December 1- 7, 2005
Zombie Iraq veterans come looking for answers, and that's not the scary part.
All is quiet at Dover Air Force Base. Inside a cavernous hangar, carefully hidden from view, are rows and rows of metal boxes, their flag-draped shapes stretching into the distance. Two soldiers stand guard, exchanging idle chatter, when a report crackles over the radioanother pesky reporter, trying to snap photos of the dead. One soldier goes to investigate, and the other is left alone. Suddenly, a sound echoes through the emptiness, and the boxes begin to stir, first one and then dozens. The coffins collapse, sliding to the floor, and the red, white and blue shrouds lift off their slabs, sliding away to reveal the bodies of American soldiers killed in Iraq. They're back, and they have a few questions to ask.
Premiering on Showtime this weekend as part of the Masters of Horror series, Homecoming is slotted among morbid ghost stories and serial-killer chillers. But the hourlong episode, directed by Joe Dante, is frightening in ways that have nothing to do with the supernatural. The zombie soldiers turn out to be a polite, nonviolent (if somewhat smelly) lot; those with vocal chords are even well-spoken. The true monsters are at least nominally human: Jon Tenney's presidential speechwriter, Thea Gill's buxom pundit and Robert Picardo's opportunistic aide, who can't help but wonder if these undead soldiers might be convinced to re-enlist. Next to them, a few ambulatory corpses don't seem so scary after all.
"Horror movies are basically a subversive genre," Dante says. "It's part of their appeal. Usually the message is encoded or in symbols, but since we only had an hour to tell the story, we sort of dispensed with the symbols." Indeed, you'd have to be brain-dead to miss the resemblance between Picardo's Kurt Rand and the real Karl Rove, or Gill's Jane Cleaver and a certain self-styled neocon sexpot. (At least on the record, Dante denies the latter, perhaps because the character is a promiscuous dominatrix whom the speechwriter's mother describes as "what we used to call a skank.") There's even a Cindy Sheehan figure, although Dante says the script was written before Sheehan's emergence on the national stage. The president remains offscreen, but the Texas twang is unmistakable, as is this description of his appeal: "He makes stupid people feel they're just as smart as he is."
As far back as 1968's Night of the Living Dead (and as recently as Land of the Dead), zombie movies have been recognized as a potent vehicle for social commentary; the shuffling, unstoppable hordes can represent just about anything a conscientious filmmaker desires. But it's hard to think of a filmmaker who has seized the genre's potential quite so explicitly as Dante. Next to Homecoming, the class-war allegory and Abu Ghraib references of Land of the Dead are practically oblique. Tongue in cheek, ax in hand, Dante lays into a government that gives veterans a voice only when their lines are scripted, and would sooner toss their bodies away than account for their deaths.
Going into the project, Dante was fully aware that some might find his approach offensive: Surely the deaths of two thousand Americans ought not to be played for laughs. In fact, they aren't, although just about everything else in Homecoming is. It's hard to think of a moment in recent movies as moving as the scene where an elderly African-American couple welcomes a reanimated veteran into their all-night diner, touching his shoulder as terrified teens flee in horror. "As we sit here, there are people dying," Dante says. "We didn't want to minimize that in any way. We wanted to make sure the veterans are portrayed in a dignified way, even though we're doing a zombie movie." (Conveniently, soldiers who believe they died for a just cause are said to be "at peace," and so don't come back.) Even so, he says, "we were aware of the fact that it's in bad taste. But considering the subject matter, it couldn't be in any worse taste than the actual war."
Homecoming exemplifies the way genre movies like Land of the Dead and Serenity have consistently outclassed self-conscious statements like Good Night, And Good Luck. and the upcoming Syriana. Where the latter get bogged down in fact-checking and aides, the nonspecific nature of fantasy stories allows viewers to fill in the blanks; the movie sketches the forest, and the audience plants the trees. Hell, even Harry Potter gets in on the act when Dumbledore insists that the only way to honor a slain boy is to tell the truth about his death; too bad he wasn't running things when Pat Tillman was killed. In part, Dante says his decision to frame Homecoming as a zombie tale was "purely opportunistic this venue was probably the only one where we could get away with it." But he also knows that, while they don't garner the same respect, genre movies often stand the test of time better than their Oscar-bait contemporaries. "If you ever want to know what the world was like at a given time, go look at the horror movies and the comedies," he says. "You'll have a complete view of what the society was like, which you won't get from the issue drama." Homecoming may not generate too many op-eds, but Dante hopes it will fuel the desire for the truth to come out. Like the soldiers in his story, "it seems to me that people are kind of waking up."
Masters of Horror: Homecoming
Directed by Joe Dante Premieres Fri., Dec. 2, 10 p.m., Showtime