Andy (Richard Backus) is a young soldier serving in Vietnam. He gets gunned down during a battle and dies. Back home, his father Charles (John Marley) and mother Christine (Lynn Carlin), receive word that he has died. Christine wails, unable to accept that her baby boy is dead. Charles finds her later that night, sitting in a dark room, rocking in a rocking chair, holding a single candle, repeating over and over that Andy wasn’t really dead, that he promised to come home. As if weaving a spell to make it so, Andy is next seen riding as a hitchhiker in a semi, in full uniform and ghastly pale. Andy kills the driver and drinks his blood. He finds a ride the rest of the way home and appears in the house, standing behind a glass door, greeting his father and mother with a deranged, whimsical grin when they search the house, thinking a prowler has broken in. At first elated their son has returned and that the news of his death was wrong, the family quickly become disenchanted with this turn of events. They begin to notice that Andy isn’t quite right, that he’s returned, but something is very wrong. Andy came home, and now they have to live with the consequences.
This is filmmaker Bob Clark’s second film and some consider it to be his best. It’s the middle of a trilogy of horror films he made early in his career, sandwiched between Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (his comedic take on Night of the Living Dead) and Black Christmas (which some consider the first proper slasher film), Dead of Night contains some of the raw elements of his first film and some of the more polished nuances of his next movie. A scathing indictment on war and loss, this film follows a family’s descent into madness. Andy should be dead and it seems he still is, since we learn he has no pulse and his body is starting to rot and fall apart, despite drinking blood of various victims to keep him functioning. Andy is aware of who he is and what he is, and while he appears on the surface to be calm and collected, we learn at the end that he is indeed quite tormented. This is a horrifying portrayal of a kind of PTSD that many returning soldiers of that awful war dealt with but couldn’t put a name to. According to outer appearances, they were normal and unchanged, but inside, bad things were churning to the surface. A slow film (but never ponderous), there are many terrifying sequences, including the one where Andy stalks the family doctor. And there are some outright savage moments, as well, including his attack on a carful of friends during a showing at the drive-in. There are creepy moments, too, mostly conveyed by Andy’s expressions of madness and hunger. This movie kind of has it all, including a flaming car chase at the end.
I saw Dead of Night (retitled many times over the years, including and I guess officially now, Deathdream) long ago on a faded VHS tape and decided to revisit it in a more pristine form. I’m glad I did. Bob Clark was a hell of a filmmaker, and you can count this as one of his best. If you’re looking for a somber, moody horror piece, one that speaks to the horrors of war and what war brings home with it, look no further. If you’re just looking for a good, creepy movie, this one has you covered in that respect, as well. No matter how you look at it, politically or just on the surface, this one delivers.