Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 6
Director: Joe Dante
Notable Films: The Howling, Gremlins, PiranhaDirector Trademarks Present: Stars Robert Picardo, subversive streak, dark comedy, in-jokes, media and political satire
Plot Summary: While on a cable TV news program, David Murch (Jon Tenney), a political adviser and spin doctor for a U.S. president running for re-election in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war, tells the mother of a soldier killed in action that if he could have one wish, he would wish for her son to come back to tell everyone who important the cause he died for was. Before David knows its, dead soldiers are coming back to life all over the country and marching in the streets, but these zombies are not out to eat human flesh; they want to vote out the administration that sent them to die.
Most Masters of Horror used the freedom the show offered to push the envelope in terms of violence and gore. Joe Dante, however, used the opportunity to make a blunt, polemic political statement against the administration of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. There are many words appropriate to describe Homecoming, but subtle is not one of them.
War is hell, but the ugly truth of it - dead soldiers, maimed veterans, countless lives destroyed - is often shielded from public consumption. The movie makes a point of reminding viewers of the former military policy forbidding caskets of servicemen from being photographed. Covering up reality is a theme. The central characters cause a great deal of pain, but they either don't realize it, ignore it, or enjoy it. But truth will not be denied. The rotting visage of a slain soldier, front and center on national TV or ambling down Main Street USA, cannot be cast aside. It must be confronted.
Although the tone of Homecoming is mostly darkly comic and satirical, Dante works in a number of striking images, perhaps none more unsettling than the scene in which the dead first rise. A military hanger is filled with caskets over which American flags drape while a giant flag oversees everything. The shot is slanted; the morality of the world is out of balance. When the zombies rise, the flags fall by the wayside, revealing the lurking horror obscured by blind patriotism.
The satire stems both from how Dante sends up prominent conservatives and explores the concept of the political and media spin for something as outrageous as the dead coming back to life to vote. Bush is never mentioned by name, nor is any prominent conservative figure circa 2005. The president of the United States is not even a present character (although we hear him speak with a Texas drawl). Instead of Ann Coulter, we get Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), a "constitutional scholar" and dominatrix who resorts to name-calling on political talk shows and acknowledges what she peddles is bullshit. Karl Rove is Kurt Rand (Robert Picardo); he doesn't let a thing like zombies upset a re-election campaign. Jerry Falwell is Clayton Poole (J.W. Carroll), who calls the returning soldiers blessings by God until he learns they're against the war. Then, they're demons from the bowels of hell. These are not three-dimensional portrayals. These are nasty, cynical, hypocritical, power-hungry liars who use the media to spin the news and shape public opinion.
The story plays out like a Tales from the Crypt morality tale, with the wicked getting their just desserts in a dark sense of cosmic justice. David, the only prominent character with a conscious it seems, wishes for the dead to express how they feel about the cause. Rand, angered by the public sympathy the zombies generate, laments if only they could kill someone, the government would have an excuse to round them up. Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.
Homecoming generated a fair degree of attention when it premiered. It certainly was a risk for Dante to make an episode guaranteed to alienate and frustrate a sizable portion of the audience. Some criticized the episode for being an obvious political statement instead of trying to scare the audience as a genre film while others praised it as a bold enterprise. I think, as time goes on, as the obvious political connotations fade, it will be remembered favorably. As long as there have been politicians and media, they have exploited the country's fallen warriors. Now that is a lingering sense of horror.