The late Bob Clark was nothing if not an eclectic filmmaker, directing movies across a wide array of genres. From the family holiday classic A Christmas Story to the Sherlock Holmes piece Murder by Decree and the raunchy teen comedy Porky's and the (shudder) Baby Genius movies, Clark's been around. Deathdream (1974, also known as Dead of Night) was one of three cult horror movies he made in the seventies, the others being the slasher Black Christmas and the zombie movie Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. Dead of Night proves to be an effective low-budget shocker with an intriguing subtext: the disintegration of the American family in the wake of the Vietnam War).
The Brooks family - father Charles (John Marley), mother Christine (Lynn Carlin, and daughter Cathy (Anya Ormsby) - are sitting at the dinner table when they receive news their son Andy (Richard Backus) has been killed in action in Vietman. Charles is in shock, and Cathy weeps, but Christine refuses to believe it. Sitting up by candlelight, she refuses to accept his death, insisting he promised to return. Later, Andy does indeed return; apparently the Army made a mistake. The family rejoices, although Andy cryptically notes he was dead. Andy displays other strange behavior: he stays in his room all day, he acts cold and distant toward everyone, and the cheerful demeanor he had before the war is gone. Dead bodies soon begin turning up in town, all showing signs they've been drained of blood. Charles suspects Andy might be involved with the murders, but Christine refuses to believe her son could do any wrong.
The story uses the premise from the Monkey Paw: a character wishes for something they later wish hadn't. It's served as the basis for a number of horror movies and thrillers, and here it works quite well. By updating the premise to middle America in the throes of the Vietnam War, Clark and his screenwriter Alan Ormsby pack in quite the political and personal punch.
The trope of the alienated Vietnam veteran has been used in a number of non-genre films including First Blood, Born on the Fourth of July, and Coming Home. There's always that fear of families who send patriotic youthful men off to war that they will not return or if they do, something about them has changed, whether it be crippling injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illness, or as was common in Vietnam, addiction to heroin and other drugs. In Deathdream, the happy young man who went off to fight has returned an undead monster. The early scenes of Andy interacting with his family has an eerie, unsettling atmosphere to them. We can something is off about him, but we're not sure what. We're just waiting for the horror that's bubbling beneath the surface to erupt. Reinforcing the Vietnam connection is Andy's method of extracting blood from his victims: a hypodermic needle. It's hard not see the sight of the vampire inject through his arm his victim's blood and not think of a heroin addict.
Performances, despite some lackluster dialogue, are good all around. Marley is solid as the father who not knowing to react to his strange son turns to anger and drink as is Carlin as the doting, denying mother who must eventually learn to accept what her son has become. You really get the sense the family's stability and happiness is falling apart. The standout role is Backus; he's not frothing at the mouth or over-the-top, just quiet, awkward, and calculating.
Dead of Night also marks one of the first movies in which Tom Savini created the special makeup effects. The master behind the splatter horror of Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th shows his early promise with some cheap but effective work. In fact, another movie Savini did the effects for, George Romero's Martin, would make an interesting companion piece to Deathdream, seeing as how both films re-envisioned the modern vampire as a troubled boy-next-door.