Having recently lost a member of my family Dead of Night‘s bitter anger at death, and the effect it has on those around its victims, has a strong ring of authenticity to it. However the film must have felt even rawer at its time of release. America was fighting itself as much as it was fighting across the sees in Vietnam, and young sons were paying for this folly with their lives.
The Brooks family are sitting around their kitchen table talking about their son and brother Andy, who is in ‘Nam, when they receive the dreaded knock at the door. It is the letter telling them that Andy died in action. The family’s grief is palpable, as the spare chair at the table they have been sitting around becomes uncompromisingly empty. Some time later the daughter wakes up to the noise of someone in the house. Her, her mother and father go down only to discover Andy has not died and is back home for good. Of course there is something very, very wrong with Andy…
This must have been a painful film to watch back in 1974. Usually when a film is made about a war it is made several years after the fact. This gives some distance to the proceedings and audiences can absorb what the film maker has to offer without feeling like it is too real. Seeing as the Vietnam war was still going on when Dead of Night was released it must have been a shocker. Andy, upon his return, is a distant, mostly silent figure, staring off into the distance as he rocks back and forth on his rocking chair. This must have been like any number of returning veterans – suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or worse. However Andy is also a zombie who tries to keep himself alive by murdering everyone around him and injecting their blood into his withering veins. Although he doesn’t say much of anything he does claim his actions are a reaction to “all those who stayed at home” whilst he fought for them. He paid in blood for them, now he wants it back. The injection scene isn’t like some modern vampire though but like a smack addicted getting his fix, again like so many veterans of the era.
Dead of Night is an uncompromisingly bleak portrayal of the effects war can have on people, all wrapped up as a zombie movie. Andy is bitter and vengeful towards his fellow Americans even as he claims to be now superior to them as he cannot die. Meanwhile his family is ruined by him. They are first devastated when they think he is dead and then unable to accept the horrible truth when they realise he is “alive”, His father lies to the police in order to protect him, his sister, Cathy, is driven mad be the reality of what he is and his mother (Lynn Carlin) is worst of all. When the father (hauntingly played by John “Oh there’s a horse head in my bed” Marley) finally comes to his senses and says they have to deal with Andy before he hurts his sister, Carlin screams out “I don’t care about Cathy!” Such is her demented love for her son that she would rather her daughter died than anything happened to her little boy.
All this culminates in a bitter little ending as (SPOILER) the now decomposing Andy is driven by his mother to a graveyard where, unable to cope with the world he has come back to, he tries to bury himself alive under a self made tombstone. (END OF SPOILER)
Its not a lot of fun. But then again it is…
What is most shocking about Dead of Night is that it is directed by Bob Clark who is best known for his Porkies movies and later less well known for the Baby Geniuses movies. Those all may have been silly sex comedies and weird children flicks but if you look at Clark’s early work he did three great horror movies in a row. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, this and Black Christmas, all in a couple of years. All three of them are good but Black Christmas is a legitimate classic and proto-slasher-before-Halloween to boot. I guess Clark must have been doing what many directors have done and used horror as a playground for honing his skills before moving onto more mainstream stuff. Its a shame he never returned to the genre (maybe Murder by Decree did a bit with its brutal Jack the Ripper slayings).
Dead of Night is, however, also a good testing ground for Clark’s later comedies, hence the fun. Every other character besides the Brooks family and Andy’s victims is clearly a comedic creation. There’s the local drunk who can barely speak, the stuttering chef who has all his sentences finished by his wife and the policeman who can’t stop fiddling with venetian blinds. All of them could easily be characters in Porkies movies and they are given so much time that its not hard to see where Clark’s heart was leaning.
Personally I think this is a tragedy. Who watches the Porkies movies now? And who ever watched Baby Geniuses, let alone Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2? Black Christmas has already been reevaluated as a classic. This surely can’t be far behind? Dead of Night is a clever and serious study of the effects of war on the individual and the effects of grief on the family, whilst at the same time it is a creepy and entertaining B-movie. It would have been good to see more like this from Clark. Still… you got to be happy with what we’ve got.
(Dead of Night is also know as Deathdream by the way. I’m going with what it said on the copy I saw but you got to love this action-centric poster below that doesn’t even look like a horror movie. And how it got a PG I will never know: its not particularly gory but the tone is so dark, even with comedy side characters.)