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Death becomes him: Richard Backus recalls playing a zombie in “Deathdream”

Tuesday, March 8, 2022 | Interviews


The ’70s was such a rich decade for American horror, spawning everything from The Exorcist to The Omen to the early works of David Cronenberg. One of the most unusual entries is Bob Clark’s Deathdream from 1974.

Penned by Alan Ormsby, the film opens with a family being told that their son/brother Andy has died while fighting in Vietnam. Devastated, the mother (Lynn Carlin) simply refuses to accept the idea that her son is actually gone. But then, Andy (Richard Backus) shows up, and is apparently alive and well. The family then lapses into an epic state of denial, as they do their best to overlook the fact that Andy isn’t actually alive and is indeed a zombie.

Deathdream boasts many remarkable moments and a creepiness that intensifies as the film goes on, but it’s also a searing indictment of American involvement in the Vietnam War, taking an extremely critical stance years before Hollywood studios would catch up with the critique.

Now retired in New Hampshire, where he runs a film society that screens international films regularly, Backus granted Rue Morgue this interview to look back on the making of Deathdream.

Did you audition for the role of Andy?

I had an agent in New York. At that point, I had just done two Broadway shows. For one I was standing in for Keir Dullea in Butterflies are Free. My agent sent me up to an apartment on the ground floor of a brownstone of the upper east side. Jessica Levy was the casting agent. I don’t recall reading the script at that point. She told me a bit about the movie. She asked me to look at a lampshade that was next to her, and then to focus all my hatred on that lampshade as possible. And then to turn it on her. Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby were not there at that time. I can’t remember if she recorded that meeting, but I got the job. One of the things Bob Clark said later on was that he liked me because I looked scary even when I was doing nothing (laughs). I’ve always had an intensity as an actor and I think that’s what he was referring to.

The whole cast is amazing. The parents, played by John Marley and Lynn Carlin, had already acted together in Cassavetes’ Faces.

So they already knew each other, which made their performances that much stronger. Rare for that to happen in a film. They were amazing to work with. They didn’t spend nearly as much time on the shoot as I did, because they were working on a much higher pay scale because of all their experience.

What did you make of this film when you were shooting it? It’s so unusual.

I thought it would be a stepping stone on to other films—the way that Jack Nicholson used Little Shop of Horrors as a launch into other film work (laughs). It didn’t work out that way. I don’t remember what I thought of the film at the time. I was very conscious of the Vietnam references. I thought the way it literally brought the war back home was very effective.

I was going to bring that up because Robin Wood argued that horror films can get away with social and political commentary that other films can’t, and the genre is so marginalized. The Vietnam War comes back to literally haunt the family and town in the film.

Exactly. And there were scenes that didn’t end up in the film. When we were making it, it was called The Night Walker, but at the same time, there was a TV movie called The Night Stalker which was getting some attention, so they didn’t want any confusion. The character of Andy would go out at night and wander around the neighborhood. There was a high school football game on that night, and so they put some makeup on me and had me stare out at the game. They told me to look angry and to use my hatred of the lampshade. They would tell me when they started filming but they’d forget to tell me when they’d stopped. So I was often standing there looking very strange and people would walk by and not know what to make of me. There was another shot by a veteran’s home, and two vets were sitting on rocking chairs, and there was a big American flag behind them. But none of that made it into the film.

The make-up gets more and more elaborate as you get more and more zombified. It must have been messy wearing all of that.

I looked at some pictures I have recently and I realized that some of the make-up we put on never made it into the final cut. I spent a lot of time having make-up put on that was experimental. That was really hard. I ended up just zoning out, because it required so much patience. I had gravy coming out of my forehead at one point. I had a wound at one point and they put actual maggots in there to make it extra horrifying, and that didn’t even make it into the final cut! The contact lenses they gave me were about the size of a quarter. They made them up so they would fit very tightly. But he said you can’t keep them in his eyes for more than half an hour at a time. Alan Ormsby was scrupulous about taking them out. They would say can we get one more take and he would say no. I really appreciated that.

I love the scene where you go out on a date and go to the drive-in. It’s about this socially awkward moment when a woman realizes she’s dating a zombie. What’s the most memorable scene for you?

I think the killing of the doctor. We didn’t have the chance to do a lot of takes. We were filming things in the dark. I had to pretend I was all alone in the dark, and yet there were 15 people in the room with us. I thought it was really creepy and I thought Henderson Forsythe was sensational as the doctor. In terms of making the film, what was most challenging was the scene where I was going to get burned alive in the last car chase scene of the film, when the car I’m in is on fire. I’m screaming “HELP!” and the stunt driver just told me to stick my head out the window, because he didn’t want to ruin the shot. They didn’t even use the shot because they thought there were too many flames! We had to do another take, but there weren’t as many flames because the back seat had already burned to a crisp.

Alan Ormsby’s screenplay is also very Freudian. It really tears apart the nuclear family unit. And the dog is called ‘Butch’ even though he’s not what one would think of as a butch dog. Did you talk about that when you were making it?

Not while we were making it, but it’s certainly there: the mother calling her son back from the dead.

What was work like after the movie?

I was doing theatre in New York. At that point, there was very little TV or film being done in New York. You didn’t get much chance to do film work. I was always working in New York though, so I stayed there. I was up for a play at one point, it was being done at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and they didn’t have anything to pay me. I realized I couldn’t do it because I simply couldn’t afford to. I had a wife and a child. I said to my agent, ‘Can you get me on a soap? I need paid work.’ I got cast in one called Lovers and Friends. When I met with the producer that day, I just happened to get a rave review in The New York Times, so the timing was good. After I’d been acting for 20 years I felt as if I was treading water a little bit. I had played some wonderful roles but I was playing much the same role. I really liked what I’d learned about daytime, the way it could continue a story. I was a big fan of Charles Dickens. That was a period when they were doing afternoon specials, with the problem of the day all solved in under an hour. I liked that soaps were long-form. I found out how hard they were to do. I used to say soap operas combine the worst of film with the worst of theatre. You don’t get a lot of rehearsal time and you can’t redo things once they’re shot. The soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is what got me into soap operas. I watched it and I laughed at it. Then I realized I was watching it to see what would happen next. It worked as a comedy but as a soap opera too. After acting in them I wrote soap opera scripts too.

What’s your fondest memory of this film?

The fact that it’s had a continued life is really satisfying, and a real treat. People are very interested in it and that’s pretty wonderful. In terms of the moments on the set, I loved the cast. John Marley was a complete professional, and Lynn Carlin was a sweetheart. There’s a scene where John is trying to get me to eat something at a picnic, and of course, I don’t want any of it. And he’s being quite emotional, but I can’t get emotional because the whole point of my character is that I no longer have any emotion. That’s hard on an actor. But between takes, he said, “You know, you could be the next Steve McQueen, because he never does anything either!” It was fascinating to meet John because The Godfather had just come out, so he was getting lots of attention for that. I remember him telling me that the person who was in most agony when watching the rushes or a completed film was the script girl, because they see all the mistakes. Then he ended up marrying the script girl from Deathdream.


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