Bob Clark’s ’70s cult hit “Deathdream” brought the dread of the Vietnam War back home

By on January 11, 2019

Writer-director Bob Clark’s thought-provoking, disturbingly creepy horror cult hit Deathdream (1974) is a Vietnam War-era re-working of W.W. Jacob’s classic allegorical short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” reminding us to be careful what we wish for.

Watch it now, if you dare, on Night Flight Plus.

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In a pre-title sequence at the beginning of Deathdream — filmed with the working title The Night Walker, and later also released as Dead of Night and The Night Andy Came Home — we see U.S. Army soldier “Andy Brooks” (Richard Backus) being shot dead by a sniper while serving in Vietnam.

The dying soldier hears his mother’s voice calling out, “Andy, you’ll come back. You’ve got to. You promised.”

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The Army sends a man in uniform to personally deliver a telegram with the sad news about Andy’s death to his parents, a suburban middle-class Florida couple.

Andy’s mother “Christine Brooks” (Lynn Carlin) is inconsolable. She cannot wrap her mind around this devastating news, praying and wishing for Andy to return to her again.

Andy’s father “Charles Brooks” is played by the great character actor John Marley, memorable as the Hollywood film producer who wakes up with his prize racehorse’s severed head in his bed in The Godfather.

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Strange noises in the middle of the night bring the entire Brooks family downstairs — including Andy’s sister “Cathy” (Anya Ormsby)  — where they’re shocked to find Andy, looking very much alive in his Army uniform.

The truth is, Andy is actually more “undead” than dead or alive, and he even tells his family that he actually did die in Vietnam.

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The allegory is clear: no soldier is the same once he experiences death during combat.

We then realize Andy — sullen, aloof and outcast — has actually brought the dread and horror of the Vietnam War into the family home (Deathdream was filmed in 1972, as the anti-war movement marched across the country).

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While his father suggests he might need psychological or even medical help, his mother refuses to accept that her son is any different.

Meanwhile, Andy creepily dons a pair of black leather gloves and sunglasses for a date with his ex-girlfriend “Joanne” (Jane Daly).

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It’s pretty clear there’s something seriously wrong with Andy after he strangles the family’s beloved pet dog in front of dear old dad, who then begins drowning his fears in booze and lashing out in acts of alcohol-fueled violence.

Then, a truck driver is found murdered, his neck slit open and his blood drained (he’d earlier told diner patrons that he’d just picked up a hitchhiking soldier who was on his way home).

Once the town doctor physician “Dr. Allman” (Henderson Forsythe) determines what happened to the trucker, he too becomes a victim, dying in essentially the same way as the trucker did, the blood drained from his body.

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Andy’s skin is now withering like a piece of rotten fruit, his teeth are clenched as the flesh of his face begins to fall away, exposing cheekbone below.

By the film’s end Andy has become a blood-drinking vampire and a walking zombie, visibly spreading the once-unseen virus — now the physical embodiment of war’s horror — to those he comes in contact with.

He must continue to kill and siphon off his victims blood to at least partially delay his own decomposition.

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Read more about Deathdream below.

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Producers working at Clark’s Toronto-based film distributor, Quadrant Films, were so impressed with what Bob Clark had been able to do working with very little money on his first film, 1972’s comedy/horror spoof Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, that they offered to finance his next film.

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Clark once again turned to his writing partner, actor Alan Ormsby — who had also co-written (and starred in) Clark’s first film — to come up with the contemporary story for Deathdream.

It was based not only on W.W. Jacob’s classic allegorical short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” published in 1902, but also on an un-produced play Ormsby had written in the late ’60s.

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The original theatrical trailer plays up the notion that no one is innocent in war: “A boy went away to fight a war, a man came back, but something came back with him, something unspeakable.”

Clark and Ormsby had not only wanted to make a statement on how the Vietnam War not only has had a lingering effect on veterans returning home to American soil, but that they aren’t the only ones suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction.

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Clark was given a production budget of $235,000, which was actually a major step up from the budget for his first film (about $40,000).

Clark shot this film in Brooksville, Florida, near Tampa, Florida, which he believed had a “Anywhere, U.S.A.” quality to it (Deathdream premiered in Tampa on August 30, 1974).

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This was Tom Savini‘s film debut for creating makeup effects (he would, of course, continue on to become a gore-effects film legend).

The Deathdream film posters, much like Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho, claimed that no one would be seated five minutes after the picture begins, suggesting that viewers check the feature starting times (“See the shattering suspense from the start!”).

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Bob Clark — who directed pre-Halloween slasher cult hit Black Christmas (1974), the sleazeball goof-fest Porky’s (1982) and its hugely-successful sequel Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983), the holiday staple A Christmas Story (1983) and dozens more — tragically died (along with his son Ariel) in a car accident on April 4, 2007.

He was 67 years old.

Watch Deathdream — you’ll find it in our Blue Underground section — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.