Dawn of the Zombie Jarheads

Damn right he's registered: Joe Dante's 'Homecoming'
Showtime Networks

Masters Of Horror: Homecoming
directed by Joe Dante
Friday at 9:00 p.m.
and Saturday at 9:30 p.m.

(with three additional
repeats in December)

How's this for a sneaky horror-film allegory? On the eve of an alarmingly tight U.S. presidential election, American soldiers who died in a Middle East war based on public deception suddenly rise from their coffins and lumber toward the nation's polling booths, tipping the scale against a chicken-hawk incumbent whose advisor admires his "way of making stupid people feel that they're just as smart as he is."

The hour-long Homecoming, made for Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series by the eternally underrated Joe Dante (Gremlins, Small Soldiers), represents something rare in the hundred-year history of American horror: a mass-market thriller whose biting topicality is as unmistakable as an oozing flesh wound. At the very least, this hilarious tale of supernatural vindication finds Dante boldly resurrecting the tradition of B-movie rib-poking that perished in the early '80s when another regular-guy executive in the White House handed near-total control of film exhibition--a weapon of mass deception, you could say--to the corporations.

Homecoming, then, celebrates the return of the repressed in more ways than one: Heeding the call in 2008, fallen veterans claw their way out of graves marked "Jacques Tourneur" and "G.A. Romero." Did I say this "allegory" is "sneaky"? Forget it: Subtlety is a privilege that those serving their country--Dante among them--can no longer afford. "BSH BABE" reads the license plate of the full-size sedan belonging to Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), the Ann Coulter-esque backlasher whose latest bestseller is Subversion: How the Radical Left Took Over Cable News. Shilling for her tome on a Larry King-like show that evidently still allows the radical right on the airwaves, Cleaver meets David Murch (Jon Tenney), a grown frat boy of a campaign consultant who earns the president's approval on the telecast--and Cleaver's--by faking sympathy for an Altoona caller whose son was killed in action overseas. "If I had one wish," Murch says, appearing to stifle tears, "I would wish for your son to come back."

Wish granted. Not long after the leggy blond provocateur has had her way with the consultant, handcuffing him to a bedpost and dripping hot wax on his hairy chest, a hangar at Dover Air Force Base begins to fill with undead activists. Dante's image of American stars and stripes twisting to life from beneath casket doors has a jolting force--in part for signaling that this revenge fantasy is not only damn funny, but dead serious, too. The brazen clarity of the film's conceit doesn't account for how deftly Dante juggles comedy and horror, parody and pathos. A brief scene of our postcoital couch-potato couple watching the monosyllabic POTUS work a convention hall--Cleaver dressed in a skintight "No SEX for oil" T-shirt, gnawing popcorn and sucking down nicotine--captures the essence of Republican cynicism as humorously as any movie could in 45 seconds. But in even less time, Dante honors the dead with a chilling gravity that freezes the giggles in your throat: U.S. Marine Robert Bunten, combat fatigues covering his half-decayed body, stumbles to the polling site, locks eyes with an election volunteer who knew him when he was alive, and yanks out his dog tags to provide proof of registration. "Do you know how to use the punch card?" the volunteer asks. As Dante films it, that's not a joke; it isn't funny.

Based on Dale Bailey's 2002 short story "Death and Suffrage" (and shot in Vancouver in a mere 10 days), Homecoming received a five-minute standing ovation from the audience at the Torino Film Festival, where it premiered a few weeks ago. Now this zombie J'Accuse! arrives on our own soil--camouflaged as a made-for-cable trifle--at a time when public opinion of the Iraq War and its sponsors appears finally to be shifting. Like the killer piranha and werewolf movies that John Sayles scripted for Dante back in the day, Homecoming is palpably angry, but also giddy--perhaps with the knowledge of what it's getting away with. The film isn't cloaked in complicated metaphors because, evidently, it didn't need to be--which one hopes is a sign of the times. Could it be that Jane Cleaver, a.k.a. Ann Coulter, is actually correct about the left-wing takeover of cable TV? Not in 2005, she's not. But Homecoming, don't forget, is set in 2008.

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