Grady Hendrix / Slate – 2005-12-06 00:35:15
NEW YORK (December 2, 2005) — Just when things looked like they couldn’t get any worse for President Bush, here come the zombies to vote him out of office. They arrive courtesy of Joe Dante’s Homecoming, a one-hour movie made for Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series that airs tonight and tomorrow and will be rebroadcast throughout December.
One part satire of soulless Beltway insiders, one part gut-crunching horror flick, Homecoming kicks off when the flag-draped coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq burst open and the reanimated corpses of dead veterans hit the streets, searching for polling places where they can pull the lever for “anyone who will end this evil war.”
The mandate for Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series was to give one-hour slots to name-brand shock auteurs such as Takashi Miike and John Carpenter, granting them total artistic control in exchange for low budgets. So far, most of the directors have squandered their creative carte blanche on extra boobs and more blood, but Joe Dante has elected to do something actually terrifying: engage with the real world.
His characters seem like people we’ve just watched on MSNBC. There’s David Murch, a political consultant for an unnamed Republican president who sounds exactly like President Bush. His new girlfriend, Jane Cleaver, is a bullying pundit cloned from Ann Coulter’s DNA. There’s also a James Carville look-alike and a Jerry Falwell doppelgänger, complete with quivering jowls.
Dante delivers the thrill of watching familiar figures spin the issues and dole out doublespeak, yet he doesn’t stint on the satisfaction of seeing them have their brains eaten afterwards. He’s the first horror director to take the bits of media flotsam and jetsam that have been drifting around — the flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base, the talking-head cable shows, the internment camps, the Ohio and Florida recounts, the “Mission Accomplished” banners — and make something electrifying out of them.
It’s almost impossible to write about horror movies without playing amateur sociologist, especially when zombies are involved. Since 9/11, artists and writers of popular culture seem the most willing to cope with current events, and they’ve disgorged an unstoppable series of zombie movies: 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, not to mention the book The Zombie Survival Guide and the comic-book series “The Walking Dead,” among others.
Horror is cheap and disposable. It has to figure out what scares you and throw it up on the screen (or down on the page) fast — there’s no time to cover its tracks. But why all the zombies? Zombie movies have always been the richest in subtext, whether it’s the cartoonish class warfare of Land of the Dead or the anti-Vietnam- war message of 1974’s Deathdream. Today, zombies are the perfect metaphor for our soldiers in Iraq: They’re shell-shocked, anonymous, and aren’t asked to make very many decisions.
Unless you personally know a soldier, the war in Iraq has been a zombie war, fought by an uncomplaining, faceless mass wrapped in desert camo and called “our boys.” We talk about them all the time — supporting them, criticizing them, speaking for them– but we don’t really have a clue as to what’s on their minds. They often seem like disposable units sent to enforce the will of our country. But what if they come back and they’re different? What if they come back and don’t want to follow orders anymore?
What’s shocking about Dante’s Homecoming is that he dispenses with the usual horror subtext completely. Pundits go on TV to defend the living dead’s right to vote until they find out they’re not voting Republican. Zombies rise from the grave, wrapped in the American flag. There’s even a Cindy Sheehan stand-in with a zombie son. Nothing is too recent or too raw. Dante has always had an ax to grind — his film Small Soldiers was an anti-violence carnival of killer toys and even the lovable Gremlins had an anti-consumption message.
But Homecoming is on another level of guilty pleasures, a junk-food adrenaline rush that debunks the myth of glorious war, presenting every ugly wound in gory latex detail, while having nothing but compassion for the lonely, lurching, living-dead soldiers.
While Dante’s film will no doubt raise hackles, my guess is that most members of the military would get a kick out of this flick that praises the troops in Iraq while offering up the politicians and pundits who sent them there as finger food for the undead.
Some big brains have tried to make a statement about the war in Iraq, and every single one of them should be standing in line, heads hung low, waiting to get their artistic licenses revoked. Who would’ve thought that where Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), Sam Mendes (Jarhead), and Steven Bochco (Over There) got it so wrong, the director of Looney Tunes: Back in Action would have gotten it so right?
Grady Hendrix, a New York writer, runs the New York Asian Film Festival.