Inspired by The Monkey’s Paw, this melancholy chiller by Black Christmas and Porkys director, Bob Clark is one of the zombie film world’s most underrated films. It is a tense, brooding look at the return of a young soldier from war and the impact it has on his family. Having been told of his death the Brooks family are overwhelmed and overjoyed when Andy (Richard Backus) unexpectedly turns up on their doorstep. Andy is a cold and distant shell, unable to engage and embrace those around him. When a trucker is found dead on the night of the son’s arrival and Andy strangles the family dog, Dad (John Marley) becomes more than a little concerned. Mom (Lynne Carlin) refuses to countenance anything that could break up her precious family home again even when Andy starts decomposing.
Deathdream is an effective little slowburn. No outright scares, but an unrelenting, mounting tension that builds to an emotional and bodily visceral conclusion. What sets the Deathdream apart from many other low-budget horror movies is the strength of its performances. Marley and Carlin (stars of John Cassavetes’ Faces) are the heart and soul of this picture as Andy’s anguished parents. They demonstrate loss, guilt, denial and pain in increasingly histrionic tones, one can almost feel and hear the lacerations of their heart strings as the ugly reality becomes ever apparent. Dad retreats into drink while Mom dives deep into denial.
Deathdream, whilst never mentioning the war by name, explores the (negative) effects of the Vietnam war on the families and a veteran’s struggle to re-adjust to life back home. The film can also be seen as a study of a family in crisis, Andy’s return leading to the resurrection of pre-existing problems (hinted at throughout the film) and suppressed during his absence. Deathdream is an effective, understated and ambitious little entry in the horror movie canon.