Deathdream: Vietnam Comes Home

[Essay written for the Deathdream screening at Nitehawk Cinema on February 12, 2013 that included an introduction by Adam Lowenstein, Film Professor and author of Shocking Representation: historical trauma, national cinema, and the modern horror film).

Bob Clark’s 1972 cult classic Deathdream (original title: Dead of Night) is part of a select group of films from the era that dealt with the trauma of the Vietnam War. These films positioned this trauma back onto the United States by expressing the horror of war returning back to a place in which it originated but wasn’t fought. Deathdream visualizes this return in the ghostly form of a young deceased soldier, finding his way back to his family and to establish his final resting ground on familial soil. However, unlike the visceral explosions played out in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Deathdream is a representation of hope in the faith of certain death; his family wants so much to believe he is alive, almost as much as he wants to come to terms with his death.

imagesThe family structure lays at the center of these post-Vietnam horror films, no matter how messed up in its depiction (re: the Virgin Spring-inspired parental revenge and/or the in-bred role-shifting dynamic). In Deathdream there is a powerful, near transcendent, relationship between mother and son. The mother (Christine Brooks played by Faces actress Lynn Carlin) refuses to believe that her son Andy could possibly be dead, even when military officers deliver its confirmation. So when Andy returns, she delights in this truth even though his father (Charles played by Faces and Godfather star John Marley) suspects something is wrong. And wrong it is. Andy has indeed died, as the audience sees in the opening sequence, and has somehow managed to find his way home. He’s not a zombie or a vampire as many descriptions surmise (although he does drink blood to retain “life”) but, rather, a restless ghost whose soul is adrift, conflicted about how and where he was killed, and who needs to find solace in his hometown, with the love of his mother.

dead-of-night--2Immediately after Andy’s arrival back to his home we (and everyone except his mother) get the sense that there is something terribly wrong. Despondent and angrily violent, his behavior mimics the dissociation experienced by Vietnam soldiers trying to acclimate when back on U.S. soil. However, it’s much more than that – Andy is deadly. He kills truck drivers, the family dog and family doctor (uttering the brilliant line – I died for you, the least you can do is die for me) along with his former girlfriend and nearly his sister. The family dynamic breaks down in these realizations over the truth about Andy, resulting in a despondent father fighting with the in-denial mother. It isn’t until the very end, when his mother’s love rescues his soul that we see what Andy needed all along; to come home to die.

deathdream01Made before Bob Clark’s nearly unwatchable debut Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1973) and his brilliant horror opus Black Christmas (1974), Deathdream is a pitch-perfect revelation of the horror of Vietnam in cinema. Perhaps it’s not so different from our current political climate as we can sympathize with the painful unknowing of why one is fighting and dying overseas and how families continue to cope with loss. Watching Deathdream now, it’s important to recognize the importance horror film has to mirror the unseen and discarded painful aspects of human existence. While we may be seeing a reference to Vietnam unfold on screen, we are really looking at a reflection of humanity: war, death, life, loss, and love. Equally full of pain and affection (with a bit of Bob Clark humor thrown in), Deathdream reveals the universal potency of horror cinema in its most beautifully basic form.