In 1972, director Bob Clark and writer Alan Ormsby teamed up to make a largely goofy (but still scared the bejesus out of little Final Girl) zombie flick with one of the best titles ever: Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. No one could have guessed that two years later they'd join forces again to create a subtle, spooky film with a distinct and serious message: Deathdream (aka Dead of Night). Both men went on to have wildly varied careers; before his untimely death earlier this year, Clark directed such disparate films as the groundbreaking slasher film Black Christmas, another holiday-themed classic (A Christmas Story), and seminal teen sex comedy Porky's. Ormsby, meanwhile, has continued to write horror films (Popcorn, Cat People), but he's also taken a shot at the Porky's saga (Porky's II: The Next Day) as well as the cult classic coming of age film My Bodyguard.
After a brief but harrowing opening sequence in which we watch a soldier die due to gunshot wounds, the scene moves from the battlefield to the dinner table as the Brooks family receives the late-night telegram no soldier's family wants: the one informing them that their son, Andy, has died. Andy's father Charles (John Marley) and sister Cathy (Anya Ormsby) are greif-stricken, but Andy's mother Christine (Lynn Carlin) simply refuses to believe the terrible news. She sits up night after night, praying and whispering "You'll come home, Andy..."
And she's right- Andy does come home, appearing unannounced in the Brooks home in the middle of the night. The family is overjoyed and assumes that the telegram must have been a mistake. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Andy is very, very different than he was before he enlisted in the Army. He doesn't want anyone to know he's home; he doesn't eat, he doesn't sleep; he sits in a rocking chair all day long staring off into space...oh, and he seems to have developed a bit of a temper- so much so that he single-handedly strangles the family dog in front of a gaggle of neighborhood kids.
Though Christine is gentle with Andy and thinks he simply needs some time to readjust to civilian life, Charles's patience wears thin quickly; he served in World War II, after all, but you don't see him acting like a homicidal weirdo. Family relations are strained as Andy grows increasingly cuckoo nutso, and eventually we learn his terrible secret- I'm not going to give it all away here, but I will say that it's safe to assume that it's not good.
Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is horror film as metaphor. It's often said that the horror films with a "message"- Dawn of the Dead ('78), for example- are among the best. They're not just about slicing up horny teens, you see; rather, there's a little more substance to these films that make audiences feel all smart and decidedly not guilty about enjoying a horror film. Deathdream is no exception to that rule- it's an effectively creepy...well, zombie movie wrapped in an atmosphere of dread, but it's also an indictment of war, showing us how war changes everything- not just the lives of the soldiers, but also those of their loved ones as well. Veterans coming home are indeed different than they were before battle, and the readjustment to civilian life can be incredibly difficult, to put it mildly. Deathdream is every bit as heartbreaking as it is horrifying.
Trivia time! Dazzle your friends with knowledge!
Deathdream marks Tom Savini's first big-screen foray into the mysterious world of FX!