Written by: Sam Hamm (screenplay), Dale Bailey (short story)
Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Thea Gill, Jon Tenney and Terry David Mulligan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“We are definitely not giving up to a bunch of crippled, stinking, maggot-infested, brain-dead zombie dissidents!"
The first five episodes of Masters of Horror are such a mixed bag (or worse) in terms of both quality and theme that I almost did a double take after seeing Homecoming. Joe Dante’s crack at this anthology series is not simply the best episode of the series so far, but it’s the first that feels like it could completely work as a feature film. While it’s yet another movie that features zombies, it’s not just another zombie movie, even though it once again conflates zombies with socio-political subtexts, a move that’s been done to death just as much as the undead themselves. But something about Homecoming’s political leanings are so biting and still so sadly resonant that they stick, and it helps that’s delivered as a broad, dark satire that’s a perfect match for Dante’s sensibilities.
Set on the verge of the 2004 presidential election, Homecoming features on speech-writer David Murch (John Tenney), who makes an appearance on a political talk show, where he’s confronted by the mother of a slain war hero. For once in his life, he’s caught off guard and obviously not equipped with some empty rhetoric, so he wishes that all of America’s fallen soldiers could return to let us know how they feel about their sacrifice. Unfortunately for him (and his incumbent cronies), the wish is granted when the soldiers actually do begin to return from the grave to indict the administration that sent them to die under the pretense of a lie.
Said lie will be obvious to anyone who so much as breathed during the past decade; the script never comes right out and actually mentions Iraq, but the “WMD” and “nuclear program” soundbytes make it obviously enough. Calling Homecoming a thinly-veiled savaging of the Bush administration’s Iraqi crusade would be selling it short since there’s practically no veil here. The anonymous, largely unseen president similarly isn’t named, but he speaks with an all too familiar and exaggerated Texas drawl; likewise, he’s surrounded by a Karl Rove style flunky (Robert Picardo) and is supported by the film’s most memorable character: Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), a militant right-wing firecracker who obviously stands in for Anne Coulter. Her introduction actually comes when she’s on the run from zombies (with the film eventually flashing back to reveal how all of this got started), fleeing in a sleek sports car (decked out with a vanity plate that reads “BSH BABE”) that she eventually screeches to a halt so she can grab her shotgun from the trunk. One can easily imagine that she would have been on the front lines of a Tea Party rally four years later.
The Cleaver character is probably the best example of how smartly Homecoming captures this era (which really never ended, but more on that in a minute); her name of course recalls June Cleaver and 50s Americana--you know, the era that extreme Republicans cling to as the Golden Age as they clutch their handguns and Bibles. The level of incisiveness here is almost disturbingly funny, particularly in the way these clowns react to the zombies’ return. At first, the evangelical right-wing contingent sees the undead as a sign from God that validates their course of action; Cleaver even takes a potshot at the “Islamo-fascists” whose own god hasn’t sent a similar sign. But then the zombies reveal their purpose for coming back; surprisingly enough, they aren’t here to eat the guys who sent them to die under false pretenses. Instead, they simply want to vote, and the minute everyone figures out that they’re voting against the present administration, the rhetoric shifts. Suddenly, they’ve become demons, a sign from Satan; the sickening smarminess here is outrageous but spot-on in showing how politicians can shift their tone and rhetoric to fit their whims.
So, yes, this is another zombie movie where the humans are the real enemies; there’s almost always a sense that zombies aren’t the real danger in a zombie movie, and this plays with those expectations a little bit. The humans here are the most dangerous ones imaginable, as they control information and elections, while the zombies simply just want to exercise their basic rights. Typically, a zombie movie that ends with zombies descending upon Washington would be making some statement that we’ve already got braindead guys running that place, but, in this case, the zombies are smart and less animalistic than the people they’re trying to replace. We see this struggle revealed on a singular level in Tenney’s character, who actually had a brother who died in Vietnam; this is the part of the film that could use a little shoring up with a longer runtime, but the gist that’s presented here is solid enough to get the point across. His arc (like much of Homecoming) sort of plays out as an idealistic fantasy (and maybe a liberal fantasy since the crosshairs are so obviously aimed at uber-conservatives), a sort of revisionist take on what happened in Iraq.
You’d think the film would seem a little dated and its teeth a bit dulled, but knowing that the Iraq conflict just “officially” ended within the last year makes it all the more prescient. Names and faces might have changed over the course of time, but you still see these same slimy tactics emanating from the political battlefield today. Sam Hamm’s script (adapted from Dale Bailey’s short story that was actually written before the Iraq conflict) deftly makes this both timely and timeless, and the material is slickly delivered by Dante, a guy whose work has always tended towards silliness. Homecoming is similar silly at times, but this is a case where you have to laugh to keep from crying, and Dante lets his actors take the ball and run with it, particularly Gill. His work has always tended towards homage--you can often feel his influences running through his work, and Homecoming has overt references to zombie masters Tourneur and Romero (among others), but it feels an awful lot like Bob Clark’s Deathdream re-imagined as a satire.
This is first time a director has turned in a Masters of Horror episode that can stand among their best films; Homecoming is a blistering indictment of one of the more reprehensible chapters in American history. Your mileage will probably very depending on your own politics, but it’s really difficult to deny a lot of things being said here. I think most reasonable people have come around on the notion that Iraq was a flimsily sold over-exertion of American power that resulted in a senseless loss of life. Per usual, Anchor Bay delivers a fine DVD for this series; it's graced with an excellent video transfer and both stereo and surround tracks. The disc is rounded out by a host of extras, including on set and behind-the-scenes looks, interviews with the cast and crew, a script to screen feature, trailers, a still gallery, and a commentary with Hamm. As Homecoming is not only one of the best episodes of Masters of Horror, but also a sharp, perceptive political film from the Bush era, it deserves a spot on your shelf right next to Dante’s other works. Buy it!
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