family begins to notice some startling changes in Andy; not speaking much, forgetting his old friends and neighbors, and a violent mean streak. What happened to Andy while he was away? Was he better off dead?
Before I continue, a brief warning. I happen to think the ending of Deathdream is quite shocking and was more effective to me because I had no preconceived notions of the film. There ending is not necessarily a secret but in the interest of not spoiling anything, I offer fair warning that I will be discussing the ending in this piece. If you haven't seen it and would rather not be spoiled, just go rent it and we will discuss it later. Thanks!
Deathdream, alias Dead of Night, was directed by the one and only Bob Clark. While his horror career wasn't entirely prolific, he managed to create one of the greatest holiday horror films of all time: Black Christmas. Clark showed considerable talent for creating dark, unsettling, atmospheric horror films that not only invoked true terror but brought the character back to horror movie characters. If you go back and watch Black Christmas, take note of how many of the characters are insatiably likable and how that effects your reaction to their untimely demises. Deathdream precedes Black Christmas, but some of Clark's signature touches are clearly visible. There are expertly-crafted killer's perspective shots that served as the blueprint for many subsequent horror films including Halloween. There are also extended shots that establish the house in which the horror takes place which is even further utilized in Black Christmas and, again, aped by Carpenter in Halloween.
The performances in Deathdream are just as exemplary as those in Black Christmas. Richard Backus, as Andy, is one of the creepiest characters in all of horrordom. He executes every stratum of the character with staggering adeptness. When he first arrives, he elicits empathy with his wounded innocence, but as the film progresses he gradually increases the menace until his very presence is enough to put us all on edge. As the decay begins to take a firmer hold on him, his intensity is fantastic. I also love John Marley as the conflicted father who, though happy his son has returned home, struggles with the fact that he may also be responsible for acts of unspeakable evil. Marley, best known for his rather rude wake up call in The Godfather, displays an emotional breakdown during Andy's dark metamorphosis that is truly heart-breaking.
This film features some of the earliest work of makeup master Tom Savini. As Andy's necrosis gets progressively worse, Savini's artistry becomes more apparent. This is, after all, a zombie movie but the difference is that there is but one zombie in the film and no one knows he's undead. Therefore the film has to be just as much about hiding the necrosis from the other characters as it is about showing it to the audience. It starts with subtle, but impressive premature wrinkles. Small holes in the skin are the next development and the quivering maggots therein. From there, Andy begins to leak some sort of bile from his forehead in a scene that offers seamless integration of practical effects into actor physicality. By the time we get to full-on zombie Andy, he is slowly rising out of the back seat with an appearance that is entirely terrifying. Savini displays supreme chops with just his second job and, as we all know, only got better with age.
What is truly fascinating about Deathdream is the social commentary at its core. This film was Bob Clark's reaction to the Vietnam War. The film is a literal, fantastical interpretation of the horror not only present on the battle field, but the turmoil experienced by soldiers even after they returned from so hellish a conflict. I've read Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder research done on Vietnam veterans who returned home vastly different men. They talked about food not tasting the same and their own clothes seeming to no longer fit. They talked about how their psychological changes caused unending grief for their families and friends and, in some cases, ripped them apart. Andy is the personification of PTSD and the idea that one can't go home again. The Andy they knew and loved, literally died on that battlefield and the person that returned was an empty shell of a man...who happened to survive by injecting himself with the blood of his victims. Andy's actions cause unparalleled anguish for his family and friends. The ending, wherein Andy is burying himself in a cemetery, is an emotional translation of the idea that many of these veterans felt they would have been better off dead. Clark uses a very real social malady as a catalyst for something truly horrific and the idea behind it is just as off-putting as the zombie attacks he gives us on screen.
The film isn't perfect by any means. While I find the film interesting and a sterling example of the genius of Bob Clark, it's pacing is a hindrance. Many of my friends, even some of the horror buffs, find the film boring and lacking in any real eventfulness. It's almost a zombie character study and those two things are elementarily at odds so I completely understand the complaint. But for me, the pacing is a product of the slow descent into chaos the family experiences and the gradual decline of Andy's dead body. Give it a shot, let me know what you think in the comment section, and have a happy, zombie-free Memorial Day!