Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls

Instead of participating in a televised gathering of un-dead presidents and plutocrats for a Deep State funeral, we should be watching ‘Dead of Night’ (1974). It’s hard to think of another film that so precisely (and presciently) envisioned the unintended consequences of war, namely its pox on casualties and survivors alike.

So just what does a low-budget zombie flick from more than forty years ago have to do with a recently entombed former President? Or even a long-serving Senator who defied death in Vietnam and returned home to haunt the corridors of power as a lifeless, bloodthirsty lawmaker? We can compare the legacy of the late John McCain and now George H.W. Bush with a horror master’s interpretation of their handiwork in this life and beyond.

Tragically, not much has changed in the almost 50 years since Bob Clark’s Dead of Night was released as a ‘B’ chiller with an antiwar message delivered with blunt force: A young American soldier dies in Vietnam and returns home, seemingly and miraculously alive to his elated parents just hours after they receive the news of his death. His besotted, overbearing mother’s prayers for his return become an accursed incantation that compels the corpse to rise from its disturbed, primordial burial ground.

Be careful of what you wish for: Liberating a spirit from his own muddy grave has roughly the same consequences of “liberating” a nation from their villages and rice paddies. Or for that matter, their gas and oil fields.

Never mind that Andy, (Richard Backus) the prodigal son, is a dead eyed, monosyllabic automaton who needs daily infusions of blood. Or that he sits for hours in a rocking chair, staring straight ahead, refusing food and all attempts to coax him back into the family fold. You might not even notice that he’s slowly decomposing.

Facts be damned since they only get in the way of a celebratory family reunion, just as discomfiting truths about conscienceless, pox-ridden fiends walking among us still intrude upon the present. A number of them, were in fact present at the funeral of George H.W Bush, whose State-sponsored Sabbath rivaled Satan’s in terms of the sulfur it generated from the guest list alone.

Doubts surrounding the “miracle” of Andy’s homecoming are heresy, even as the bodies start piling up. It’s not long before the still weeping wounds and festering resentments between his parents emerge as they struggle with the cruel paradox of answered prayers. Andy has walked into another battlefield, but not before turning his entire community into a war zone.

Forget, too, that his alcoholic, guilt-ridden father is grieving for the now dead family dog, who caught the ghoul’s scent from the moment it crossed the darkened threshold. There’s a perfectly good explanation for why Andy killed a once beloved companion. As far as excuses go, it’s up there with “It ate my homework” and “Weapons of Mass Destruction”. It’s probably just a coincidence that the local doctor, who can place Andy at the scene of another murder meets a similar fate.

Let’s try not to think about Andy’s sister, who unwittingly offers up a human sacrifice for her un-dead sibling when she arranges a surprise blind date for him with a former childhood sweetheart. A daughter, even a loyal and loving one, is a poor substitute for a mother in mourning for her absent son, and a present obstacle to overcome as she tries desperately to re-establish a maternal bond with the shell of her former and still favorite child.

All that matters is that Andy is home, regardless of the circumstances that turned him into a pulse-less, literally heartless killer. The no longer wholesome, all-American teen is now the near mirror image of another taciturn, blood sucker in a turtleneck. Andy Warhol looms large behind the sunglasses his namesake starts wearing in order to conceal the telltale signs of putrefaction. Even more fiendish than the dead eyed Ken doll standing in for the one-time sensitive and reluctant soldier is the lovesick mother, who would follow him back to hell, prepared to sacrifice the rest of her family along the way.

Most performers are required to “breathe life” into their characters, but Richard Backus is tasked with depriving his of oxygen in order to function wholly as a lifeless, non-breathing apparition devoid of anything ‘human’. Perhaps this explains how he ended up becoming a successful soap opera actor. The blandly handsome Andy, who seems more likely to have stepped out of a Sears Catalog than a Southeast Asian swamp is somehow able to instill abject and lasting terror into the viewer, even before his zombie/vampire persona is fully revealed.

The real corruption is evident in the soulless mannequin gaze, the mechanical twitch of the creature’s occasional smirk, and the ramrod straight neck that swivels rather than turns. Behind those seldom blinking eyes is the abyss we all stare into as we lionize the casualties of war, and rapturously eulogize its masterminds and architects. A putrefying, disintegrating mask eventually exposes the puppet master’s face behind it. It’s the same one that helped destroy the vestigial human traits in his own son.

Jennifer Matsui is a writer living in Tokyo and a columnist for the print edition of CounterPunch magazine.

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