Written by Alan Ormsby
Directed by Bob Clark
Starring Richard Backus, John Marley, Lynn Carlin
US Release Aug. 29, 1974
Home Video Blue Underground (DVD)
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Watch the trailer on the Classic Horrors YouTube channel.
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
Bob Clark’s 1974 film, Dead of Night (aka Deathdream) finally appeared on so many different lists of “the best horror movies you’ve never seen” that I decided it was past time to watch it. Sure enough, it’s an impressive effort from a director whose movies I’ve always wanted to like a little more than I actually did.
Two years prior, Clark and screenwriter Alan Ormsby collaborated on Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. Shortly following Dead of Night, Clark’s Black Christmas was released. Typical of many directors, Clark started with horror and then graduated into other genres. He was later responsible for Porky’s and A Christmas Story, arguably two cinematic classics. As I wrote, I liked all these movies. Had each one been “tightened up” just a bit here and there, I would have loved them.
Dead of Night opens with a hazy scene of war and is indicative of a style throughout the movie where many shots are framed closely around the faces and upper bodies of its actors. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what was happening, but this brief pre-opening credit scene conveys the horrors of war and culminates in some kind of explosion, gunshot or fatal injury to the soldier. It’s not terribly important at the time.
However, post-opening credits, when the soldier’s family sits around the dinner table talking about “when Andy comes home…” and the knock at the door comes not from Andy but a different military man delivering bad news, it’s clear what happened. His mother, Christine (Lynn Carlin) sits in her rocking chair with a candle in the middle of the night and repeats, “You’re alive, I know, I can tell.”
Meanwhile, a truck driver picks up a hitchhiker… a soldier whom he later tells a waitress is “a real weirdo. He doesn’t say anything, not even thank you.” This conversation will become a vital clue in the murder investigation of the truck driver when his body is found by the police the next morning, a small puncture on his wrist and his throat brutally cut or torn.
The POV shots famous in Black Christmas are also in use here as Clark asks us to identify with Andy (Richard Backus) as he climbs into the truck, gets out of the truck, then slowly approaches his house. We don’t see him at all until we’re rewarded with a jump scare after a few moments of creepy music and sounds as the doorknob slowly turns, his sister tells her father she hears noises, and her father retrieves his gun from his dresser drawer. The entire sequence is scary, particularly as Charles (John Marley) goes down the stairs with the camera positioned from an unusual angle.
His family wants a big celebration, but Andy says, “Let’s wait a while, Mom.” Something’s definitely not right with him… When someone comments that it must have been pretty rough over there, he asks, “Over where?” And when Charles tells him that a telegram said his son was dead, he says, “I was.” PTSD? So far, this could be a drama about the after effects of Vietnam. But it isn’t long before you realize it’s more horrific than that, if the style of the movie hasn’t already told you.
Andy’s continual rocking in his bedroom frustrates Charles, who finally asks, “Why is he so different?!?” But Christine doesn’t flinch when he responds to her questions with nothing but a scary smile. The most revealing sign that something’s wrong with Andy, though, comes from the fact that the dog doesn’t like him. Its constant growling at him might come back to bite it, so to speak.
When Charles catches his son in the middle of a terrifying act, he deals with it like we all do every once in a while. He goes to the neighborhood bar for a drink. There, he meets Doc Allman (Henderson Forsythe), someone to whom he can confide. However, when Charles brings Doc home to talk to Andy and a threat is raised to tell the police what they know about his involvement in the murder of the truck driver, something horrible is going to happen to prevent it.
This happens when Andy sneaks out of the house and follows Doc to his office. Their encounter begins with the second jump scare of the movie and includes some dark humor: “I came for my check up.” He then challenges Doc to feel his pulse and listen to his heart. He explains, “I’m in perfect health. I don’t have to worry about anything,” and Doc replies, “I don’t understand.”
If you haven’t figured it out, Andy is some type of zombie, back from the dead. I say “some type,” because before he tears out a victim’s throat, he draws blood from them and injects it into himself, sitting back suddenly as if he’s enjoying a fix. About this time, we also see the decay his body suffers without an injection.
It all builds to a double date between Andy and his old girlfriend, Joanne (Jane Daly) with Andy’s sister, Cathy (Anya Ormsby) and her boyfriend, Bob (Michael Mazes) at the drive-in. (“What’s playing?” “Who watches the movie?!?”) Dark lines under his eyes and hands flaking, Andy wears sunglasses and leather gloves in the back seat of the car with Joanne. As the date plays out, Charles goes to the police and suspense builds with shorter, back and forth scenes.
It concludes with a fiery car chase as Christine drives her son to the cemetery. Earlier, Andy had visited and played with a headstone. I thought he was filing his fingernails, but the final shot before the camera pulls up, up and away, is a surprising reveal that I think really ties it all together. There’s some ambiguity before this, such as the sound of a gunshot, but no visual evidence that these events have driven Charles to take his own life.
The family dynamics in Dead of Night are fascinating, and it helps that Marley and Carlin are so good in their roles. At first, the circumstances seem typical… the doting mother refuses to acknowledge anything could be wrong with her precious son while the incredulous father struggles with how to process what he has witnessed from that same son. Both make transitions over the course of the movie, though, that you might not expect. Christine leads her son to his final rest and Charles tries to protect his son by deflecting evidence of his crimes away from him.
The movie offers several creepy scenes, none more so than when Charles goes to the police with what he knows and a deputy constantly plays with the window blinds, creating a distraction for the characters and a sense of unease for the audience watching. The more I think about it, the more I like Dead of Night. Not as well-known as its successor, Black Christmas, it was also ahead of its time in some ways and I think it may actually have more social relevance.