There's nothing funny about Deathdream. Most horror films, when given the right context, can be made fun of in some way. Show The Exorcist to a room full of drunk people in daylight and it's the funniest movie ever made. And as for torture porn? Well, there's a difference between undeniable dread and undeniable nausea. But Deathdream—because of what it's topic, the quality of performances and the subtle way it creates unease—is an unshakably grave movie. It also happens to be one of the best movies about the after-effects of the Vietnam War.
The story is simple. A family get word their son has died in combat. They are grief-stricken. Then their son Andy comes back anyway. And although he is rapturously received, all is not as it seems. A truck driver is dies violently, then a doctor. And all the while the newly returned soldier gets more and more distant and more and more unhinged.
From the second Andy walks through the door, it's clear everything is wrong. Andy makes no attempt whatsoever to appear any way normal. It's the willingness of the people around him not to make themselves deal with the problem, their need to act as if nothing is wrong, that lets the problem that is Andy fester and fester until it boils out of control.
Most of the real pain in Deathdream (also called Dead of Night) comes from watching grief and denial tear apart a marriage. So in a sense, it's really about what a dead child can do to a family and who their different coping mechanisms can do even further damage. Both parents react to tragedy by poisoning their own household, Charles with his alocholism and Christine with her steadfast denial. The performances of the parents (Johny Marley and Lynn Carlin) are far realer that anything you'd expect from a movie that generally seems to be regarded as a "Twilight Zone"-esque zombie curio.
Charles slurs his way through an amateur investigation, fighting his newfound alcoholism trying to uncover the truth from under his own nose while still half-heartedly cover up for his son. Every peer he meets, especially the Doctor, knows there is something desperately wrong. The conversational rings the Doctor has to run around Charles to get him to deal with anything perfectly captures the awkwardness of being confronted with a parent whose grief you can't hope to understand.
Christine's story is even harder to deal with. Her delusion gets exponentially more dangerous as the movie progresses. By the end she bounces between an eerie wistful calm and complete hysterics. She unwaveringly blames her husband for all that has gone wrong. Even more tragically, she begins to basically ignore the existence of her daughter.
Andy could have easily have been a cheesy, bug-eyed mess of a character. But instead Richard Backus plays Andy with an incredible stillness and apathy. Backus never overplays his cards, never chews any scenery. Most people play monsters with indulgent aplomb and or cheesy gusto. Really skilled actors will make their monster sympathetic. But Backus plays Andy like a black hole, a vacuum feeding on the misery of those around him. Andy is a problem but he's a problem created by those around him. And part of the reason we don't learn more about him, or that we never get his origin story, is simple: if you weren't there you can't know.
Andy's rare explosions of violence, expertly dotted around the movie, are made all the more shocking by his aforementioned stillness. The violence in Deathdream is blunt, awkward and realistic. Even the scene early on where he chokes a dog to death in front of a group of children who wanted to impress him could have easily descended into farce. Instead it's mortifying.
Andy is in varying states of decomposition throughout the movie and the subtle differences in how much of him is rotting away really sell the performance (while mirroring the slow decay of the household). The incredible skill and taste with which the makeup is used is made all the more impressive as Deathdream was the makeup artist's first movie. He had actually just returned from a tour Vietnam himself. His name was Tom Savini—horror fans will know his long body of work well.
But after all this, it is still the last image of Deathdream that will hit you hardest. All of the allegorical power, all the the fantastic performances of the movie all paid off with a single, perfect, gut punching image. It sums up the movie and its message perfectly.
Sean Mc Tiernan has a blog and a twitter. So does everyone, though. He also has a podcast on which he has a nervous breakdown once an episode, minimum. You should totally email him with your questions / insults/ offers of tax-free monetary gifts.