Offering a supernatural spin on the Vietnam-vet genre, Deathdream—sometimes known by its original title, Dead of Night—is one of three grungy ’70s horror flicks directed by Bob Clark, who, improbably, is best known for the sweet family film A Christmas Story (1983). Disturbing, focused, and grim, the movie begins with soldier Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) dying on the battlefield. The movie then shifts to the American heartland, where Andy’s parents, Charles (John Marley) and Christine (Lynn Carlin) reel upon hearing about their boy’s demise. Just hours after receiving the bad news, however, Charles and Christine get an even bigger shock when Andy shows up their door, seemingly very much alive. Yet it soon becomes clear that the young man who’s come home from Vietnam isn’t the same sweet kid the Brooks family remembered—Andy is stoic and withdrawn, his erratic behavior hinting at the potential for violence.
Meanwhile, a trail of bodies leads police to the Brooks home. It turns out that Andy has become some sort of vampire/zombie, subsisting on the blood of his victims in order to continue his bizarre half-life. And while much of Deathdream comprises standard horror-flick rhythms—a killing every 10 minutes or so, interspersed with scenes of characters slowly realizing who’s responsible—what makes the picture interesting is a thread of sad domestic drama. Andy’s parents squabble over their son’s inexplicable behavior, with Charles demanding that Andy stop moping and Christine making excuses. Later on, when it becomes inescapable that Andy is responsible for monstrous deeds, Charles succumbs to grief and Christine goes mad.
Adding another wrinkle is the implication that Andy doesn’t really want to be “alive,” and that he’s trying to escape the curse with which he’s been burdened. The idea that he merely wants his existence to end, and yet can’t stop himself from feeding on the living, gives Deathdream an unusual vibe blending the plaintive with the surreal. Thus, at the risk of giving the picture too much credit, since it’s merely a solid shocker, Deathdream ends up providing a potent metaphor for the experience of the returning soldier—Andy thought he’d been released from his troubles by death, but instead he brings war-zone traumas back to his hometown. Thanks to such nuances, Deathdream offers a surprising emotional punch in addition to its various grisly murders and unnerving suspense scenes.