Judge Paul Corupe reviews one of Porky's director Bob Clark's lesser known, but best, films.
"I died for you, Doc, now why shouldn't you return the favor?"—Andy (Richard Backus)
Who says you can't go home again? In Deathdream, a frantic mother refuses to let the permanence of death stand in the way of a reunion with her son, a soldier killed in combat. Made in Florida by director Bob Clark (A Christmas Story, Porky's), Deathdream didn't let a limited theatrical release and a spotty home video history doom it to obscurity—it gained a respectable cult following through frequent showings on late-night TV. Boasting first-rate performances and a rarely-equaled sense of dread, Deathdream has earned its reputation as an undiscovered gem of 1970s drive-in horror.
Facts of the Case
When the Brooks family receives a hand-delivered telegram from the Army notifying them of their son Andy's (Richard Backus) death, his mother Christine (Lynn Carlin, Faces) is completely crushed. "Andy, you promised to come home! You promised!" she repeats over and over and she weeps. That night, strange noises lead the family downstairs where they are shocked to find Andy standing silently in a dark corner. His father Charles (John Marley, The Godfather) and sister Cathy (Anya Ormsby, Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things) express their relief, and tell Andy that "we thought you were dead!" He replies, "I was."
As the days progress, Charles can't understand his son's bizarre new behavior. Andy won't talk to anyone, preferring to spend his time staring at the wall in his creaky rocking chair. When Charles suggests that Andy might need medical help, Christine becomes livid and refuses to accept that anything has changed. Town physician Dr. Allman (Henderson Forsythe, As the World Turns) visits on Charles's invitation, but even the promise of a complimentary medical check-up can't crack Andy's rigid demeanor. Of course, nobody suspects the truth, that Andy is a living corpse who needs a supply of fresh blood to prevent his body from decaying. Armed with a syringe to keep vital plasma flowing in his veins, Andy hits the town to see Dr. Allman about his generous offer, followed by an ill-fated double date at the local drive-in.
Deathdream, the second collaboration by director Bob Clark and screenwriter Alan Ormsby, is a marked artistic and technical leap forward from the pair's overrated debut feature, Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things. A modern spin on the classic "be careful what you wish for" theme, Ormsby's screenplay balances a pointed Vietnam War allegory with pulpier aspects—a "shock" ending, distinct moments of morbid comic relief and beyond-the-grave retribution ripped from the pages of a 1950s horror comic.
Set against the wholesome backdrop of an all-American town, Andy's aloof return undermines the expectations of his friends and family, casting a dark shadow over his homecoming. Andy's ghoulish behavior aside, the disintegration of the family, in the wake of their son's strange conduct, is also an important source of horror in the story; in time, Andy's mother becomes even more delusional, which in turn causes his father to erupt in bursts of alcohol-fuelled violence. Mirroring the breakdown of his family, the decomposition of Andy's body also progresses to unpleasant extremes, as Clark's deliberately measured pace splendidly builds to the ultimate conclusion.
Part of the reason that Deathdream has captivated audiences throughout the last thirty years is the understated and creepy way in which it unfolds. Although evident from the first few scenes, the film never explicitly reveals that Andy is actually dead until more than halfway through, adding a level of ambiguity to his sinister actions. This charges the film with a sense of mystery and encourages the audience to piece together the plot themselves.
Although effective as a flat-out horror film, Deathdream was also one of the first films to be critical of the Vietnam War, focusing on the lingering effects of the conflict on soldiers returning to America. The stress disorders and drug addiction that many veterans experienced are alluded to, but more importantly, this film is filled with sense that the war has changed not only Andy, but the entire country. Ormsby's screenplay portrays Andy as the ultimate corrupted innocent, a survivor (although not in the strictest sense of the word) of an experience that literally left him dead inside.
It's to Backus's credit as an actor that he pulls off this difficult role. Radiating a barely restrained rage that would make Anthony Perkins jealous, Andy's focused intensity explodes into a sadistic anger that is not only believable, but downright unsettling. The rest of the cast is just as outstanding, especially the pairing of Lynn Carlin and Oscar nominee John Marley as Andy's troubled parents. Bob Clark even takes a role as a beefy cop, and Ormsby, who starred in Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, can be spotted in a brief cameo.
Deathdream is also notable for being the first entry on Tom Savini's résumé before he made a huge name for himself as the make-up master behind Friday the 13th and George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Although the make-up and gore on this film are comparatively restrained, what's here is quite well done, especially considering the film's meager budget. It's also interesting that Savini's first job would be in helping Ormsby create a zombie, something he would do countless times working with Romero in later years.
The post-production work on Deathdream brought both Clark and Ormsby up to Canada, where they stayed on to create arguably some of their best work. Their next project, the Ed Gein biopic Deranged, really gave Savini a chance to emerge from Ormsby's shadow and display his effects talent. Clark later removed his name as producer of that film ("too grisly!") and went on to direct the much more subtle horror classic, Black Christmas. Interestingly, Deathdream contains the genesis of some of the atmospheric touches that Clark would put to better use in that film. Shots of a looming house from the killer's point-of-view; Carl Zittrer's sparse, jarring piano and string score; and moody rocking chairs all make their first appearances here.
Previous incarnations of Deathdream on VHS—assuming you could find one—featured washed-out transfers struck from prints with considerable source damage. While still a shade on the grainy side, Blue Underground's matted widescreen release of Deathdream looks unbelievable in comparison. There's no question that this is the best this film has looked on home video, with an almost pristine transfer, sporting vibrant colors and deep blacks. The mono soundtrack is more than serviceable, with surprisingly good tone.
Not only does this disc look great, but Blue Underground has gone the extra mile to dig up some amazing supplemental features. Most interesting are the two filmmaker commentaries, each moderated by David Gregory. Clark is reserved as usual in his track, but Gregory knows his stuff and provokes him into revealing fascinating information, including tales of his early days in Florida exploitation films. Ormsby's commentary makes for slightly better listening, with more sharply remembered details.
The commentaries themselves are enough of a treat for fans of the film, but there's much more packed on to this disc. Clocking in at twelve minutes is "Deathdreaming," an interview with Richard Backus. It's a good little piece, and it's nice to see that he is obviously proud of his work as Andy. As the film ends, Backus hilariously recreates a particularly intense moment from the film. A second featurette, entitled "Tom Savini: The Early Years," is a ten-minute interview with the gore king about how he became involved in filmmaking and Deathdream in particular. The highlight of this clip is archival footage from the aforementioned Deranged, including a few seconds of gore conspicuously missing from MGM's 2002 DVD release of the film.
Of less interest is an alternate title sequence, almost identical except for a flash of the re-release title, Deathdream (the title on the main presentation is Dead of Night, the film's original name), and a slightly extended ending pulled from a previous video release. Rounding out the disc are the original trailer, a fun Easter egg, and an extensive photo gallery, featuring stills, behind-the-scenes photographs and promotional art.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a major plot hole in the film, one that never fails to nag at me. Although Deathdream never goes into details about the exact location of its war, we can only assume that Andy has died in Vietnam. Yet the film never bothers to offer an explanation for how he arrived from overseas, since the first time we see the living dead Andy is on American soil, about to hitchhike home.
Also, I'm conflicted about the cover art for this DVD release. A close-up of Andy's bright red mug certainly makes for a strange choice. Deathdream's original poster art is a beautifully illustrated piece that I would have preferred to see grace this cover.
Even with the wealth of cult movies making their way onto DVD, in no way did I ever expect to see Deathdream released, never mind in a deluxe package like this. Beautifully mastered and loaded with bonus features, this "lost" favorite has truly been given a new spark of life with Blue Underground's highly commendable release. Finally, Andy and his bickering kin can take up residence where they belong, beside George Romero's The Crazies and other socially conscious horror masterpieces of the 1970s.
All parties are free to go, but this court would like to remind Andy that he "promised" to pick up my dry cleaning.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Audio Commentary with Director Bob Clark
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