Deathdream (1974)

Deathdream is a Canadian production, but was filmed in Florida. It is a collaboration of writer Alan Ormsby and producer/director Bob Clark – two men who collaborated on several projects in that era.

The Brooks family receive terrible news: Andy Brooks has died in Vietnam. His sister and his father are heartbroken, but his mother – borderline hysterical at the best of times – snaps and says that it is all a lie. True enough, shortly after, Andy turns up alive – or so it seems…
Andy’s erratic behaviour and outbursts of rage irritate his sister and frighten his father, but again his mother refuses to face reality and will hear none of it; she continues to pretend that everything is back to normal, that they will once again be a happy suburban family. As the evidence mounts that things are far from normal, and as the situation slowly begins to spin out of control, Mrs Brooks digs in her heels ever deeper.

No part of this information is a spoiler, as the film is very upfront from the outset. And throughout the film, there is no mystery surrounding any of the facts and events, and there are no surprises or unexpected revelations – the tension here is created entirely by other means.

This film is at times listed as a zombie film, and at times as a vampire film. Strictly speaking, Andy is neither – he is, however, most definitely undead. There are more vampire-like aspects to him than zombie-like aspects, but in terms of looks he begins to resemble a zombie more strongly as the story progresses.

At first the film caught me on the wrong foot. It opens with a scene in which we see two soldiers getting killed in Vietnam (Andy and another boy from his hometown). This is shoestring Vietnam (just two guys between some Florida trees) and it is the only scene with horrendously bad acting which makes it all the more annoying that they opened the film with this scene. But what I was really taken aback by was the whole premise. In 1974, the Vietnam War is not even over yet, with tens of thousands of American soldiers dead, and more still dying every day, and here we have a cheap B-movie using the death of a soldier in Vietnam as its basis for a zombie-style horror flick. It seemed all in such poor taste.

But as the film unfolded I began to understand that there is more to this film than that. Deathdream touches on many things that audiences critical of the war may have related to back then. For one thing, it is a film about the horrors of a war being fought on the other side of the world coming right into the heart of suburban America. It is also a film that tries to highlight the problem of PTSD through Andy’s zombie-like state and his fits of rage. I am not saying it is a particularly useful or helpful allegory, but it is an approach nonetheless. The disconnect between the “perfect” suburban world back home and the horrors of war are illustrated through the mother’s behaviour and her attempts to turn back the time (“it will be like old times”) and gloss over any problems, and the position and general treatment of veterans is touched upon when Andy yells “I died for you […] you owe me something”. Parenting issues, loss, denial, grief, and madness are all topics that flow into this plot, and you could even see some allegories of drug use, depending on your interpretation.

This film is shot in a suburban environment and in an ordinary suburban house. Nothing here is standing out visually in any way. The cinematography is solid, with some nice shots and angles used to infuse the film with some creepiness. Unfortunately, many scenes are too dark for my eyes, so I could not see as much as was intended, hampering the effects of many of these shots.

The film has two main strengths. One is the way in which the filmmakers try to create an eery atmosphere. The other is the cast. Most of the actors in this film are good. This is not one of those B-movies where every other actor is giving so amateurish a performance that it pains you and you cannot concentrate on the plot. I cannot think of a single bad performance in Deathdream, just a couple of questionable directing decisions. When you take the character of Mrs Brooks, for example, then I feel that toning her mental disturbance down by 20% would have made the whole thing more believable. But, as I said, this is not an acting problem, as Lynn Carlin does her best in that role.

The rest of the family are also played by good actors, with John Marley playing the father and Anya Ormsby (married to the writer at the time) the sister. The one major supporting character is played nicely by Henderson Forsythe, but all minor supporting roles are also cast very well, with Arthur Anderson’s bothersome postman being just one example.

Most importantly, however, Richard Backus does an outstanding job in the leading role – a very difficult role at that. His stone-faced performance, his ability to project rage as well as creepiness without using much of his face at all, is astounding. It must be a very long time since I have seen anyone being able to look this creepy while smiling.

The filmmakers’ methods of creating atmosphere include long shots of dark, empty rooms; long, resting close-ups of Andy’s face; and tense atmospheric music with nerve-wrecking use of the violin. Furthermore, distinct elements of body-horror are a very important visual aspect of this film. However, I am particularly fascinated by the way in which mundane aspects of everyday life are used for effect here. An adverse reaction by the family dog, for example, or a shot of truck lights that looks spooky for some reason; and there is a particularly memorable scene in which a shot of ordinary human teeth is used visually in the most unsettling way. The recurring apex of that “normal-life-somehow-feeling-wrong” approach is a rocking chair in which Andy sits very often, for a very long time, simply rocking – but rocking in a clock-like, regular movement, back and forth, almost quickly but always with the same amount of limited momentum, without any variation. The creaking noise of the rocking chair is driving everyone around him insane, and the regularity is one reason for that. Richard Backus also manages to make this activity – during which the rocking chair moves only little and Andy does not move at all – create the impression that Andy is at the same time listless and restless.

The fact that this is a deliberately slow-paced film, in a way adds to all these unsettling elements.

I am not sure that this film qualifies as a vampire film – I believe everyone can judge for themselves – and I am still not sure that the timing, the plot, and the genre were of particularly good taste back in ’74, but I am sure that this film contains a number of atmospheric devices that film students and fans of filmmaking may find of interest.

I am not saying that you absolutely should see Deathdream, but I will say that I do not regard this as a trashy film (as it is sometimes described) – this may be an unusual film, but it is neither a train-wreck, nor is it shlocky or gory. This is not some cheap disposable genre junk, but a “true” B-movie, and in terms of quality and relevance towers over other films of that era like Blacula or Daughters of Darkness.

Still, all things considered (including my own tastes), and with all its limitations (budget, etc.), I cannot rate this film higher than 5.5 to 6.0 out of 10.

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