You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what a fucking mess we’re in. It’s been happening steadily for the past four years, and nobody said peep.
— Joe Dante, Village Voice (29 November 2005)
Imagine there’s no heaven. More precisely, imagine the dead aren’t so happy about being dead and want to let the living know about it. This is the possibility laid out by Joe Dante’s excellent Homecoming, the latest installment of Showtime’s Masters of Horror collection. Here the dead who have something to say are soldiers, killed in wars undertaken by the United States and wondering just what it was they died for.
For the most part, these zombies have been killed in the war in Iraq, still going in 2008, when Dante’s short film is set. The timeframe is specific and fictional, as a folksy-sounding Republican president is running for yet another term (he appears at the National Convention on background televisions), trying to beat back the current of opposition to a war initiated on false pretenses (or, more colorfully, according to one observer, “horseshit and elbow grease”). The troops who’ve died in that war are “coming home,” just in time to vote.
At first, the campaign believes the soldiers will do as they usually do, that is, support the commander in chief. But trouble brews when it appears that the returnees actually aren’t thrilled about dying for no good reason. They don’t feel heroic or justified or proud. They feel duped. And they want to make their voices heard. They have become, in the words of one especially disappointed presidential supporter, “a bunch of crippled, stinking, maggot-infested, brain-dead zombie dissidents.”
Yes, the undead are angry. And they’re witty too, according to the logic of Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm (who adapted Dale Bailey’s 2002 short story “Death and Suffrage”). Not only do they first appear zombie-lurching toward a couple stuck on a lonely road late at night (the first shot indicating their presence is a Dante-esque close-up of a crutch splatting into a bit of road-kill), but they’re also patriotic, tough, and focused. They know what’s at stake, they don’t buy the rhetoric that placates folks stateside and understand the “reality on the ground” better than any politician could even think of doing.
Still, they are mostly dead, and that makes their insights hard to hear. The living are scared of the undead, who lumber and mumble, with crumbling skin and crusty wounds. Perversely and perfectly, all this makes the zombies more credible. And this is the genius of Homecoming — it speaks an antic-seeming truth to power, even as U.S. news media can’t. The film points out the failings of administration officials and political pundits, lifelong campaigners all. And it indicts consumers for believing and/or tolerating the spin. It’s a mad movie with something to say about the mad world it reflects.
One guy in Homecoming who has some sense of what’s at stake is (currently Republican) campaign consultant David Murch (Jon Tenney). In fact, he feels responsible for their appearance and right wing author Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), whose latest book, titled Subversion: How the Radical Left Took over Cable News, sports a cover explicitly resembling Ann Coulter’s Time magazine cover, all wide-angled long legs and pointy shoes and whose vanity plates read “BSH BABE.”
“I remember the night the whole world went to hell,” Murch says. It was the night he met Jane and they started fucking, not only in bed but in a sustained, mendacious effort to reelect the president. This meeting occurs on a Fox Newsish talk show, Marty Clark Live! (the smarmy host played by Terry David Mulligan), where guests agree on the intelligence of all administration policies and more to the point, the idiocy and inefficacy of all opposition. (Jane calls a group of war protestors “men with breasts and women with armpit hair; they are ugly, stupid, clueless, they have nothing but hate for this country.”)
Murch is asked to respond to a Cindy Sheehan-ish figure (whom Dante says they filmed before Sheehan hit cable tv), who only wants to ask the president why her son died in this meaningless war. He’s quiet for a minute, then lapses into a kind of emotional mist, asserting, “If I had one wish, I would wish for your son to come back because I know he would tell us all how important this struggle is.” Impressed by what she assumes to be performance (“It was like, so sincere“), Jane essentially jumps Murch’s bones.
Their infernal coupling, however, doesn’t quite have the effect they plan. Within days, the president is using Murch’s line for his Convention speech and soldiers really are coming back. This last is brilliantly realized in one of the film’s most effective scenes — as a young solider tries to protect a Dover Air Force Base hangar full of flag-draped coffins from what he thinks is another pesky soul with a camera, he finds that instead, the disturbance is caused by the rising of corpses from their caskets. Shortly after comes an homage to Night of the Living Dead — wherein soldiers emerge from graves at Arlington National Cemetery, just as Murch and his mother are visiting his Vietnam war veteran brother’s headstone.
The bodies aren’t just cannibals or mindless stalkers. Rather, they have a mission, not quite discernible to Murch’s boss, Karl Rove-like campaign architect Kurt Rand (Robert Picardo). He starts storing zombie troops in a lab, where he shows Murch the depths of their depravity: “The thing is, you can’t kill ’em. God knows we’ve tried [he shoots a vibrant troop strapped to a table]. Shoot ’em, they keep on comin’. Cut ’em up in pieces, the pieces keep comin’. We amputated his leg and you know what it did? Goddamn thing kicked the doctor square I the ass! Not to be premature,” adds Rand, “But I’m thinking ‘supernatural’.”
Indeed. Rand initially supposes the undead soldiers are good for the business of war, rather like Luc Van Damme in Universal Soldier (“If we could keep the same dead G.I.s out in the field forever…”). But they’ve come back with their own sense of mission, namely, to vote out of office the administration responsible for their dire condition. “I was killed for a lie,” one undead troop declares to the campaigning president, who in turn has to admit he never served and never saw anyone die on a battlefield, much less was killed on one.
Homecoming is as literal-minded as a horror movie can be, with thunderstorms, shoot-outs, and bloody, staggering bodies illustrating what Murch admits in sternly self-recriminating voiceover: “The face of this war had always been ugly. We’d tried to hide it from the public. But then, they were among us, these dead young men, these monsters.” At which point, a kindly black family takes in a wandering Caucasian zombie, offering him shelter from the rain and asking his name.
“Four more years” and “Mission accomplished,” read a couple of campaign posters in the campaign office where Rand rants. He’s beside himself that these “undead creeps [are] at every mall and bus stop, looking all shot up and pitiful.” They are the face of the war, on tv screens, in suburban neighborhoods, and, wearing orange jumpsuits, in Gitmo-looking internment camps. It’s the film’s premise that the dead must be seen, that the “true face of war” might be stunningly and relentlessly visible, in order to overcome the force of feel-good abstractions, like “honor” and “freedom.” Sadly, the point is at once obvious and gutsy.