Dead of Night
AKA Deathdream (1974)
Director: Bob Clark
Starring: John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Richard Backus, Henderson Forsythe, Anya Ormsby, Jane Daly, Michael Mazes
1/2 (out of 4)
Bob Clark’s Dead of Night (reissued under the title Deathdream) is his second horror feature and it’s a creepy, melancholy, low-key thriller that speaks volumes about the Vietnam conflict without referring to it once by name. He filmed it in Brooksville, Florida in late 1972, shortly after Nixon’s reelection and at the height of the war. The film isn’t anti-war so much as it’s a commentary on how war has hidden, devastating effects on soldiers and families outside of the physical, visible scars (although the soldier coming home in Dead of Night has plenty of those). As reviewer Michael Atkinson commented “there may not be a more quietly galling movie about the war’s psychosocial devastation.”
The movie is a interpretation of The Monkey’s Paw, a short story by W. W. Jacobs. Lynn Carlin and John Marley play Christine and Charles Brooks, your typical middle-American family who have just been told of their son Andy’s death in Vietnam. Christine, hit hard by the news, refuses to believe it; later we witness her sitting in the dark loudly praying for his safe return. Later in the night, her wish is granted – Andy returns home to everyone’s pleasant surprise. But Andy (Richard Backus) is not himself – he is withdrawn and hardly talks at all. He also has a few side-effects from his ordeal, like not having a heart beat and occasionally killing people and injecting their blood so his flesh doesn’t fall off. I would say that either Andy is an undead zombie, or it’s the most acute case of post traumatic stress disorder I have ever seen.
Having killed the family dog (dad’s favorite) with one hand, Andy is increasingly at odds with his father (understandably), while his mother strangely enough grows closer to him. Most of the time Andy rocks back and forth in his chair, staring straight into space, not interacting with anyone until it’s time for him to feed in vampire-like fashion. As Charles starts to see Andy for what he is, he is visibly tormented, torn between protecting his son and turning him in. Christine, being driven more mad as things go from bad to worse, is intent on protecting Andy at all costs, which in the end results in the destruction of the entire family unit. I think the central theme of Dead of Night is about a family being torn apart by war in ways they don’t expect. Andy is the returning soldier who doesn’t know how to fit into a society that has moved on without him, that knows nothing of his ordeals and expects him to become normal right away.
The movie wisely ignores the details of Andy’s transformation – it moves from his war injury in the beginning to him hitchhiking, with no explanation on how he achieved his zombie state. No explanation is necessary. Backus’s performance as Andy is something to behold – he portrays him as cold but with a menacing rage and intensity lurking beneath. Apparently, Backus was cast as Andy because he was able to “create a silent stare of intense hatred.” There’s a sullen mood surrounding him that is used occasionally to comic effect – when Andy does speak, there’s something multilayered, saturnine, or crabbed underlying every word. When girlfriend Joanne (Jane Daly) wonders aloud if he’s “mad or anything…” Andy coldly replies “I’m not mad… or anything.” It’s almost as if Andy singlehandedly invented goth culture – when he emerges later in the film wearing black shades and gloves, I wondered when he would break out the trenchcoat and Bauhaus records (the decision to have Andy sustain himself like a vampire makes more sense to me now).
Like Black Christmas, Bob Clark’s Dead of Night is influential. As commentary on the psyche of soldiers coming home from war, I would place it as the forefather to First Blood. I also see an influence on George Romero’s Martin, in Andy’s status as a withdrawn outsider and the techniques he uses to extract blood from his victims (using a needle to extract blood and shoot up was a nod to the drug problem going on in the war – something that was probably obvious to the audience at the time). The film is poignant and sad; guilt, dread, and loss underly everything. By the end of the picture, Christine is forced to do what every mother must fear the most – bury her son – something that up until the end she refuses to accept and might have been the reason Andy has come back in the first place. As an good example of the anxiety of the early 70s, Dead of Night deserves much recognition.