The zombie film has always been a place for social commentary. They confront pressing issues from the times they were written. Unfortunately, two films, decades apart, have to make the same point.
The 4th of July is a special holiday when you’re in the military. Usually, we get the day off, get together for drinks, and just enjoy the fireworks. My first Independence Day in the military, however, was more eye-opening than celebratory. At the first bang of the fireworks, I lost track of my friend. I eventually found him hyperventilating in his car. This was my introduction to the pains of a combat veteran, but it wouldn’t be the last.
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Zombies as Social Commentary
Horror has long been a place to explore topical ideas without having to yell. It allows the filmmakers to explore dark territory without being accused of soapbox sermonizing. It’s interesting that one of the most looked-down upon genres of film tends to be one that is mostly unafraid to confront modern issues and the darker corners of humanity.
Zombie films especially have been used as social commentary for decades now. From the (apparently inadvertent) racism explored in Night of the Living Dead to consumerism in Dawn of the Dead and all the way to quirkier titles like Fido and Little Monsters; these films usually have a spark of commentary to them.
I think the proliferation of social commentary in zombie films is due to the nature of the zombie itself. It is pushed and pulled by base desires. A zombie doesn’t usually think or concern itself with anything beyond its own subsistence. However, the two films we’ll be talking about take the basic tropes and the ideas of the zombie and attach humanity to them. This spin on the zombie genre helps show how something can take over and dominate a human being’s willpower and thought process.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
I want to immediately say that PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) doesn’t only affect combat veterans. It can be created by any traumatic moment in a person’s life. For the sake of this article, I will be focusing on PTSD as it relates to combat veterans, but I want to make it clear that I don’t believe that only these people suffer from the condition.
According to the definition given by Mayo Clinic, PTSD is:
“a psychological disorder that is triggered by a terrifying event–either experiencing or witnessing it.”–Mayo Clinic
Symptoms are wide-ranging and include intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking/mood, and changes in physical/emotional reactions. These all have their own ways of manifesting, and no two cases are exactly alike. For the purpose of this article, we will point out how the symptoms are shown within the two films in question.
Every person I knew from the military who suffered from PTSD had their own way of dealing with it. Some used very dark or self-deprecating humor. Some would avoid situations that would trigger episodes. Almost all of them chose to see a psychologist on base, and no one was looked down on for it. I feel that is a small cultural victory in this day and age, but it wouldn’t be something that we’ll see in the first film.
Two Decades: Similar Ideas
The two films I will be talking about are decades apart, but similar in intent and tone. Deathdream (aka Dead of Night) was directed by Bob Clark (famously of Black Christmas) and released in 1974. It deals with the issue of a son, Andy, who is killed in action during the Vietnam War. One night, he shows up on his parents’ doorstep, even after being reported KIA.
The second film is Sella Turcica, directed by Fred Vogel and released in 2010. The film is about a soldier who returns home after suffering a mysterious accident that has left him without the use of his legs or completely normal vision. This is the last film of the underground institution that is Toetag Pictures, who brought such extreme treasures as the August Underground films and The Redsin Tower. This film takes some of the ideas seen in Deathdream and updates them to the modern context of the War on Terror.
The films share a basic shape. We get the homecoming of our “hero,” the concern of the family at the changes in their loved one, and they both end in a negative denouement where the “undeath” overtakes the hero and causes them to inflict pain and misery on others. They both take different routes, but the end result is the same. It is also very interesting to see how Deathdream and Sella Turcica differ, since they were made decades apart during which understanding of PTSD and the effects of war on individuals have evolved.
Deathdream, Numbness and Detachment
“I died for you, Doc. Why shouldn’t you return the favor?”-Andy, Deathdream (1974)
In the first scene of the film, we witness Andy’s death in the jungles of Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, his family is notified. They react in shock and disbelief. Andy’s mother refuses to believe it and feels validated when, shortly thereafter, Andy shows up in his dress uniform. He looks like he did before the war: an easy smile on his face and piercing eyes.
Things begin to change for Andy and his family early on. Andy doesn’t eat. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s home. He sits in a rocking chair and stairs into space, while the noise of a squeaky chair leg drives his father mad. Andy is locked inside his own head, and he shows no emotions or interest in anything. This is because Andy didn’t live through the war and his body is giving up.
The “death” in the war could symbolize the death of Andy’s innocence and his eyes opening to the state of the world. The war has marked him forever and the changes that it wreaks on his body and mind are irreversible. As a way to keep himself going, he kills people in his small town and injects their blood into his veins, trying to get himself back to how he was before the war. He desperately wants to be who he was before his “death” and the changes it brought him. This doesn’t work and his body begins to visibly deteriorate.
I think something that this film does incredibly well is show how the changes to Andy affect the family as a whole. His mother is blind to it, saying that he just needs time to get back to normal. She ignores the behavioral red flags and, in a way, by not seeking help, she allows him to commit his murders. The father notices, but is more antagonistic which also wouldn’t help in this instance. He sees the issues, but berates and demeans his son. Both are extremes of dealing with PTSD and neither can be seen as being overly helpful.
In the end, the father kills himself when he sees the full extent of his son’s crimes and the mother helps Andy get to his final destination. We see that Andy has been digging himself a grave and fashioning a headstone with his birth and death dates carved into the stone. The film ends with his mother crying and shoveling dirt onto her decomposing son as the cops watch on.
Andy’s fascination with his own death could be a reference to a suicidal impulse. He knows something’s wrong, and believes he shouldn’t be alive. The trauma of his first “death” (both physically and of his innocence) has led him to fixate on his final death. His final wish is neither to continue trying to “normalize” himself or to seek help, but to die. His support system failed and, lost in the pain of his current state, he chose suicide over life.
This ending is sadly a common one. Suicide rates among military veterans are incredibly high, and the issue has been a reality for a long time. This has led to the well-known statistic that 22 veterans commit suicide daily. It’s a sad figure with which I am, unfortunately, very well acquainted. One of the main motivations for this article was to bring attention to these issues for the friends I’ve lost along the way.
Sella Turcica, Triggers, And Detachment
Sella Turcica is a much more modern film than Deathdream, but the two connect thematically. After a mysterious incident that leaves him in a wheelchair, Sgt. Bradley Adam Roback (played wonderfully by Damien Maruscak) returns home from the war to see his family. They greet him with open arms, but it’s immediately apparent that something is wrong. Brad looks terrible: pale, gaunt, and distant.
The first signs of his trauma are when he’s asked the kind of questions one generally avoids when talking to a combat veteran. His sister’s girlfriend asks him things like how many people he killed and what it was like. Having seen this sort of interaction firsthand, I know it’s a bad thing to do. Brad responds with dark humor, but as the film stretches on, these questions begin to upset him visibly. He doesn’t want to think about these things, so each time he gets asked, it pushes him further into anger and back into himself.
Another sign we see from Brad is that he begins to react poorly to sounds. Much like the fireworks issue I mentioned at the beginning of the article, he begins to be set off by high pitched noises, which sound similar to a falling bomb or mortar shell. They trigger headaches which usually precedes him withdrawing to his room. As the film wears on, this begins to occur more and more.
Brad repeatedly states that he feels numb to everything that’s happening to him. He’s also troubled by his missing memories of the event that left him in his current physical state. These are both PTSD symptoms and Vogel does a great job of hitting these beats. It was eerie to watch the film and see things I’ve seen in people I’ve spoken to and spent large amounts of time with before. I have to commend them for doing the work to show the heart-breaking reality of these issues.
Instead of being controlled by his lack of blood like Andy, when Brad eventually snaps and begins to slaughter his family we find out that he is being controlled by a slug-like entity that’s taken up residence in his head. It is the source of his headaches and the reason he can’t remember the incident in the war. I think representing PTSD as a parasite that latches onto the individual is interesting, as it depicts the trauma as taking on a life of its own. Because the trauma has this sort of agency, it’s a struggle for Brad to keep it at bay.
PTSD, The Real World, and Healing
Both of these films take the outcome of PTSD to extremes because, of course, they’re horror films. Horror revels in making points by pushing them as far as possible. That doesn’t mean that their messages are invalid due to the extreme nature of the outcome, but more so lets them work as cautionary tales. In no way does PTSD mean you’re less-than or broken. If you find yourself showing symptoms or feeling suicidal, please reach out for help.
If you’re having these suicidal thoughts as a civilian please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Line at 800-273-8255. If you are a veteran struggling with suicidal ideation or PTSD, please call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and select option 1. There’s nothing to be lost from reaching out, and everything to gain.
Most of the people I know with PTSD have managed to deal with it through therapy, their own means, and hard work. I can happily say that most of these stories in my life have a happy ending. I think these two movies showing the extremes possible is vital in this day and age. At the end of the day, it’s important to show these negative stories in order to highlight the issue and raise awareness. We owe it to those who aren’t with us anymore.
This article is dedicated to those who are still with us, and those who aren’t. Please, everyone, take care.