Some propaganda films have a melodramatic edge, pushing them into "after school special territory." Others are investigative, trading sentiment in for hardworn study and resembling something closer to documentary as a result. 1970's Dead Is Dead is all study, no sap. It's not exactly a non-fiction doc in terms of its truthfulness — there are more than a couple staged scenes passed off as a kind of "reality" — but it fosters a kind of righteous anger you don't see much in the grandstanding and morality plays of the typical propaganda film. And that anger gives it a fascinating air of urgency.
The film is bookended and narrated by acclaimed actor Godfrey Cambridge, who, along with the likes of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, is considered one of the foremost figures in black comedy. But immediately from the film's onset, it's clear that Dead Is Dead is no laughing matter. Cambridge begins with a quiet screed against drugs, name-dropping a 15-year-old who died of an overdose in New York City (that this individual case made enough news to be notable is a sad indictment of America's intensified relationship with hard drugs in the 40-plus years since). Cambridge quickly illuminates a nuance, though: drugs have an insidious hold on the culture-at-large, most notable in the form of everyday prescription pills.
"I don't want to see anybody see their friends die anymore," Cambridge says morosely, his voice overlaid atop Curtis Mayfield's "Stone Junky"— one of a few light tunes to get featured in the film. When the opening credits are through, we immediately cut to the sight of a young black man overdosing in a bathroom. "This is the agony of beating death," Cambridge says. (On second thought, forget what I said about the film skipping theatrical fear mongering; there's a fair share of histrionics in this PSA, keeping in line with tradition).
The image itself is ubiquitous enough to border on cliche, but the PSA makes a sharp left turn by cutting to a more familiar space: a pharmacy. The scene makes for a fascinating counter to people's preoccupation with intravenous drug use, and Dead Is Dead seems to suggest, rather prophetically, that the fair-weather use of Rx products is a mere hop, skip, and a jump away from users overdosing in a single-toilet bathroom. Soon, a steady stream of patients come into the pharmacy, and the actors are diverse in age, gender, and race — something not too common in PSAs. Propaganda films most commonly depict the concerns of the white middle class or the struggles of marginalized black communities in inner-cities. Here, everyone seems equally affected by the availability of prescription drugs.
From the vantage point of 2017, the film feels remarkably poignant. This decade has a seen a staggering rise of prescription drug-related deaths. For example, over 64,000 people died in 2016 from opioid-related overdoses, triple the number recorded in 2000, and the stats are only getting grimmer. The response in the last five years has been slow, but it's sparked public debate regarding the racial divide of drug epidemics. The crack epidemic of the 1980s was met with harsh punishment and an emphasis on law enforcement "cleaning up the streets," while the opioid crisis in predominantly white towns is greeted with calls for empathy and a distribution of funds to better tackle the pandemic. The optics tell the story: the War on Drugs aims to punish some for endangering the rest, with the "some" and the "rest" clearly defined.
Are you over 18?
The culture of 1970 wasn't quite equipped yet to chide the public on the double standard, but the film's second half is almost entirely focused on the suburbs, with the proxy being a good-to-do housewife who we first see in the pharmacy sequence requesting some kind of tranquilizer: "I can't sleep since my husband died in Vietnam," she says (meanwhile, the number of people who died of drug overdoses in 2016 alone is larger than the total number of American casualties during the entire Vietnam War).
Meanwhile, Dead Is Dead depicts the citizens of the suburbs as somehow intellectually removed from the drug crisis as it truly was at the time. "We don't have that kind of problem where we live," says the woman from the pharmacy, now seen draped cozily on the couch of her overly-wallpapered abode. "See, it's in the cities, you see, in that environment." She's interrupted by an expert who has come to her living room to better explain the plight of America's new war — a door-to-door salesman peddling facts instead of vacuums. "Look lady," he begins, "count your RXs. You got any pills missing? Or maybe you're one of those housewife junkies who takes a little amphetamine in the morning to get up and do her chores… if your kids or neighbors see you getting all your thrills, why shouldn't he get his?"
The scene between "the expert" and the housewife continues as they go through a suitcase of drugs that he uses as educational tools — homemade syringes filled with the chemical compounds found in various narcotics, a candy jar full of pills — but the housewife remains somewhat in denial: "There is a big difference between pills and something like heroin," she says. Cambridge's voiceover booms in again: "Innocence in the suburbs? Not quite. In fact, this is where some of the largest drug importers and dealers live, in the nicest of areas."
Are you over 18?
Dead Is Dead is a film largely about the ways in which hypocrisy can burrow into the sediment of the culture, and how a mix of denial and pride can often force us to look away from the problems in our own backyard. "We tried to find a balance between the inner-city and the suburbs when making this film," Cambridge says, "but when we arrived to the suburbs, we found some strange things. We found that we could find very few, if any, pictures of suburban youths who used and died of narcotics." The feature doesn't present the absence of recorded drug overdoses in the suburbs as a kind of mystery, but rather a reality that's been rendered invisible through denial — an entire class of American was unwilling to confront an epidemic they deemed as strictly the burden of the inner-city, whose "depraved" way of living all but invited such brutal ends.
From where I'm sitting — in 2017, watching as an opioid crisis is greeted with something close to compassion, while the crack epidemic got very little of the sort — it's hard not to focus entirely on race. How do we differentiate between a moral panic and an actual crisis? Who is deserving of concern and who is an example to be made of? Cambridge's assessment is shockingly astute, and focused almost entirely on the wellbeing of children, who he reminds are most at risk by the failure of the suburban class to properly classify and identify the prevalence of prescription drugs.
Are you over 18?
The 25-minute feature feels like some call and response between the predominant narrative surrounding drug use in the 1970s and the growing-epidemic as it really was. Whereas most anti-drug films feel like a finger-wagging; Dead Is Dead feels like a call to arms. In the final moments, Cambridge, incredulous, demands the boycott of products made in Turkey, France, Southeast Asia — "any country that ships us their drugs" — which serves as a more broad-standing argument. But the fury is fueled by some type of survivor's mentality. The scenes that open and close the film are frustratingly familiar — black bodies overdosing and dying in darkened stairwells, seemingly forgotten about. And that appears to be the point. Some drug abusers die fast and some die slow. Cambridge reminds that regardless, "they almost always die alone."
To this day, there remains a toxic split split between "drug victim" and "drug user." It might be an issue of semantics, but this particular film highlights the similar double-standard applied to cities and suburbs. Dead Is Dead was an early indicator that quantifying where drugs belong is an abstract and ineffective solution. They're on the street corner and in the medicine cabinet. Like the children of the suburbs, they're tucked safely at home.
Follow Rod Bastanmehr on Twitter