Last night I went to the Walter Reade
Theater in Lincoln Center to see Bob Clark's 1972 little-known zombie
classic Deathdream. Clark
went on to fame as the director of Porky's, the film that
arguably inaugurated the era of the teen gross-out comedy. I'd never
heard of Deathdream but my generous friend Ricardo Brunstein
passed on a couple of free tickets from his membership in the Film Society of Lincoln Center, so I
was happy to go.
Deathdream has roughly the same modest production values as Night of the Living Dead but nonetheless packs a punch. With the Vietnam War still raging at the time of film's release, contemporary audiences doubtless connected with genuine emotion to the movie's twisted take on a stock situation. A 21-year-old soldier returns home to his doting family in a small Midwestern town. It quickly becomes apparent that the young and handsome veteran -- much changed by the horrific experiences of war -- is out of sync with the loved ones he left behind.
Just how much out of sync we quickly learn. "I died for you, don't you think you should return the favor?" he coolly asks a hapless civilian before killing him to drink his blood. (Talk about pandering to patriotism.) As one of the several anti-war currents at work in the film, the zombie's affectless behavior presents itself as the ultimate case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The story is also about obsessive maternal love, with the sanity of a
mother successively hammered by a telegram telling her that her son is
dead, by the joyous shock of seeing him alive after all, and by a final
deranging realization that he's both alive and dead and killing
everybody in sight. As the cops close in she refuses to desert him, even
though he's putrefying in her very arms. This reference to
The Pieta surfaces casually in a movie generously trip-wired
with other creepy allusions.