“You promised you’d come back, Andy. You promised!”
A mother’s prayer echoes in the mind of a soldier under fire in Vietnam, haunting him as bullets perforate his fatigues and plunge deep into his chest. As he collapses to the ground at half-speed, his body enveloped by an opaque darkness and swirling currents of air, her fervent moans preserve his physical form, beckoning him to make the long journey home.
Dead of Night uses Private Andy Brooks’ death march to startling effect, crafting a chilly metaphor out of his putrescent flesh and ghoulish bloodlust, bringing the horrors of war home to roost and demanding that indifferent American suburbanites reciprocate the extent of his service. The dour pall that hangs over the film makes for unsettling satire, one that exposes the frailty of the nuclear family in response to the dehumanizing aspects of combat.
Functioning as the embodiment of the Rockwellian household, the Brooks clan politely chat at dinner through beaming smiles, sparing a moment for prayer in honor of their absent member. A rap on the front door dashes their amiable tone, captured in the sinking smile of a distraught mother, surmising the identity of the unknown knocker. As the messenger gestures kindly at the patriarch, grasping a certified letter in his right hand, the father clutches the man’s wrist, desperately hoping to delay the inevitable. The maudlin strings that hang over the scene suggest melodrama and cliché, but beneath the score lies a keen sense of direction, one astute enough to linger on the tear-stained faces of the bereaved, churning authenticity out of tired sentimentalism.
The warm lights dim and winding staircases darken as Andy arrives home, coaxed back from the beyond by the nocturnal yearnings of his despondent mother. Altered by his time in the infantry, Andy has grown pale and morose, receding inward despite an outpouring of familial endearment. When his father, in a state of absolute elation, reveals that the Army inaccurately designated the boy as deceased, Andy sardonically replies, “I was,” resulting in a moment of uncomfortable laughter. As the camera pans back through the dining room window, creating a framed portrait of the quartet from the lawn, Andy’s face droops into a scowl, his presence morphing into the rotting core at the center of his parents’ marriage.
The new Andy sits stoically in his bedroom, sarcastically swaying in a clangorous rocking chair, stirring up an awful din intended to antagonize his anxious father. Each creak of his chair symbolizes the prolonged, nagging pain of losing a child, embodied by Dad’s lust for strong drink and Mom’s penchant for paranoid delusions and aggressive outbursts. As Andy scours the streets at night, draining his victims of blood to preserve a decomposing human vessel, his doting parents cover the tracks and enable his addiction, even fabricating a story to deceive inquisitive police. Yet, consumption and cooperation can’t match the steady deterioration of human flesh and Andy is forced to accept his fate, coercing his mother into burying him alive as he claws dirt onto his sodden, maggot-infested remains. The camera cranes over the cemetery plot as sheriffs surround the mother and son in their final embrace, functioning as an ironic military funeral for the undead soldier.
Dead of Night drifts like a dream, carrying disembodied whispers on the score like imagined voices passing in gusts of wind. The soft, elegiac nature of the photography stands in stark contrast to the gruesome appearance of the boy’s decaying body and graphic shots of intravenous blood transfusions, captured in thrifty, but convincing, make-up effects. Hints of black humor wander in through the hominess of the local color, replete with town drunk, sassy diner staff and chatty mailman, quaintly occupying a world of woodgrain wallpaper and earth-toned family sedans. Nevertheless, any goodwill bestowed upon suburban contentment is only intended to spark incongruity, epitomized in the festering sores of Andy Brooks, a truly frightening personification of the barbarity of the Vietnam War.
Dead of Night (Quadrant Films, 1974)
Directed by Bob Clark
Written by Alan Ormsby
Photographed by Jack McGowan