Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Anchor Bay has been steadily releasing last season's episodes of Masters of Horror cable show and Savant has reviewed one for the record, Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch House. Although it's certainly a good idea to promote noted directors of macabre moviemaking, the Masters of Horror formula dictates the usual things for unrated 'adult' oriented cable fare. In search of commercial approval, most installments are overloaded with nudity, gore, profanity -- a general air nastiness. The series has been renewed and I hope the next batch of titles will give us more original work of the kind found in Joe Dante's episode, Homecoming.
Homecoming is definitely a case of "Now for Something Completely Different." It's a mordant black comedy with a message that cuts deep. Dante delivers a zombie picture with a dangerous and daring political agenda, expressing angry dissent for our current war overseas.
Menacing zombies corner presidential speechwriter David Murch (Jon Tenney) and right-wing media firebrand Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill) on the highway. Four weeks earlier, Murch is on a talk show with Jane promoting the administration's war policy. He squeaks free of a sticky confrontation with a mother who has lost her son in Iraq by becoming emotional and wishing that the woman's boy could come home and speak of his noble sacrifice. While the opportunistic Jane Cleaver tries to wedge herself into a government job by bedding Murch, Murch'es boss Kurt Rand (Robert Picardo) announces the good news that his "I wish the dead heroes could come back" idea has been co-opted for the President's speaking tour. Dead soldiers immediately start returning to life, frightening people but not hurting them - they just want to express their opinion by voting in the election. Murch, Cleaver, Rand and a pompous religious pundit take this as a divine endorsement of Presidential policy until the walking corpses announce that they want to vote against the war. The DC power brokers must shift the propaganda machine into reverse: The zombies are no longer revered vets but dangerous health risks who must be rounded up and quarantined.
Joe Dante and Sam Hamm fill their hour of terror with a complex political lampoon that transcends the zombie genre. That's only the first level of a film that has the nerve to come right out and say truths no Hollywood fiction release dares speak: That our foreign policy is a shameful disgrace, and the present administration keeps its illegal war in motion by branding dissenters as unpatriotic and anti-American. The story replaces demented scientists with scheming politicos fond of using the President's tough-guy catchphrase "Bring it on!" Making literal the notion that despots stay in power over the bodies of dead soldiers, Homecoming uses that macho challenge like the unwise wishes in the classic story The Monkey's Paw: Be careful what you wish for as your wish may be granted. The zombie format is a framework to confront the powerful with their own hauteur -- the dead let us know how they feel about their personal sacrifice by rising to confront the living.
Joe Dante is one of the few filmmakers to consistently use the iconography of horror films for satire; all of his pictures are distinguished by a solid comedic foundation. His first hit The Howling utilized a werewolf story to take clever potshots at flaky California lifestyle trends, especially Holistic-humanistic weekend retreats and encounter groups. Gremlins assaulted the tradition of the cheery holiday film and "harmless" movie violence. Homecoming's political content overwhelms the zombie storyline with a steady stream of satirical mischief. The mad scientists studying zombie physiology in George Romero's Day of the Dead are here transformed into administration spin doctors, trying to find some way to trick hundreds of reanimated G.I. corpses into endorsing Presidential policy. The zombies don't want to kill and cannot be killed, even by the traditional shot to the head. They instead just want closure, and expire after getting that all-important voting receipt in their hands. The biggest fear in zombie pictures is to die and become "one of them," an idea that has slowly changed as the zombies of the bigger epics are regarded more as victims than monsters. In Homecoming the hero discovers that the only righteous path to atonement for his sins is to join the dissenting undead horde.
The real political antecedent to Homecoming is an emotional pacifist movie by France's Abel Gance called J'Accuse, which he made immediately after the end of WW1 in 1919 and later re-made in the 1930s as war clouds again descended on Europe. The French war dead rise in a ghostly procession to accuse society of re-arming and allowing the same unstable conditions to rise again, guaranteeing failure for "The War to End All Wars" and making their sacrifices meaningless.
There is also Bob Clark's chilling 1972 Canadian horror picture Deathdeam. A complacent Vietnam-era household is torn asunder by the sudden return of their son from the combat area. It turns out that he's really a ghost, come to visit a little of the horror of war on the unsuspecting home front.
The funny Homecoming nimbly lampoons administration spin doctors and rabid talk-show attack dogs as completely unprincipled opportunists. Jon Tenney's speechwriter and spokesman on administration policy becomes the only sympathetic politico when he discovers that his own older brother's status as a noble Vietnam hero is a manufactured lie. Thus Homecoming cleverly links this bankrupt war to a previous ignoble conflict. Tenney is very much in the mold of Kevin Spacey right down to general demeanor and line readings; his initial teary wish for soldiers to come back looks sincere because it is - he's actually thinking about his brother.
Thea Gill's Jane Cleaver is a 100% hateful demon from political hell, a sexually frustrated harpy. She thinks Tenney's sincere act is terrific but prefers her own ease with the well-timed acidic remark, the kind of hateful slur that makes opponents shrink in horror. Tenny's bright-faced campaign underling is more typical of the political zealot -- winning is everything, especially when it makes for a good career move. The only reason these venal politicos aren't attacking each other is that the administration has opened a new frontier for selfish opportunism. There is room for all.
Dante's endlessly versatile stock player Robert Picardo is the main policy wag so committed to the cause of hoodwinking the public that he doesn't even pretend to be motivated by anything but blind self-interest. He moves the plot to a new level by trying to steer the zombies away from their undead mission. The soldier-zombies are less easily influenced than the voting public, however.
Homecoming doesn't get fuzzy in the details; although the President is not identified by name (except on Jane Cleaver's personalized license plate) his voice is imitated, briefly. The Prez is popular, we're told, because his stupidity doesn't intimidate stupid voters. The spin doctors are completely cynical in their abuse of the war dead. A 700 Club-like tele-preacher applauds the zombies as heaven-sent, and then calls them demons from hell when they don't support government policy.
Dante and Hamm make sure that their satirical jibes have a point. The idea for having dead-alive zombie troops confront the American public may have been inspired by Deathdream or it may have come naturally from the government's policy to withhold images of the coffins of returning war dead from the press. The flag-draped coffins are quite likely this war's only 'product' for the American people, and when Homecoming shows them opening to disgorge mutilated zombies, it brings the point home in no uncertain terms. Our young men are in those boxes. Disrespectful? Not in a million years.
Homecoming has no severe zombie gore scenes but there are a number of chills, even if the undead veterans don't have killing on their minds. Some of the best material is a scene when a café owner and his wife try to make a lonely, freezing zombie comfortable, accepting him as a boy home from the front. It's a bizarre variation on the old-fashioned sentimentality seen in movies like The Human Comedy. Dante's sure hand with actors lends the scene a dignity found nowhere else in the Masters of Horror series.
When Election Day comes, it's implied that right-wingers fix the outcome by controlling the voting process, as was alleged happened in the disputed 2000 election. Ohio and Florida returns suddenly reverse trend and put the President on top. The zombies sense that something is wrong and finally become violent.
It's an interesting political situation when an escapist fantasy -- a humble horror film -- is one of few public expressions of what at least half of America feels to be the truth. The humble horror pic Homecoming is really out there on its own, while the populace ignores rational advocacy documentaries like the recently released Why We Fight. In 1919 and 1938 Abel Gance's pacifist movies were probably considered irrelevant, and in 1938 his message was particularly out of touch with history. Bob Clark's obscure Deathdream is known only in cult circles. Homecoming may make much more of an impact by saying that speaking the truth as one sees it is not only the right thing to do but patriotic as well. Hopefully it will find an even larger audience on DVD.
The wickedly funny Homecoming is a packed Anchor Bay DVD. The excellent enhanced transfer and encoding probably can't touch the HD original on cable television but it looks and plays fine; we can see all of Dante's signature gags, like his use of zombie filmmakers' names on the gravestones in his cute replay of the beginning of Night of the Living Dead. 1
The disc carries a full complement of EPK -style extras. All of the segments involving Joe Dante are recommended as he's a terrific raconteur with a fresh attitude and nothing to hide -- he personifies the optimistic enthusiasm in all of his films. Perry Martin directs The Dead Come Marching, an illustrated interview with Dante that covers his entire career and his Homecoming experience. Dante acknowledges his unabashed bias and expresses his thanks to Masters of Horror for encouraging self-expression without restrictions.
The other extra featurettes get more into the technical end of the film. It's difficult for actors and technicians to come up with great phrases why a movie that hasn't been finished yet is a classic, but fans eager to lap up every zombie-riffic detail of the production will find their fill. It's also good to listen to Sam Hamm's feature commentary, as well as sporadic comments by the other creatives, to find that they're neither crazed acid throwers trying to bring down civilization, nor in any way apologetic for their film. Perhaps the most optimistic thing about Homecoming is that it hasn't been targeted by attempts at suppression. Is that a comment on the sanctity of creative expression in America, or an acknowledgement that ideas expressed in lowly horror movies still slip under the political radar?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Interviews with Joe Dante, Jon Tenney, Robert Picardo, Thea Gill; Featurettes on working with Dante, 'script to screen', behind the scenes; Masters of Horror's Mick Garris interviews Dante, trailer, still gallery, commentary from writer Sam Hamm, Dante Bio. DVD-ROM: Screenplay, Dale Bailey's original short story, screen saver.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 29, 2006
1. The names George Romero and Jacques Tourneur jump out at us, but Gordon Douglas? Oh yeah, 1945's Zombies on Broadway.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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