Dante's Inferno

A horror movie brings out the zombie vote to protest Bush's war

TURIN, ITALY "This is a horror story because most of the characters are Republicans," director Joe Dante announced before the November 13 world premiere of his latest movie, Homecoming, at the Turin Film Festival. Republicans, as it happens, will be the ones who find Homecoming's agitprop premise scariest: In an election year, dead veterans of the current conflict crawl out of their graves and stagger single-mindedly to voting booths so they can eject the president who sent them to fight a war sold on "horseshit and elbow grease."

The dizzying high point of Showtime's new Masters of Horror series, the hour-long Homecoming (which premieres December 2) is easily one of the most important political films of the Bush II era. With its only slightly caricatured right-wingers, the film nails the casual fraudulence and contortionist rhetoric that are the signatures of the Bush-Cheney administration. Its dutiful hero, presidential consultant David Murch (Jon Tenney), reports to a Karl Rove–like guru named Kurt Rand (Robert Picardo) and engages in kinky power fucks with attack-bitch pundit Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), a blonde, leggy Ann Coulter proxy with a "No Sex for All" tank top and "BSH BABE" license plates. Murch's glib, duplicitous condescension is apparently what triggers the zombie uprising: Confronting an angry mother of a dead soldier on a news talk show, he tells this Cindy Sheehan figure, "If I had one wish . . . I would wish for your son to come back," so he could assure the country of the importance of the war. The boy does return, along with legions of fallen combatants, and they all beg to differ.

How fitting that the most pungent artistic response to a regime famed for its crass fear-mongering would be a cheap horror movie. Jaw-dropping in its sheer directness, Homecoming is a righteous blast of liberal-left fury (it was greeted with a five-minute ovation in Turin, the most vocal appreciation seeming to come from the American filmmakers and writers in attendance).

At once galvanic and cathartic, Dante's film uncorks the rage that despondent progressives promptly suppressed after last year's election and that has only recently been allowed to color mainstream coverage of presidential untruths and debacles. For all its broad, bludgeoning satire, Homecoming is deadly accurate in skewering the callousness and hypocrisy of the Bush White House and the spin industry in its orbit.

Zombie flicks, with their built-in return-of-the-repressed theme, have always served as allegories of their sociopolitical moments (as demonstrated mere months ago by George A. Romero's prescient pre-Katrina class-war nightmare, Land of the Dead). Dante, the Roger Corman protégé who went on to direct Innerspace and both Gremlins movies, has been known to embed wayward subversions in Hollywood genre pieces (he also previously attempted an all-out political satire in the 1997 HBO movie The Second Civil War, just out on DVD). But Homecoming, very much a movie on a mission, casts aside metaphor—it derives its power from its disconcerting literalness. The zombies do not represent—but are—the unseen costs of this futile war. Implicit in the film's unapologetic bluntness is a sickened urgency, an insistence that this is no time for subtlety.

"If you're going to code the message, which is the way horror movies have always done it, that's fine, but it's not going to reach an audience like a movie that's overt, and this is not exactly subtle," says Dante. "Somebody has to start making this kind of movie, this kind of statement. But everybody's afraid—it's uncommercial, people are going to be upset. Good, let them be upset. Why aren't people upset? Every minute, somebody's dying in this war, and for nothing. To establish a religious theocracy in Iraq? It doesn't seem to me quite worth it."

Dante and writer Sam Hamm ( Batman) adapted Homecoming from Dale Bailey's "Death and Suffrage," a 2002 short story that puts a morbidly literal spin on the idea of the dead being used to pad the Chicago voting roll. (The film also owes something to the low-budget 'Nam-era Dead of Night, in which a "Monkey's Paw" wish brings an undead veteran back to his family home.) Though Bush is never named, Homecoming tailors its provocative scenario to accommodate a devastatingly specific checklist of accusations, from the underreporting of war casualties to last November's dubious Ohio count. As if in defiance of the Pentagon's policy to ban photographs of dead soldiers' coffins, Dante's film shows not just the flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base but their irate occupants bursting out of them. "There's a lot of powerful imagery in this movie that has nothing to do with me," Dante says. "When you see those coffins, which is a sight that's generally been withheld from us, there's a gravity to it. Even though there's comedy in the movie, there's something basically so serious and depressing about the subject that it never gets overwhelmed by satire."

In any case, as Homecoming suggests, there are ways in which the current administration is essentially beyond satire. The nuttiest attitudes the film ascribes to its ruthless Republicans are scarcely more extreme than anything Dick Cheney or Karl Rove has been credited with. "Have you seen Network lately? Everything has happened," Dante says. "And Arthur Hiller's The Hospital, which was also [written by] Paddy Chayefsky. They wanted to make the picture as outrageous as possible, so they tried to think of the most impossible situations, like going into an emergency room and having somebody say, 'You can't get any care until you fill out these forms.' And it's all come true!"

Real events were indeed catching up with Homecoming before it was completed. "It was only when we started shooting that Cindy Sheehan emerged," Dante says. "It was weird, because everybody said [of the war mother character], 'Oh, you based that on Cindy Sheehan!' It was just a coincidence, but I guess it was inevitable that somebody like that would show up."

Dante says the lead roles were initially offered to better-known actors, who all turned them down, but Masters of Horror "happened to be a situation where nobody had any veto power over the material." Devised by producer Mick Garris, the series has resulted in refreshingly uninhibited work from some old pros—John Landis's Deer Woman, a goofball update of a Native American myth, and John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns, a Ring-like thriller about movie madness, also premiered in Turin and will both air on Showtime in December—though no other "master of horror" has embraced the gift of creative freedom with Dante's gusto.

To his surprise, Showtime executives didn't flinch when they received the script. "I can't conceive of any other venue where we would have been able to tell this story: You can't do theatrical political movies; people don't go to them. You can't do them on television, because you've got sponsors," he says. "Michael Moore's last picture made a lot of money, but he was vilified for it so much he's practically in hiding."

Dante hopes Homecoming functions as a wake-up call—not so much for politicians but for filmmakers. "If this spurs other people into making more and better versions, it will have done its job. I want to see more discussion," he says. "Nobody is doing anything about what's going on now—compared to the '70s, when they were making movies about the issues of the day. This elephant in the room, this Iraq war story, is not being dramatized."

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see what a fucking mess we're in," he continues. "It's been happening steadily for the past four years, and nobody said peep. The New York Times and all these people that abetted the lies and crap that went into making and selling this war—now that they see the guy is a little weak, they're kicking him with their toe to make sure he doesn't bite back. It's cowardly. This pitiful zombie movie, this fucking B movie, is the only thing anybody's done about this issue that's killed 2,000 Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis? It's fucking sick." While gratified by the warm reception to Homecoming in Turin, Dante says he's eager for the right-wing punditocracy back home to see it: "I hope this movie bothers a lot of people that disagree with it—and that it makes them really pissed off, as pissed off as the rest of us are."

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