Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is a soldier in the Vietnam War whose family would dearly love for him to be back with them after his long tour of duty. His mother Christine (Lynn Carlin) is pining for him and prays for his safe return, so when one evening they - Christine, father Charles (John Marley) and sister Cathy (Anya Brooks) - are having their meal and the doorbell rings, they are not prepared for the news they receive. It is a soldier who informs them with great sorrow that Andy has died in action thousands of miles away, but Christine simply does not wish to believe it and her grief quickly turns to denial. She even goes as far as praying this information is wrong and that her son was coming home to her alive...
Well, she got it half right in Deathdream, known under a number of titles such as Dead of Night (not to be confused with the classic British horror anthology) or The Night Walk (the title it was produced under), which was yet another variant on The Monkey's Paw, the W.W. Jacobs short story which sees a mother wish for the return of her deceased son. The script by Alan Ormsby, one of a few projects he made with director Bob Clark, took that premise and expanded upon it at least as far as their low budget would allow, so you had to make allowances for the lack of funds and general impoverished air of much of the appearance of the film. That said, once the drama got going you might barely notice it.
Clark brought out strong performances in his cast, led by John Marley who had just been the recipient of an equine present in his bed in The Godfather when he made this. His Charles is happy to see that Andy has returned after all, but grows increasingly unnerved at the young man's now-unresponsive demeanour which would come to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder should this have been a drama and not a horror flick. Such was the haunted nature of Andy that he could very well be a metaphor for mentally damaged war veterans who returned home changed men (and women), unable to adjust to life back home and lashing out when anyone tries to get close to them, not that many of them would go to the extreme that Andy does in this case.
He has effectively become a mixture of zombie and vampire; we never find out the exact mechanism that brought him back to his family nor why the side effects are so horrendous, but we are aware that on his journey home hitchhiking he murdered a truck driver who gave him a lift, extracting his blood in not quite explained fashion to sustain himself. If Andy doesn't get his blood, he starts to deteriorate, which is where the zombie aspect enters into it thanks to some effective makeup by Ormsby with assistance from a young Tom Savini, whose career would progress in leaps and bounds as he became the go to guy for gore effects in the seventies and eighties. As if killing the trucker was not bad enough, when his dad invites the kids who liked him so much before he left around to say hello, Andy proceeds to choke the pet dog to death right in front of them.
It is a little hard to take that the veteran would have gone to such lengths without anyone taking him to get professional help, but no less difficult than believing he would turn into a vampire, and besides we were in territory where the allusions to the elephant in the room of Vietnam and its devastating effect on many lives was being ignored by those back in the United States. Oddly, this wasn't actually an American film, it was a British-Canadian co-production though there were Americans involved in its making, so perhaps it took an outsider's view to get to grips with an issue which would dominate Hollywood filmmaking for a long time afterwards. Clark never forgot he was making a horror movie, there were scenes of gore and creepiness (Backus used a piercing stare to fine effect), but rather than being overwhelmingly disturbing, or even laughable as the situations get over the top, the chief mood was tragedy, as the family breaks down and supporting characters such as the excellent Jane Daly as the estranged girlfriend suffer. Quietly melancholy for all its mayhem. Music by Carl Zittrer.
American born, Canadian-based writer, producer and director with a varied career, he rarely stopped working in the industry from his 1970s horror Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things onwards, with cult classics like chiller Deathdream, Black Christmas (the first of the North American slasher cycle), Murder by Decree (a Sherlock Holmes mystery), sex comedy Porky's and its sequel, and A Christmas Story (a cult comedy that has become a seasonal favourite) all winning fans. He was responsible for such derided films as Rhinestone and the Baby Geniuses movies as well. At the time of his death in a car crash he was working on a remake of ...Dead Things.