Deathdream: The Return of 1970s Horror

Be Careful For What You Wish

by Donato Totaro Volume 8, Issue 8 / August 2004 14 minutes (3335 words)

I was fortunate to catch this low budget chiller at a late night screening at Montreal’s Cinema du Parc theatre on April 23, 2004. It had been a long time since I had seen this film, but for reasons soon apparent, it has remained finely etched in my memory. Deathdream (Bob Clark) is an effectively downbeat horror film that not only holds up remarkably well as a sign post of its era, but holds as much social import today as it did in the early 1970s, when it resonated of the final years of the Vietnam War. I had seen it on video once or twice, but never on the big screen. The 35mm print projected that night was decent, with a stable image but with fading colors going red. Fortunately, in the interim between my having seen it and this review the good people at Blue Underground saw fit to give Deathdream a DVD release marked by their usual tender, loving care. The wonderful restoration work provides a nice addendum to things missed in the film screening; but more on the DVD later.

What’s interesting and historically relevant is how Deathdream brims with subtext which lays out a great deal of important fodder for horror films of the 1970s. It is bleak and uncompromising but with real and finely etched characters, not the blunt stereotypes we have come to associate with too many horror films. The term ‘socially conscious’ horror film is appropriate for this low budget mini-masterpiece and is a fine response to those who point to the horror film as a terrain for reactionary and neo-conservative thought. Deathdream is ostensibly a remake of W.W. Jacob’s enduring short story “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902), which made famous the cautionary phrase, “Be careful for what you wish.” In the film’s pre-credit prologue two American soldiers are killed in an ambush, one of them, we will later learn, being Andy. In the subsequent opening scene we see an ‘average’ family at the dinner table, a father (Charles, played by John Marley), wife (Christine, played by Lynne Carlin), and daughter (Cathy, played by Anya Ormsby, wife of writer Alan), engaging in small talk. The mother in particular talks incessantly about their son Andy (played by Richard Backus, but by another actor in the pre-credit war footage) overseas at war. Moments later a military figure appears at the door with news of their son’s death. Later that night the mother, sitting in a rocking chair which will later be associated with the son, wishes that their son return from the war. In a wonderful effect, the darkly lit image of the mother holding a candle dissolves to oncoming lights of a truck driving along at night. Andy will hitch a ride with the same truck. In the next scene Andy, played to perfection by first time actor Richard Backus, appears as a stark silhouette behind the opened front door, momentarily frightening the family. The son is looking rather sullen and withdrawn, literally, a ‘walking dead.’America’s war-time killing machine has returned home to roost.

Deathdream is not only critical of the Vietnam War (even though it never names the war or mentions any specifics), but of patriarchy. The film’s central father figure Charles Brooks, played by the great John Marley, is a ‘man’s man’ who encouraged his only son to go to war out of fear that the boy’s mother, Christine, was in the process of making his son a ‘sissy’. In fact, given the veiled and metaphorical manner in which the Vietnam War is criticized, the film stands as a stronger critique of the family than the war per se, although we can just as easily read the family as standing for the American middle class values which would have figured in as part of what the period’s anti-authoritarians were riling against. The family as a source for horror would become a dominant theme of the 1970s horror film.

To return to the opening scene, the first impressions are of a typical perfect family, with Charlie the father cutting the perfect roast beef, urged on by his wife Christine, with doting daughter Cathy watching on. The high angle vantage perhaps a suggestion that all is not so well.

Once the son Andy returns home things begin to unravel, and the hate and animosity behind the family’s surface sheen comes to the ugly surface. The first thing that becomes apparent is the division in the family: the father loves the daughter, the mother loves the son. We learn that it was the father’s aggressive insistence that led the son to enlist, setting up an ironic narrative doubling effect: the father’s ‘unlove’ causes the son to go off to war and the mother’s ‘love’ causes him to return (albiet as a zombie). In a strange coincidence, the actors playing the father and mother, John Marley and Lynne Carlin, had in fact already played a dysfunctional husband and wife in John Cassavetes’ Faces. (Poor Marley, in the same year that Deathdream was shot, 1972, he gets his prized horse’s head cut off and placed under his luxurious bed sheets, in The Godfather of course, and has a son return from the war a zombie!)

The zombie film has often been used metaphorically, most tellingly in Romero’s zombie trilogy, but also in another recent Canadian horror film which especially recalls Deathdream, The Nature of Nicholas (Jeffrey Erbach, 2002). The latter film features two young boys living on the Canadian prairie, a withdrawn, twelve year old named Nicholas (Jeff Sutton) and his more outgoing best friend Bobby (David Turnball). In an unguarded moment, Nicholas plants a harmless, unprovoked kiss on Bobby’s lips. The taboo kiss causes Bobby to sprout a bizarre doppelgänger in the form of a decaying zombie version of his own physical self. In this case the zombie can be read as a metaphorical expression of adolescent suppressed homosexual desire. Nicholas begins to care for Bobby’s zombie double, an emotional sacrifice that recalls the mother Christine’s love for her zombie son Andy. The Nature of Nicholas adds another Deathdream-like gesture when Nicholas’ life is further burdened by the return of his dead father as a zombie. Both these touches are reminiscent of Deathdream, where a mother’s well-meaning wish brings her dead Vietnam soldier son back to life. 

Of course in Deathdream we have the obvious metaphor of the soldier-as-zombie. Much has been said about how the military de-programs the human sensitivity out of a soldier during training, how the enemy is ‘dehumanized’ so that killing becomes an objective necessity and not ‘murder.’ Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket played up this aspect of the soldier as dehumanized ‘zombie,’ by having the behavioral training backfire in the chilling shower/bathroom scene where cadet Vincent D’Onofrio snaps and shoots a few fellow cadets before blowing his head off (the vacant “Kubrickian” stare summarising his zombie-like emotional state). Having the (young) veteran return as a zombie merely reverses the strategic plan so that the soldier functions ‘normally’ at war (the film opens with a stagy battle scene where we see Andy in army fatigues with another soldier both killed) and ‘abnormally’ at home. Director Clark underscores this aspect by having the morose Andy sit listlessly on the lawn chair in the comfy back yard or sitting alone in the dark in his upstairs bedroom, rocking rhythmically on a rocking chair, the repetitive squeaking of which drives his father “nuts”.

In one scene, made especially startling by the idyllic back yard setting, a sullen Andy is lounging in the sun when the father attempts to cheer him up by inviting all the neighborhood children for a visit, a gesture which backfires horrifically. The horde of children encircle Andy and begin to ask him inane questions (Andy how come you ain’t in your uniform? Did you kill any guys? They teach you karate?). Andy’s growing impatience snaps when one of the boys feigns to hit him with a karate chop and Andy grabs him by the arm violently, which sets the dog growling aggressively at Andy. Andy grabs the small dog by the neck, dangles him at arms length, and strangles it to death in front of the children, who quickly act their age by beginning to whimper and cry in the presence of this ghastly act. Andy’s abnormal acts can be seen as a horror film version of the traumatic difficulties veterans have when trying to readjust to civilian life (William Wyler’s multi-award winning The Best Years of Our Lives 1946 being the archetype). In a follow-up scene, Andy’s pathetic father is at the local watering hole drinking away his sorrow at having lost his beloved dog “Butch”.

While many low-budget horror film are hampered by less than effective acting (Clark’s own earlier 1972 Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things an example), Deathdream gains considerably from Richard Backus’ wonderfully underplayed performance, which recalls Karloff’s turn with the Frankenstein monster, emoting with little in the way of dialogue, and foreshadowing, physically as much as anything, the appearance of John Amplas in another 1970’s horror angst classic, George Romero’s Martin (both actors being slim, fair-haired, boy-next-door types). In the later scene where Andy ‘visits’ the family doctor Dr. Philip “Allman” (Henderson Forsythe) his zombie affliction is handled as if it were a drug addiction and Andy a junkie killing for a fix. (Blood-drinking as a form of addiction is not a new idea now, and has received its fullest expression in 1997 with Larry Fessenden’s Habit ). As a note, it is the doctor who in an earlier scene invites Andy to come see him for a check-up, which echoes the vampire lore where a vampire can only enter someone’s home if they have been invited. The visit to the doctor confirms the vampiric reverberations of Andy’s condition by having him drink blood to stave off his physical deterioration. The use of a syringe and needle to kill his victim and then feed his fix recalls the way that Martin kills his victims in the aforementioned Martin. The film’s style for the most part is direct and unencumbered, but in this scene takes on a greater expressiveness, with stark angles, shadowy lighting, and a shock edit to a wide-angle close-up of Andy’s satiated face as his head falls back against the wall.

The film’s anti-war message (and irony) is felt strongest in two scenes: the above described doctor scene, and the (earlier) first visit by the local mailman. In the former scene, moments before Andy is about to kill the family doctor he ironically tells him (in perhaps the film’s most famous line): “I died for you Doc, why shouldn’t you return the favor?” In the latter scene, the mailman invites himself for snacks in the Brooks back yard when he ogles the picnic table spread, and begins to reminisce about World War 2. What becomes clear in this dialogue is a) how nostalgia seeps into anything, regardless of how horrific the memory and b) how World War 2 has a whole other set of values and psychological after-effect for both the returning soldiers and civilians who must help the veterans readjust to civilian life. During the first few days of his return Andy seems mired in a depression, preferring to spend his time alone in his dark bedroom sitting in his rocking chair. He may be a ‘walking dead,’ but to an outsider his behaviour does not appear unusual for someone having just returned from a traumatic war experience. Only the mother seems willing to give Andy however much time he needs to readjust to civilian life. The father is irritated by the constant squeaking of the overhead rocking chair and angered by his son’s inability to “return to normalcy” after only a few days, something which his mother chastises him for. Meanwhile his sister Cathy is hurriedly planning a double date with Andy’s former girlfriend.

In terms of its uncompromisingly bleak vision, Deathdream is a film of its time, conceived in 1972 and released in 1974, when American horror films reflected true social angst in a more forceful and convincing manner than at any other period since, arguably, the Depression era 1930s. InDeathdream the penultimate scene has the father deciding to render a perverse form of justice into his own hands after discovering that his son did indeed kill the truck driver who was found with his throat slashed and arm punctured with needle marks. We learn of this murder a few scenes after the initial scene of Andy hitching a ride with the truck driver, when the hand-held camera pulls back from the front seat to reveal the driver lying dead with his throat slashed. (Bob Clark appears in a cameo as the police officer examining the body.)

Bob Clark cameo

Since his father last saw him, Andy’s physical deterioration has made him a walking, putrefied corpse. His face is now swollen and pus-filled, and his body misshapen and bent. Rather than horror and disgust, we feel pain and sympathy, which owes as much to Tom Savini/Alan Ormsby’s make-up as to Backus’ acting. It is odd that Andy was far more frightening a figure when he looked normal than now, recalling the golden age of horror (the 1930s) when monsters were sympathetic victims of science or supernatural intervention. Andy’s mother takes great pity with her deteriorating son and attempts to help him by following his apparent wish to be taken away. This gesture recalls another seminal 1970s horror film, Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974), in the way the father becomes protective of his ‘monster’ baby-son. Charles enters the home angry, gun in hand, and walks up the stairs toward his son with the full intention of killing him. When he confronts Andy in his upstairs room and finally sees him (in a dramatic slow turn of Andy’s body to face him) he loses his will to kill, heeding his wife’s plea to save their son. As the mother helps Andy down the stairs we cut to a shot of Charlie sitting on the side of his bed, placing the gun next to his forehead. We cut back to the mother/son and hear a loud gunshot off-frame. With American society’s emphasis on the power of human agency to affect change and overcome adversity, suicide in film is a rare thing, which makes this moment especially bleak.

What follows is a fairly exciting car chase between the police and Christine and Andy. Christine is driving but Andy is directing her to the cemetery, which they crash into through the front gates. In one of the most pathetic and moving moments in a horror film, Andy grovels and rolls himself into an open, partially dug grave and begins to shovel dirt over himself. The scene includes a close-up of the headstone, which has Andy’s name and birth/death dates crudely etched into the headstone (early in the film we see Andy pick up a stone and scratch something into the headstone but don’t get to see what was written until the end). Echoing the opening high angle shot over the kitchen table, the camera begins to crane  away to an extreme high angle of the tragic image of a mother kneeling at her son’s grave (as I surprisingly learned through the Bob Clark DVD commentary track, they did actually use a crane for this one single shot).

The film is also noteworthy for being Tom Savini’s first professional job as special effects make-up artist (co-credited with writer Alan Ormsby). Savini’s special effect and make-up work would go on to mark the seventies and eighties to the point where he has become as close to an ‘auteur’ as a special effects make-up artist can (others who come to mind include Jack Pierce, Dick Smith, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin). Savini’s presence gains special relevance here because this was the first film he made upon returning from having served as a military combat photographer in Vietnam, and Savini has noted, on several occasions, including in the brief documentary included on the DVD release, how important that experience of photographing horror atrocities up close and first hand was to his make-up work.

The recent release of the Deathdream DVD caps a good year for the rediscovery of important 1970 horror films on DVD, with Lemora Lady Dracula being the other key DVD release, and the imminent (early October) Warner Bros. release of It’s Alive (1974). I purchased the DVD from the good people at Diabolik, your one-stop online website for esoteric and hard-to-find titles in all genres, from all countries. Seeing the film digitally restored on DVD revealed one important aesthetic element which did not come through on the faded 35mm print: the visual motif of the color green. A light, pale green dominates much of the film’s interior spaces, especially the Brooks’ home. Given that ‘sickly’ green is often used to symbolically represent or suggest death, its dominance here becomes especially appropriate given Andy’s ‘living undead’ condition. The constant appearance of green in the house’s interior design also functions as a foreshadowing device during the early scenes when Andy’s undead physical condition is yet to manifest itself. Even before Andy’s body begins to show signs of decay, the green décor subtly renders a foreboding atmosphere of death to the proceedings. By the endpoint of Andy’s zombie make-up transformation, his decomposing face has attained a greenish palor which we’ve been consciously or subconsciously perceiving in the film’s décor and mise en scène throughout the film.

The DVD includes a brief 10 minute feature on Tom Savini (“Tom Savini: The Early Years”), where he relates his make-up work to his tour of duty as a military combat photographer in Vietnam, and spills over into his other work for Bob Clark/ Alan Ormsby, including some interesting on-set footage from Deranged, co-directed by Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby. There is a 12 minute interview with Richard Backus, looking slim and dapper in his dark shirt and silver fox hair. Backus has some insightful things to say about his performance, his make-up, and describes an unused extended part of the prologue where Andy walks through the woods and sees the bodies of other dead soldiers. Topping off the extras is an extended end sequence and alternative title scene. Of more interest are the two separate commentary tracks with Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby, both moderated by a well informed David Gregory. Neither of the tracks are what you would call scintillating, but well worth the listen for the odd bits of production history and anecdotal information. We learn from Clark, for example, that Christopher Walken was originally slated for the role of Andy, before a delay in the production lead to his unavailability. We learn that Deathdream is being remade by 1970’s horror film aficionado Eli Roth, who directed the enjoyable Cabin Fever (2002). Clark also sets the story straight on the often mentioned similarities between his 1974 proto-slasher film Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s Halloween. He reiterates how he had told the basic premise of Halloween to Carpenter (probably around 1974), and that his idea was the basis for Carpenter’s film, but humbly renounces any claims of authorship or plagiarism by bestowing full credit to Carpenter for the resulting film, Halloween. In fact, we can also see an element of Halloween in Deathdream. The first shot after the truck driver scene is a moving subjective point of view shot of Andy returning home at night, which bears a strong resemblance to the iconic opening subjective point of view shot of Halloween. Happily,Deathdream can now join Halloween and Black Christmas, along with Deranged, on your DVD shelf.

Halloween-esque POV shot

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