Our not-planned look at some of the works of Tom Savini continues with DEATHDREAM. Here’s another one that you can check out on Netflix. Only for the zombie completists or as a curiosity.
Bob Clark’s career is an interesting study in contrast. Before he went off to set the template for teen sex comedies with PORKY’S and deliver to the world a Christmas staple with A CHRISTMAS STORY, he and Alan Ormsby collaborated on two horror flicks. The first, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, is a talky excuse for a zombie flick that really only picks up in the last 20 minutes or so. The second was a zombie flick of an altogether different sort, the politically charged DEATHDREAM. Though marginally more successful in bringing fear to the screen, it drops the zany joy of the previous film, and in doing so, it’s even less fun to watch.
Andy is an American soldier in Vietnam. The film’s first scene depicts his death in the war. Shift to an all-American family dinner with Andy’s parents and sister. Mid-meal, they receive word of Andy’s death. His mother makes a wish that Andy would come home. And Andy fulfills the wish, with some dark consequences for those in his hometown.
DEATHDREAM is noticeable for a few things. It is one of the first anti-Vietnam War movies, and acts in contrast to John Wayne’s war flicks (after all, Wayne never came home in any of his myriad war movies and started to rot). It’s also an anti-drug movie, as Andy must inject blood to maintain his normal appearance and ward off the aforementioned rot. But is it effective in delivering either message? So-so. THE DEER HUNTER or PLATOON, this movie certainly is not. Instead, its approach to delivering the message harkens back to the EC comics of the 1950s, with zombified Andy destroying many of the “patriotic” folks in his hometown. All the while, he decays on screen between fixes. Andy’s appearance is creepy, and as the film progresses, he devolves further with each transformation.
Perhaps DEATHDREAM works best as an exposé of the dysfunctional family. Witness their insane dinner conversation in the scene where Clark introduces them. The film suggests that this family had serious problems before Andy left for the war, and his return has caused them to resurface. Though initially pleased with Andy’s return, Andy’s father is suspicious of his son’s movements and often reacts angrily at both his son and wife. Andy’s mother is so self-deluded by her son’s return that she fails to believe he could do any wrong. Caught between them, Andy broods in a rocking chair with the lights out between explosions; his short fuse ignites both when the annoying mailman stops in for lunch and when some neighborhood kids ask him about the war.
And amid Andy’s chaos, its important to NOTE: amid Andy’s violence, there is a rough scene in which he kills a dog. If it looks real, that’s because that’s no puppet; the actor tossed a real dog. It was a trained dog, which didn’t get hurt, and there was a dog trainer on the set. But it looks real, and animal lovers still may want to avoid this movie.
The messages it delivers would have been stronger, had the film been better. It’s atmospheric at times, especially when Andy confronts the family doctor, and when he blows up at the mailman. But it suffers from overacting (especially from John “Horse’s Head in My Bed” Marley as dear old Dad, and Anya “I May Really Be Crazy” Ormsby), and pacing issues, and is often melodramatic; and some of Clark’s camera work is downright silly. Fortunately, Richard Backus’ performance holds the film together. Sitting in a rocking chair in the dark, anger seething from Andy, Backus plays it just right, creating a character that is downright creepy. Add to this his excellent makeup, which gets more progressive as he wastes away. And credit Alan Ormsby with bringing in none other than Tom Savini on his first film.
But even great makeup and a solid central performance can’t save DEATHDREAM from its last act. A rampage during a double date and mom’s decision that it’s best to return Andy to the grave fit more in a 1950s programmer than a 1970s anti-war statement. Car chases, explosions and gunfire may pick up the pace, but in this context, they’re absolutely absurd.
For a film that’s pretty average, DEATHDREAM sports a nice array of special features. Most prominent are the two audio commentaries. Alan Ormsby and Bob Clark sat for separate tracks with a moderator. Of the two, Ormsby’s track is the better. He gives insight into his script and some of the choices made for the film. Unfortunately, the moderator draws him off on tangents sometimes. Does Ormsby really need to discuss his other films, or, oddly enough, the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy here?
But even with these flaws, it’s far better than Clark’s track. He goes silent for long periods of time, and mumbles for most of it. The information he gives isn’t thrilling; although he does try to take credit for the whole storyline of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, a claim I’ve heard him make several other times since.
The film also offers a few other extras. Savini’s talks about his first film job, and his 11 minute discussion of the film’s makeup effects is interesting, if only to see how he got his start. Actor Richard Backus, Andy himself, gives some interesting insight of his involvement, as well as that of some others. Most interesting is Marley’s interesting take on the film’s real focus, that of a father dealing with his returning son! There’s an alternate ending that’s not worth watching, as it doesn’t add much. There’s also an alternate opening with a different title; yes, DEATHDREAM is a member of the Horror Movie Relocation Program, and apparently has about 67 different titles, the most common being DEAD OF NIGHT (as it’s listed on the IMDB). A trailer and some stills round out the extras.
Bob Clark would go on to his greatest success with another movie about a dysfunctional family, but DEATHDREAM is a much darker work than his holiday effort. Unfortunately, DEATHDREAM is not nearly as good a work as A CHRISTMAS STORY, and nobody considers it a classic. It’s a sometimes interesting look at a controversial topic that’s always with us, but Clark’s best work was yet to come.