In 2005, Masters of Horror debuted on Showtime. This was an anthology horror series where famous and emerging horror directors were given the opportunity to create original one hour long horror films with no restrictions. The show ran for two seasons on Showtime before being picked up and rebranded on NBC as Fear Itself.
It’s the final weeks of the presidential election cycle. America is facing an unprecedented challenge. Soldiers who died during the current war are rising from the grave. They cannot be killed and they cannot be silenced. Homecoming is a brutal satire about war, news media as entertainment, and the use of veterans as props for political gain.
Joe Dante is one of the directors who used Masters of Horror to do whatever he wanted rather than what people might expect. Dante’s horror style is slapstick horror comedy. His best known films, including Piranha, Gremlins, and The Howling, are simple concepts pushed to absurd conclusions. He takes an idea—killer this, failed that, etc.—and focuses it on a broad social issue. His work has a brutally dark sense of cartoonish humor. You’re not going to mistake a Joe Dante film for anyone else’s work.
Homecoming opens with two political pundits running down a zombie soldier with their car. They flag down a military vehicle for help and a battalion of zombie soldiers shambles out. One pundit reaches into the trunk for heavy artillery while the other wonders how they wound up in this situation.
In 2005, this episode hit hard. It’s adapted from Dale Bailey’s 2002 short story “Death and Suffrage.” Both are anti-war, anti-propaganda stories. Bailey’s story is a response to the invasion of Iraq after the September 11 attacks and Joe Dante’s film is a reaction to George W. Bush’s reelection and the Iraq War. The story and the film are angry acts of protest.
There is no room for subtlety in Homecoming. The screenplay by Sam Hamm straight up calls out the language about weapons of mass destruction and arrests for protesting that became the media narrative during the 2004 presidential election cycle. The president running for reelection is represented as a voice over of a George W. Bush impersonator giving a stump speech about war. Meanwhile the two pundits discuss his perceived lack of intelligence; they claim it’s all an act to get people on his side. Dante wanted to satirize everything that frustrated him about the US government at that time. He wanted there to be no excuse for mistaking his message as anything positive.
The two lead characters are a blonde conservative woman writing incendiary non-fiction books about hot button topics and a silver-tongued businessman type working as a mouthpiece for the president’s reelection campaign. They’re meant to be sort-of rivals on air and quickly become best friends in person. They trade tips with each other over cocktails and travel together to events. They stoke up controversy on air to boost both of their careers and are willing to say anything if it keeps them in power.
The conceit of Homecoming is exploiting the death of soldiers for political clout. Something has allowed the fallen soldiers to literally rise from the grave and get a chance to reclaim their voices. They demand their lives be given more meaning than just their deaths. The pundits struggle to keep their stories straight as every day provides new information about the real reason these veterans have returned to life.
Joe Dante is a smart director. He uses slapstick to distract from the deeper messages in his work. His films are full of silly stares and broad reactions to the camera to keep the audience at ease. Homecoming tries the same on a much more serious topic than usual: the treatment of veterans when they return home from war. The dark humor works on the news media angle, but not the use of fallen soldiers as political props.
It’s an intentional divide. Dante pushes his bigger message much further than normal. He actually recreates widespread images from the Iraq War, including airplane hangers filled with flag-covered caskets. The few sight gags with “I Voted” stickers and air freshener do nothing to distract from the memories of those real events. Every joke attempted at the expense of soldiers falls flat by design.
Homecoming is not any easier to watch in 2020 than it was in 2005. This is an incredibly angry film. Once the actual plot is introduced, the overall arc of the story is designed to make you feel frustrated and sad. Zombies have always been and will always be an effective vehicle for satire in horror. Joe Dante chooses not to soften the blow.
content warning: gore, war, foul language, death by suicide
Next Up: S1E07: Deer Woman, directed by John Landis.