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Old 07-11-2004, 08:17 PM
Scored: 9
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Default Deathdream

Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: July 11, 2004

Released by: Blue Underground
Release date: 6/29/2004
MSRP: $19.95
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes

1974 will forever be remembered by horror fans as the year of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but across the border Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby were reshaping the horror genre. Using Canadian funding, the two made three groundbreaking horror pictures in ’74: Deranged, Black Christmas and Deathdream. Eschewing the tired filmmaking techniques of horror films past, Clark and Ormsby jump started a new era of horror filmmaking by playing with perspectives (the first person shots in Black Christmas), narrative modes (the documentary intrusion in Deranged), and make-up effects (giving Tom Savini his start with Deathdream). The duo were pivotal in developing the modern horror film. Even if audiences may not have seen their films, filmmakers certainly did, and it is tough to imagine a Halloween without the influence of Black Christmas. Thanks to Blue Underground, the most obscure of the Clark/Ormsby films, Deathdream, has finally been released on DVD. Take out the needles and let’s shoot this one up.

The Story

inline Image Like so many young American boys, Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) went out to fight in the Vietnam War, and like so many young American boys, he never returned the same. Andy was gunned down by the Vietcong at the beginning of the film, played back in effective slow motion. With death comes the inevitable John Doe letter, as Andy’s parents (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) are notified of his death. Endlessly grieving, Andy’s mom prays for his return. Miraculously enough, the next evening Andy returns…but something is different.

inline Image A shell of his former self, Andy is now emotionless and pale, spending his days staring into the distance thinking of other things. At first his parents think it is just the aftershock of the war that Andy will no doubt recover from, but when days pass and Andy continues to behave strangely, mommy and daddy in Pleasantville start to get concerned. The concern escalates when Andy strangles Butch, the family dog, right before Mr. Brooks’ eyes. Dad seeks out a doctor for Andy, but his attempts only end in more turmoil, as Andy attacks him late in the night, saying only “I died for you, why shouldn’t you return the favor?”

inline Image Andy takes the doctor’s blood and injects himself with it in order to sustain his life. Vietnam not only removed his emotions, but it also removed his blood, forcing him to rely on artificial injection to stay alive. Like all tragic heroes of the 1970s, Andy must eventually accept death, as his mind and body cannot whether the tough post-Vietnam social condition. The final shot of the film is a powerful one; one of a soldier asking for the burial he deserves, for a death he never should have had.

inline Image Deathdream was one of the first films to deal with the effects of the Vietnam War, and like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Martin, represents the new era of social commentary imbued within 70s horror films. Deathdream was one of the first of this new era of horror films to zero in directly on the darker underpinnings of contemporary culture. Vietnam was a travesty, and while it took other genres until 1978 to finally start addressing the war (with films like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home), Deathdream and the horror genre were bravely attacking the war just moments after it was over. Film scholar Robin Wood called the 70s horror film “the most important of all American genres, and perhaps the most progressive,” and in dealing with the aftermath of a war the film industry was negligent to dissect, Deathdream was one of the most progressive films of the genre.

inline Image At its center, the film is not a zombie film, but instead a metaphor for the destruction of the modern family by the forces of war. In his script notes for the film, screenwriter Alan Ormsby wrote of Andy’s city as “Pleasantville”, making his family out to be prototypical white collar family, living behind freshly pruned shrubs and white picket fences. When Andy returns, this model family rots from within. The interiors of the house change, as the railings and banisters are reflected by expressionistic lighting to cross and intersect on the ceiling. The shadows the railings reflect illustrate the state of the family, their world has been turned upside down and in disarray. Andy’s rotting skin is symbolic for the decay that happens within the family, as the relationships between mother and father, parent and son, and brother and sister begin to unravel. The family yearns for a return to normalcy after the war, but instead Andy’s cold isolation tears them apart.

inline Image Andy’s need to inject himself with blood through a syringe is also symbolic of the detriments brought back from Vietnam, mainly drugs and addiction. Unable to deal with the perils that the war caused both physically and mentally, many soldiers turned to drugs to stop the pain and remove them from the decay of their existence. Like with Andy however, the dependency on the syringe can only take one so far until they must come to terms with their own tragic state. While George A. Romero may have influenced Clark and Ormsby when the duo made their first zombie film, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Romero was no doubt reciprocally influenced by the duo for Martin. Like in Deathdream, Martin also deals with the decaying urban lifestyle of 70s America and it illustrates this by having its young, tragic lead injecting himself through syringe with the blood of his nation.

inline Image Although initially ignored upon its original release, Deathdream is a very important film in the evolution of the horror film. Its influence on Martin is undeniable, but it also served to influence some of the other great 70s horror films, particularly Carpenter’s Halloween. Much is made of how Bob Clark provided the blueprint for Halloween to John Carpenter, both through personal discussion and the influence of Black Christmas, but Deathdream is equally as influential in the creation of Carpenter’s opus. On the surface the similarities are uncanny: one of Deathdream’s alternative titles is “The Night Andy Came Home” while directly mirrors Halloween’s renowned tagline “The Night HE Came Home”, both are about a young man who returns home after a detrimental past event as a mere Shape of his former self, and both use dogs and doctors as the victims of the killers’ rage. Deep down though, both films deal with the decay of the family unit occurring behind closed doors. Just as Laurie Strode looks off in horror at the end of Halloween, the mother in Deathdream weeps in horror at the cancer that has been thrust upon the family. Whether it be Martin, Halloween, or any other horror film with overt social commentary, Deathdream stands as one of the genre’s most influential.

inline Image Not only is the film important historically, but it is also a well made film in its own right. Bob Clark is a master of mood and restraint, and like in Black Christmas he manages to build on the unseen and minimalism. The soundtrack is sparse, but the tortured whisperings give the film a certain degree turmoil and sadness. Even when the soundtrack is silent, and all that can be heard is the rocking of a chair, the effects are very unsettling. The performances are all strong, most notably newcomer Richard Buckas as the zombified Andy. Despite being removed of all expressive emotion, Buckas manages to make his motionless stares resonate with hidden angst, of a man torn by what he experienced in Vietnam. In his direction, Bob Clark manages to create a highly effective film that far surpasses his debut with Children, if not quite reaching the heights of his masterpiece, Black Christmas.

inline Image Precursors to Black Christmas can be seen with Clark’s experimental use of a distorted first person perspective when Andy is first introduced. As Andy hitches a ride with a truck driver, the sides of the frame curve and curl to suggest an immanent danger. Other experimental techniques are used by Clark and Ormsby to good effect as well, like the lens flares near the end and the aforementioned soundtrack manipulations. The technique that will probably be most regarded today is the make-up work and the birth of Tom Savini’s career. Although relatively sparse, the make-up in the film is highly effective, as slit throats and decaying skin are captured with a stunning amount of realism. Savini was a Vietnam photographer, and he no doubt collaborated with Ormsby to capture the realism of death seen in the war. Much credit must be given to Ormsby though, who not only molded Savini into one of the genre’s key effects figures, but also in creating some of the best zombie make-up the genre has ever seen. His zombies in Children, Deranged, Deathdream and Shock Waves seem much more believable and more frightening than any other zombie films of the 70s (including Dawn of the Dead). Although largely behind the scenes, Alan Ormsby was an integral influence on the horror genre, not only in direction and storytelling, but also in his makeup techniques.

inline Image Ormsby denies that the film is a dream in the commentary, but there is no doubt that it can be interpreted as such. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, a grieving mother sits by candle light asking for her dead son to return home. The shot of her surrounded by black slowly dissolves into an image of an approaching truck, which is when the audience first sees Andy after returning from his death after the war. The image has a sort of surreal quality, and in many ways can be seen as a projection by the mother of what is going on within her mind. She yearns for her son to return, but perhaps beneath her veiled optimism she knows that Andy’s return would only end in chaos. That was the reality in the post-Vietnam 70s, all hope became grief, and all dreams became nightmares.

Image Quality

Blue Underground presents the film in a clean 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the film looks better than it probably ever has. Saturation is very good, with those 70s pastels coming across just right, and the print is surprisingly sharp for being 30 years old. Most notably though, the dark levels are extremely strong, with very little grain. The blacks are deep and true, especially notable in the opening ‘Nam sequence, where the film is overcast in a very dark hue. Print blemishes are almost non-existent, except for a few bad scratch lines down the center of the frame during the end credits. Other than that though, this is really a top notch transfer, and much better than one would expect.


Deathdream is treated only to a mono track, but it is clean and sounds just fine. Carl Zittrer (Black Christmas, Prom Night, Deranged) is such a fine composer that his soundtracks sound good even if projected only through the front speakers. The directional whispering and early synthesizer experimentation would have really sounded fantastic on an opened 5.1 soundstage, but it is still undeniably effective in mono.

Supplemental Material

inline Image Despite being a quiet single disc release, Deathdream is one of the Underground’s most comprehensive discs. First up are a couple of audio commentaries, the first by director Bob Clark, and the second by screenwriter and make-up artist Alan Ormsby. Clark is not particularly vocal, and has to be prodded by the moderator to delve into the film’s history. After about the 40 minute mark however, he opens up, and his discussion on his relationship and falling out with Alan Ormsby is particularly interesting. There are plenty of silent gaps, and overall the Clark commentary is a bit of a letdown. Much better though, is Ormsby’s track, as he is much more energetic and offers plenty more anecdotes on the film and his collaborations with Clark. Ormsby and the moderator share plenty of laughs, making it a much more playful track than Clark’s. The best moment is when Ormsby talks about when Lynn Carlin fell down on set, and under her dress they could all see a “black cat with a red bird in its mouth”. Overall though, both tracks are worth a listen, but if you are only going to listen to one, Ormsby’s is the way to go.

Next up is a 10 minute interview with Tom Savini, entitled “Tom Savini: The Early Years”. The short is an interesting revelation into the influences that fueled one of the most creative minds in horror. Savini cites Lon Chaney, touring make-up shows of his childhood and Hammer films as the key influences that gave him interest in the make-up profession. Also interesting is Savini’s discussion of Vietnam, and how being a photographer there gave him an acute understanding of gore and the human anatomy. Another short interview is included with Richard Backus that runs 12 minutes, as he talks about working with Bob Clark and what he has done before and after Deathdream.

inline Image inline Image

Alternate opening titles are also provided as an extra, and other than a cool opening logo, are basically the exact same as the credits in the actual film. The extended ending sequence features a little more unseen footage, but it is mostly just added explosions and reaction shots, and would have bogged down the climax had they been reinserted into the actual film. The quality of the extended ending is very poor however, taken from a faded tape master. Still, both sequences are nice, if expendable, inclusions.

The disc is rounded off with a very effective trailer that uses a music box toy of a soldier and his girlfriend in full embrace, spinning upon a solemn background. Sill and poster galleries are also included, broken down into behind the scenes, publicity stills, U.S. press book, posters and video sections.

The funniest thing about all the supplements, is how many times everyone in the extras gets John Marley’s Academy Award nomination credit wrong. Both Clark and Ormsby mistakenly fail to recognize, that John Marley got an Oscar nomination for Love Story and not The Godfather. Clark even goes as far as saying that he won the Oscar for Godfather, and is not even corrected by the moderator. Then, even in the official U.S. press book issued during the film’s release, it mistakenly purports that Marley was nominated with Lynn Carlin for Faces. Love Story goes without mention at all…I guess love means never having to say the truth.

Blue Underground has gone over and above the call of duty here, and has delivered enough supplements to satisfy even the most diehard fans. Even the cover is laced with a glossy shine.

Final Thoughts

Deathdream is a forgotten little gem, and one of the more influential films in shaping the horror climate of the 1970s. Ripe with unprecedented commentary on the perils of Vietnam, and full of experimental techniques, it is another in the string of Clark and Ormsby’s trio of great 1974 films. Blue Underground has given the film the respect it deserves, with a beautiful new video transfer, acceptable mono sound and hours of solid supplemental material. Stop counting sheep and get ready for one helluva Deathdream.


Movie – A-
Image Quality – A-
Sound – B-
Supplements – A-

Technical Info.
  • Running Time - 1 hour 28 minutes
  • Color
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Mono
  • Commentary with director Bob Clark
  • Commentary with screenwriter/make-up artist Alan Ormsby
  • “Tom Savini: The Early Years” featurette
  • “Deathdreaming – Interview with star Richard Backus” featurette
  • Alternate opening titles
  • Extended ending sequence
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Poster and still gallery


Can't argue with a confident man.

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Old 07-12-2004, 12:17 AM
Great review, Rhett! I cannot wait to see this film, once I find the DVD somewhere. How do you think it compares to Black Christmas?
Old 07-20-2004, 03:19 PM
I don't understand the comment about there being "very little grain" -- it's a grainy movie, there should be grain visible on the DVD, and there's plenty of it.
Old 07-24-2004, 08:00 PM
I agree with ctyner. Deathdream is as grainy as The Prowler, also from Blue Underground.

Old 08-16-2004, 06:46 AM
I just got this, and I have to agree as well... this film is grain city, but it's still a very good transfer.
Old 08-20-2004, 07:34 AM
A really good review... I think I'm going to pick this one up.
Old 09-26-2004, 06:20 AM
awesome review rhett i wanted to know more about this movie and now i know. Ill definantly be picking it up soon

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