Color, 1974, 88 mins. 28 secs.
Directed by Bob Clark
Starring John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Richard Backus, Jane Daly
Blue Underground (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Subkultur (Blu-ray) (Germany R0 HD), Nucleus (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Openly inspired by the classic horror short story "The Monkey's Paw" (the same basic source for Pet Sematary), this eerie little gem has long been a word-of-mouth-favorite among horror fans. It's best remembered in the incredible run of '70s horror films as the middle entry in a classic trilogy by director Bob Clark, sandwiched in between the scrappy low-budget zombie film Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things and the groundbreaking yuletide slasher classic, Black Christmas (with another '74 film, Deranged, featuring less Clark involvement but sort of an unofficial entry as well). The most subdued entry of the three, the Florida-shot Deathdream (also known as Dead of Night and The Night Andy Came Home) is a rare example of a fright film directly inspired by and dealing with the still-touchy issue of the Vietnam War, an open wound at the time that still hasn't really healed.
Our grim story takes place in the troubled household of Charles and Christine Brooks (Marley and Carlin), a couple devastated by the news that their son Andy (Backus) has been killed in Vietnam. Christine insists he can't be dead, and soon Andy does show up at their doorstep... but he's a little different and keeps wearing sunglasses. Soon Andy's off on a strange, sinister mission and looking a bit more decomposed by the day, while his family refuses to confront the awful truth...
This whole production simply drips with that queasy sense of dread so specific to the era, with Clark working up a fine social statement as well about a nuclear family shredded to pieces by a war happening far away from their comfortable home. The macabre and strangely poignant ending is one of Clark's strongest moments as a filmmaker, and it also helps having real pros heading the cast including excellent John Cassavetes veterans Marley (The Godfather, The Dead Are Alive) and Carlin (Taking Off), who manage to sell the potentially tasteless storyline into a truly affecting human drama that happens to involve a moldering zombie.
The solid Blue Underground DVD from 2004 was the first important edition of this film on home video, a welcome relief after its much sought-after VHS edition from Gorgon Video. That disc features a satisfying anamorphic transfer from the best 35mm elements (grainy but very film-like and properly rendered) plus worthwhile separate commentaries with Clark and Ormsby, a short on the early career of FX artist Tom Savini (including his stint on Deranged), a "Deathdreaming" video interview with Backus (11m43s) including memories of his challenging contact lenses and his excitement about working with Marley, an alternate title sequence (the Deathdream lower res title card versus Dead of Night on the main transfer), a gallery of promotional art, and the slightly longer ending that turned up on Gorgon's VHS release back in the '80s. The identical transfer was ported over in 2012 from a UK DVD release from Nucleus as a double feature with Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, though the extra bits from the ending were incorporated into the main feature. The trailer and a gallery are also included, but the really substantial new goodie here is a thorough set of liner notes by Julian Grainger, whose "Production History" is a fact-stuffed chronicle of the two films from the early days of She-Man through the production and release histories of both films, including some surprising potential casting choices and the odd connections to Ormsby's forgotten drag comedy The Great Masquerade.
In 2016, German label Subkultur released the first Blu-ray edition of this film as a limited 1,000-unit release, featuring the extended ending with a refurbished HD transfer with German or English DTS-HD MA mono options. However, the 201 revisit from Blue Underground as a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD release is the most lavish to date, sporting what's touted as the world premiere of a new 2K restoration of the film's 35mm negative. Like the Subkultur and Nucleus releases, this is the extended cut with the extra 15 seconds back in the film and sporting the same extra logos at the beginning as the German release (as well as the Dead of Night title card). Image quality is excellent, retaining natural film grain but looking brighter, more detailed, and fresher compared to the DVDs with quite a bit of additional image info visible in the frame. The DTS-HD MA English mono track sounds very solid considering it's not the most dynamic track in the first place, with the spooky score by Carl Zittrer (Black Christmas) faring best. Optional English SDH, French, or Spanish subtitles are provided.
Carried over here are the two audio commentaries, the Backus and Savini featurettes, the trailer, and the alternate main titles, with a hefty amount of new material added as well. A joint recollection with actress Anya Liffey (a.k.a. Cathy Brooks) and Ormsby (29m29s) spends time covering their many collaborations together including a sweltering stint in Miami, while a "Notes For A Homecoming" interview with regular Clark composer Zittrer (19m8s) has him discussing his approach to building eerie soundscapes and even performing a demo on his piano. A brief but lively "Flying Down to Brooksville" chat with production manager (and drive-in director favorite) John "Bud" Cardos (5 mins.) has a bit more detail about the Florida locales, and one fascinating new addition is a screen test with the original actor cast as Andy, Gary Swanson (12m31s), whose model-ready surfer look would have definitely made for a very different kind of portrayal. An Ormsby student film (10m12s) with Liffey is an interesting, B&W-lensed period piece exploring racial violence from the perspective of a runaway slave in Mississippi and the impact his fate has on an aristocratic white woman. An extensive, greatly expanded still gallery of stills, posters and other ephemera is also including with a total of nearly 200 images. The first pressing also includes a liner notes booklet with a terrific new essay by Travis Crawford, who makes a case for this as the best of Clark's horror outings and ties the film to its short story inspiration, the socio-political nature of '70s genre cinema, and an ultimately tragic portrait of a family's disintegration.
BLUE UNDERGROUND DVD
Reviewed on November 14, 2017.