BluRay/DVD Reviews

DEATHDREAM

By • Jun 29th, 2004 •

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(Blue Underground) 1974
88 mins / AR 1.85:1, formatted for 16.9

A sincere low budget horror flick on the production level of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT or BASKET CASE, DEATHDREAM’s gritty, grainy look is exactly what the subject and mood called for. If they’d had more money, it shouldn’t have gone into production value, but rather into rehearsal time and the shooting schedule. I remember being moved by it when I first saw it decades ago. Despite its shortcomings, whenever I was asked what the best films were about Vietnam, I invariable chose this over bigger stuff like PLATOON or COMING HOME. The ‘Monkey’s Paw’ subtext seizes on such a potent metaphor in this instance, and Richard Backus’s eerie performance as the returned soldier is so unsettling, that it remains entrenched in the mind far more viscerally than films twenty or fifty or a hundred times its budget.

Blue Underground does its expected bang-up job producing the disc. They’ve located lead actor Backus and he is interviewed for twelve appropriate minutes by David Gregory about the making of the film. There is also a ten minute retro on Tom Savini, whose first special makeup effects job was as Alan Ormsby’s assistant on DEATHDREAM, as well as commentary tracks featuring Ormsby (I kind of lost interest after he mentioned THE SUBSTITUTE about twenty minutes in – still a sore spot for me, not that I didn’t like fifty percent of his re-writing contribution to my script, but the other fifty percent diminished the film and seemed as if it were done to make sure he got the WGA credit*) and director Bob Clark. Good as these latter supplements are, the key to the ancillary package is Backus, since his performance, his black, soulless eyes, his emotionally-dead-yet-hungry-for-blood nature, and his quietly ambivalent anger toward the family whose values sent him to his death in Nam, are the heart of the experience.

Ormsby’s ex-wife is fine-featured and pretty as the zombie’s sister, and she acts convincingly. John Marley and Lynn Carlin, transplants from Cassavetes-land, give the film real thesp value (you can find them in FACES in the Criterion Collection’s John Cassavetes boxed set of five of the director’s films, a worthy, if heavy dose of marital discord by one of the fathers of this country’s indie community). Marley is clearly miscast, but in a way that increases the film’s uncomfortable sense of dislocation. Some comic bits in the first half make an argument for re-cutting a film thirty years after its release. And there is mention of some footage having been shot of Backus’ character roaming the jungles of Nam after his death – which I remember having seen: was there another cut floating about, like there was with THE BIG SLEEP and so many other films whose distributors didn’t want to waste the money put into striking a print of an earlier cut?

Double Bill: Buddy G’s COMBAT SHOCK, released by Troma. An even cheaper production, an even more grim depiction of life back home for a soulless vet – this time Staten Island instead of rural Florida.

* I’m really being hyperbolic about Ormsby’s re-write. About 50% of my and Rocco’s script was changed by Ormsby, and actually only about 20% of it seemed gratuitously inserted to lay claim to a co-writing credit. Odd suggestion to current and future screenwriters: while they won’t give you much protection in a WGA agreement as regards re-writes, try insisting that names not be changed and see what happens. It would be an interesting minor victory. We lost our lead character’s name on the subsequent SUBSTITUTE films as well. The perhaps too-comic-book-hard moniker ‘Karl Saber’ became the weak, professorial and unappealing ‘Carl Thomasson’.


Alan Ormsby responded to my review, or rather to my comments about him, and we exchanged a quick volley of emails. As a result, a bit more light was shed on the ways in which my and Rocco’s screenplay for THE SUBSTITUTE was diminished. Sorting out the final truths of that matter, however, would probably require the services of an investigative reporter, and over a juicy little ‘B’ like THE SUBSTITUTE that just ain’t gonna happen.

But a more important truth did emerge as a result of the correspondence concerning Ormsby’s intentions. and particularly his lack thereof, in re-writing the script, since the final verdict on that subject must certainly lie with the screenwriter himself. As he wrote: “I have rewritten many scripts, both credited and uncredited, but I have never made arbitrary changes in order to glom onto some other writer’s credit or residuals.”

While the practice of re-writing at least 50% of a screenplay for the motives discussed above is a popular practice in Hollywood, encouraged by agents and proudly discussed (with me) by some writers – because the Writers Guild measures the amount of each writer’s final contribution in order to make its credit judgment – it has never been an approach Rocco or I took, nor apparently was it one in which Ormsby indulged. That is of particular importance because it makes him an ethical man in a business which doesn’t encourage that particular commodity, or consider it a virtue.

And finally, just to make sure the dust settles properly on this matter, I didn’t really stop listening to the commentary track after Ormsby mentioned THE SUBSTITUTE. I just seized on the opportunity for a little barbed levity. In point of fact, I listened further, and found it to be a pleasant memory track the filmmakers shared.


Special Features:
Audio Commentaries with Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby. Interview with Richard Backus. Alternate opening titles. Extended ending sequence.

Directed by Bob Clark. Written by Alan Ormsby. Make-up by Alan Ormsby & Tom Savini.
With: John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Richard Backus, Henderson Forsythe, Ormsby.

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