If I had seen Bob Clark’s Dead of Night AKA Deathdream in theaters (with effects by Alan Ormsby and his assistant, a young man named Tom Savini), it would have meant two things. First, that I’d managed to take my long-wished-for trip back in time to 1973, and second, that Dead of Night had gotten a wide release. I could have seen it if I’d taken that trip, but even then it’s unlikely I would have. It has only gotten popular from late night TV showings and video.
The people in this movie start out as the worst kind of Ozzie and Harriet family I can imagine. I believe there is a reason for this, but let me give you a synopsis first. The opening scene features the mother prattling on and on about how great it is that her husband can carve a roast and admonishing her daughter to marry a man who can carve a freakin’ roast. Her husband and daughter exchange a worried look as Mom goes on about the roast, her deployed son Andy, and his faithful girlfriend who called Mom just that day. Mom is a few sandwiches short of a picnic already.
Then the doorbell rings and there is an Army dude there with a telegram which unfortunately informs them that their son and brother, Andy, has been killed in what we can assume is Vietnam. The mother goes into very polite denial and spends the evening chanting over a candle, “you can’t be dead, you promised to come back.” It’s not a real attempt at black magic, just a reserved mental breakdown, but it works like magic. Andy does come home that night, but not before having murdered the kind and generous truck driver with whom he has hitched a ride. When his family tells him they got news he was dead, Andy says, “I was.” Creepy!
Andy ends up killing a bunch of people, including the mailman, who knows the whole family by name and thinks nothing of plopping down at a family picnic at Andy’s house and asking for iced tea. Andy also kills his high school sweetheart, who was waiting patiently for him to come home from the war, but obviously not for him to come home in this way. Andy is a zombie that has to feed on human blood. Eventually Andy rots and it’s gross and there is some gnarly violence.
But most of all, the movie is sad. It’s obviously an anti-war picture, and from what I understand it was one of the first to tackle Vietnam. That is why I think the suburban icky whitebreadedness of Andy’s family and friends was intentional and genius. People didn’t act like that anymore in most films made in ’73, but them being that way in Dead of Night really highlights the idea that the Vietnam War viciously murdered that America from which those “isn’t life swell” people came: the picket fence, nuclear family, you-can-be-anything-you-want-if-you-try-hard-enough America. That’s also why the squareness of Andy’s family is so off-putting to me: I’m a little bitter that I never got to see that America. Did it ever even exist offscreen?
So far that way of life has not been resurrected, but maybe the continuing love for the film Dead of Night means that it possibly could be someday.