“Andy. Andy. You can’t die, Andy… You promised you’d come back.”
The power of the human wish is perhaps no stronger than when it is made in regards to the absence of another soul. Distance in the earthly and unearthly planes can make the heart skip a beat, grow fonder, break, and ache in remembrance for what once was and what can be no longer. The reason that stories like W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” are so endlessly retold by our societies is because they reveal the truth of all our errant dreams and desires and how we can be so foolish as to think that time answers to the beck and call of our ideal imaginings.
Screenwriter Alan Ormsby, along with director Bob Clark, both of whom had previously collaborated on the grimy fringe-theater freakshow CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972), were canny to pair this resonant theme with the backdrop of Vietnam, a period that marked the first occasion when American viewers could fully appreciate the mutilation and scorching death-heat wrought by the grinding machinations of war from the softly glowing comfort of their home television screens. Tom Savini was there to drink deep of the charnelia he witnessed as a combat photographer. Some soldiers remembered the bodies and the blood-choked cries during their dreams. Savini had pictures of them. He took them into his laboratory to make monsters.
DEATHDREAM (1972) may primarily take place in Brooksfield, Florida standing in for Your Town, U. S. A. but it never truly climbs out of the jungle pit where Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is gunned down under a night sky screaming fire. We view the sunshine and the picnics and drive-ins in much the same way that Andy does upon his return home. It’s all ice right at the start of the great spring thaw, cracking and sinking into the freezing depths below piece by piece. It’s only a matter of time after the morgue light flickers in the prologue before the blood starts to flow and the war is brought home. “For a minute I thought we were being invaded,” mutters the fill station drunk. Brother, you don’t even know.
We might not know anything of Andy before his return, thus making the lovable person he was only an abstraction to us, but in the end it isn’t necessary. Ormsby and Clark are able to fill in the gaps and the lack of knowledge we have as we’re introduced to the family praying for the safety of their boy over dinner actually makes the gradual reveal of the inherent fissures and scars that existed before the arrival of the Beast all the more tantalizing and telling. John Marley as Dad–an actor doomed to an existence of murdered pets–makes it a point on more than one occasion to inform us that this is “his house” and he thinks nothing of getting drunk and tossing the missus and the girl around once they step out of line. An argument between him and wife Lynn Carlin (FACES) explains that Andy only enlisted to please macho dad while Marley insists that he did of it his own will to escape the persona of a “momma’s boy,” but if anything this exchange tells us that both of these parents never knew their son even before he died.
“Andy wouldn’t kill anybody.” Not unless he had orders to, anyway.
DEATHDREAM is one of the few movies that has a basic understanding of how darkness works. What might at first appear ungainly or artless in the fashion of similar low-budget efforts of the time is actually a frisson-filled glimpse into a world that cannot keep its shadows at bay. They are always teeming around the corners of the frame and there are moments when they break free and swarm the image. Take the POV shots of Andy hitchhiking with the trucker, or the extended scene of poor Henderson Forsythe in his office. I love the way that there are just a few, small beacons of light to provide detail amidst the empty voids of space. Faces are eaten by the night, fully furnished rooms reduced to a lonely island on a stage under a single spotlight. It shows us what we really look like in the dark.
The soul-souring musical score provided by Carl Zittrer, full of mournful synthesizers with a recurring vocal chant of demonic chittering that calls out Andy’s name from the depths of Hell, worms its way into the gray matter to nestle within the nightmare channels of the mind. Listening to the lonely drone of the music as its plays over those vistas of black is to accept the fact that there is no hope left in this shell-shocked world and that we are all just merely waiting for the sniper’s bullet to finally find its mark.
Andy’s character is what we find when the door from Jacob’s story is wrenched open, revealing the abhorrent creature knocking upon it before it can be wished back into its coffin. Savini compares him to one of the monsters that haunted the back lots of Universal Studios, but Andy has more in common with the faceless shamblers of George Romero’s era than any Golden Age-horrors. He’s a vessel for our collective fears.
Hunger and survival are only peripheral concerns in Andy’s ravaging of his victims for their blood. His mad, scrambled slaying of Henderson that has him first strangling the doctor with his own stethoscope and then ripping his belly open with a hypodermic needle is fueled more by rage than anything else, the angered young student who dresses in Warhol mode with dark shades and gloves pushed into a fight that he didn’t belong in taking out his sweating fear and biting frustrations on the silver-haired fathers who sent him there. He feels the sweet rush of mortality when he shoots himself up with Doc’s blood, but it’s when the plasma spurts onto his clenched teeth that the sequence crackles with pure bestial retribution. “You owe me something, Doc. You owe me this!”
Where DEATHDREAM really transcends the grindhouse is during the climax that sees the decaying veteran taking flight with his mother as the police do their best angry villager act. They end up at the local cemetery where Andy has already prepared an impromptu burial mound and headstone for himself. Ormsby takes Jacobs’ story further by asking what would have happened if that old husband and wife had opened the door and accepted the thing that waited for them on the doorstep into their home. What would the emotional fallout be? And if that creature had a heart to yearn with, what would it wish for?
We find out at the end of the film but it was there in the title all along. Marley can’t even face what he has wrought when Andy holds out his arms to him, a craggy-faced vampire of a prodigal son. It is left up to Carlin to see her wish to its final, inevitable conclusion. She helps her son back into the earthy womb of his grave, embodying the tragic notion of a parent burying their child to the most devastating degree in a way that can only be done in a work of dark fantasy. Carlin has watched her boy go away to fight the war and seen the man come back in his place followed by the long shadow of his pain and suffering, but at the end of the day she will always be there to hold his hand and sing him one last lullaby.