When Andy Brooks (Richard Backus in an Oscar-worthy performance) inexplicably comes home from Vietnam, his parents explain to him that they were told he was dead.
"I was," he replies, not skipping a beat, then smiles.
This exchange sets the tone for an extraordinary film from director Bob Clark and writer Earl Ormsby (Deranged).
Made in '74, when Vietnam still lingered heavily in the public psyche, it is the best example I have seen of a film dealing with what is essentially PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder); Combat Shock also tackled the issue with sensitivity and intelligence.
It is also a prime example of how the horror genre can address serious issues in a fascinating way.
You see, Andy IS dead, but he's not yet buried or completely retired. He lingers in a sad, desperate, pain-ridden deathdream, and he survives by drinking blood.
His parents and sister embrace him immediately, but it soon becomes obvious that the Andy who left to go to war is a very different Andy now.
Some of the film's most effective scenes are of Andy immersed in replays of horrific memories mixed with the pain of a limbo-like existence.
Much of Andy's frustration is triggered by the inability of others to comprehend the hellish experiences he still carries with him.
When the local mailman greets Andy and begins callously discussing who died in Vietnam and who should have died ("...and there are some we should have lost...", Andy can barely stop himself from ripping the man's throat out.
As the returned soldier's psychological condition becomes more brittle, a fissure develops between father (John Marley) and son.
The fissure represents a classic generational clash, and Clark handles it like a conventional father-son conflict. Although there is a supernatural element underpinning Andy's actions, this aspect is allowed to simmer beneath the surface. As a result, it is much more effective as horror.
It is tragic to see Marley ordering Andy from his house ("Get out of my house!") only days after he was tearfully embracing his lost son.
Andy's mother (Christine Brooks) quickly falls out with Andy's father and focuses her protective nature on the disintegrating returnee. She gains greater strength after lapsing into emphatic denial of Andy's true nature.
Easily one of the saddest horror films ever made, Deathdream features a number of powerful sequences in which the torturous side of living death is explored. The short story on which it is based, 'The Monkey's Paw', gives the drama a deep foundation.
Andy enters a cemetery at night and begins inscribing his own name on an old tombstone. His wish to die and rest in peace is palpable. That he cannot do so, that he is being driven by a force beyond his command, makes for a devastating viewing experience.
It's understandable that Deathdream (also known as Dead of Night) has always been marketed as a horror film -- and it certainly is that.
Unfortunately, its deeper virtues have not been universally recognized.
"Something unspeakable has come home", the DVD cover art trumpets, but it's really the other way around.
SOMEONE HAS COME HOME TO SOMETHING UNSPEAKABLE is more accurate, for the film is about a veteran (like many) who comes home to a world in which his experiences can never be truly understood, appreciated, or acknowledged. As a result, he is totally alienated, and death seems preferable.
When Andy is visited by a group of local kids...
... he becomes frustrated and angered by their banter and trivializing of his wartime service.
Naively, they question him about weapons and ask him if he's ever killed anybody. His ultimate response to this is to shoot to his feet and wring the neck of his father's barking dog.
The denouement of this sequence is shocking, and it underlines Andy's displacement in a living, post-war world.
Unable to share his pain and confusion with anybody living or dead, Andy appears defiant.
With Andy's decline almost absolute, he is rushed to the grave by his caring mother, and she is forced to bury him in order to rid him of a life that begs for closure.
Andy's last minutes are a superb marriage of the macabre and humanistic, and director Clark achieves a watershed in the genre.
RIP Andy Brooks... and RIP Bob Clark, who died in a grisly auto wreck in 2007.