dir. Bob Clark
"That was quite a war, that World War II...We lost a lot of good boys in that war and we kept some we should've lost."
It is quite astounding that even though The Vietnam War was the defining event of the sixties and seventies, so few movies were made about it as it was occurring. During WWII, countless movies were made about that conflict. The main difference, of course, between these two wars is that WWII was supported by the majority of the American populace whereas Vietnam wasn't. Indeed, one of the only mainstream Vietnam movies, made during that war, that comes to mind is John Wayne's pro-Vietnam War propaganda piece The Green Berets. Thankfully, that movie died a quick and painful death at the box office. It's hard to convince people to spend money to watch a movie promoting a war they feel shitty about.
Aside from The Green Berets, the only other movies made during this time that even remotely dealt with the conflict in Vietnam tended to be drive in fare. Because of their low profiles, the exploitation production houses could make movies dealing with all sorts of controversial subject matters without fears of a backlash from an enraged public. Nowhere was this truer than in the horror movies that these companies produced. Horror movies have long dealt subversively with many a controversial subject. Hell, I could write ten of these posts about the political subtext in the work of George Romero alone. Horror movies have never been taken as seriously as "legitimate movies" and thus have been able to slip under the radar undetected.
It was under these circumstances that Bob Clark helmed his Vietnam horror movie Deathdream. Bob Clark previously made his mark with the underrated zombie movie, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. Although CSPWDT is a somewhat formulaic Night of the Living Dead knockoff, its dark humor got people's attention. To make Deathdream Clark hired the writer and star of CSPWDT, Alan Ormsby, to write the screenplay. What resulted was an exploitation masterpiece.
Deathdream opens right in the middle of a fire fight in Vietnam. Our main character Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is killed before the opening credits even roll -- not that this is an arty or clever device a la Sunset Boulevard. On the contrary, Andy actually turns into a vampire (actually it's more of a combination of a vampire and a zombie). The next time we see Andy he is back in the states hitching a ride from a soon to be victim trucker. The movie isn't exactly clear on how Andy gets back to America, though. Seeing as the military has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to vampire/zombies, I doubt he flew back in a military aircraft. My guess is that he used the, walking on the ocean floor method, employed by the zombies in Lucio Fulci's Zombie.
A very tense Brooks family sits at home having dinner when an Army official comes by to give them the news of Andy's death. Understandably the family is distraught, that is, until Andy comes home where he lurks in the shadows of the living room until his family discovers him. Sure, the Brooks were just informed that Andy was dead and when they find him, Andy has a devious smile and cold dead eyes, but that doesn't mean that anything is wrong. Honestly, Andy might as well be wearing a sign that says, 'I drain and drink the blood of the living so that I may live. Do not trust me.' His family members, specifically his mom Christine (Lynn Carlin), remain oblivious, however.
Andy's dad, Charles, begins to grow suspicious. Charles is played expertly by John Marley, best known as the movie producer who wakes up next to a horse's head in The Godfather. Christine tries to convince him that Andy just needs time to readjust. Actually, everything appears to be fine now. No, wait; Andy is strangling the family dog. He continues on a murdering rampage in which he offs a whole mess o' people undetected.
Through it all, Christine remains committed to her son. Yes Andy killed a doctor, a random trucker, and his girlfriend among others but, gosh-darnit, it's just impossible to stay mad at that adorable psycho vampire/zombie face. In fact, even when Christine learns of her son's deeds, she tries to help him escape from authorities. Hijinks and insanity ensue.
It's a shame that movies of this sort are such a rarity nowadays. In a roundabout way, this movie was dealing with the struggles of reintegrating soldiers back into society. It's like The Best Years of Our Lives but with vampire/zombies." Deathdream actually makes a good companion piece to the Elia Kazan helmed, returning Vietnam Vets movie of a few years earlier, The Visitors. The rare movies from this period that dealt with Vietnam, explored it from the angle of the returning vets. They didn't depict the actual conflict. Americans simply weren't ready to pay money to watch depictions of the carnage that they saw daily on the evening news. A similar thing is happening today. This past year has seen a slew of returning vets movies as we come to grips with the current unpopular war.
Deathdream actually has a direct descendant in Joe Dante's delightful made for Showtime Homecoming. In Dante's movie, the zombies of U.S. soldiers return to America so that they can vote the warmongers out of office. As with Homecoming, when modern horror movies deal in politics it is blunt and in your face. First and foremost, Deathdream was about bringing the scares. It just happened to sneak in some subtext about the Vietnam War.
Deathdream is an important movie in many respects. For one, it employs the killer's POV shot that would become de rigeur in later slasher movies such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. Deathdream is also the first movie that I can think of in which a vampire uses a syringe to drain the blood of his victims. This method would later be used in George Romero's quiet masterpiece, Martin. Most importantly, Deathdream marked Tom Savini's first movie as a makeup artist. Savini would eventually become inextricably linked to the works of George Romero. Interestingly, Savini was originally slated to work on the make up effects for Night of the Living Dead but was called to active duty in Vietnam where he worked as a combat photographer. He would eventually cite his experience in Vietnam as an inspiration for his work as a makeup artist. Although Savini's work on Deathdream is tame when compared to his later work, it did employ his signature zombie makeup.
Deathdream is every bit as awesome as its premise implies. This is one of the few movies that more than lived up to my expectations. It is everything one would expect it to be and then some. This movie also makes me sad in that it reminds me how far Bob Clark fell in the subsequent years. For a while he could do no wrong. He made both the original Black Christmas and the perennial Christmas favorite A Christmas Story. The man loved himself some Christmas movies. His most recent movies, however, included the two Baby Geniuses movies and The Karate Dog. Ouch. I don't know whether he just stopped caring by the end of his career or if he was never any good and just happened to luck into great projects early on. My guess is that it was a combination of the two. Sure his most recent movies were complete and utter crap, but it it is impossible to watch a movie like Deathdream and deny that the director had talent.