|Masters of Horror - Joe Dante - Homecoming|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 11 July 2006|
A group of friends, mostly horror writers and directors, have occasionally met for dinner here and there in Los Angeles. Somewhat in the spirit of “Hey, Judy’s got the costumes, my uncle’s got a barn, we can do the show right here!”, Mick Garris, one of the group, proposed a series of made-for-TV hour-long horror dramas, each to be made by a name horror director.
The resulting series, “Masters of Horror,” aired on Showtime and was popular enough that a second “Masters of Horror” season is now in production, and a “Masters of Sci-Fi” series is also in the works.
Anchor Bay is releasing the first series two episodes at a time. Each episode comes in its own cardboard sleeve, with the DVDs almost incredibly jammed with extras. Someone knew that horror movie buffs are among the most avid DVD collectors, and that they simply can’t be told too much about their favorite movies. This extras-laden treatment is rare in general, and incredibly rare for individual episodes of a TV series. Watching all the extras takes considerably more time than the individual episodes; this may be too much of a good thing.
“Masters of Horror” was something like a hit for Showtime. Most of the episodes were straightforward horror, so no one could have expected Joe Dante’s “Homecoming,” that first aired in December, 2005. It was also shown at several film festivals around the world—because it’s one of the most biting fictional criticisms of the current war and the people endorsing it.
Is it subtle? Hardly. Anyone familiar with Joe Dante’s movies, from “Piranha” to “Gremlins” and on to “Innerspace,” must be aware that subtlety is not one of his movies’ usual attributes. Dante is unquestionably a liberal, unquestionably opposed to the current president and the war in Iraq (though the location of the war in the episode is never cited). But he’s primarily a director of comedies—so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even though it’s ghoulish, even though he deals well with a wide range of moods, “Homecoming” is largely a comedy. A pitch-black, angry comedy.
It opens with a man and a woman, racing through the night (it’s never made clear why they’re doing this), slamming into a walking corpse. The car goes off the road, and the two climb out; a truck halts near them, and more of the walking dead—in Army fatigues—emerge and advance on them. While the woman blazes away at the corpses, shouting that they’re “zombie dissidents,” the man takes aim—at the woman.
The story flashes back. The man, we see, is political spinmeister David Murch (Jon Tenney), a guest on the political TV show hosted by Marty Clark (Terry David Mulligan). As writer Sam Hamm explains in his commentary track, and Dante in the accompanying interview, in the usual tradition of talk shows, the two guests run the gamut from right-wing to extreme right-wing, here represented by the very Ann Coulter-ish Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), the woman from the opening scene with the car sporting BSH BABE plates. She’s cheerfully insulting liberals, David is being basically wishy-washy. But another guest, by camera, is Janet Hofstadter (Beverley Breuer), whose son was killed in the current war. She wants someone to tell her WHY her son died. David is at first blithe, but surprises himself by becoming serious, even crying a bit: he says if he had one wish, it would be that her son could come back and tell her why he died.
At dinner afterward, Jane says that’s a great talking point and should be passed on to the President to be presented as though it was the President’s idea. David’s attracted by Jane’s blonde good looks; Jane’s attracted by David’s closeness to the seats of power.
But there’s something going on elsewhere. In a dimly-lit warehouse full of flag-draped aluminum body cases, the guards are disturbed by strange sounds. Then the boxes begin bursting open, corpses, still draped in flags, still in their Army fatigues, rise from the dead and advance on the guards—but then walk on by.
While engaged in kinky sex with Jane, David gets a call from the White House. Presidential advisor Kurt Rand (Robert Picardo) summons him to a secret laboratory where an armless, legless—but still living—corpse squirms on a gurney. Deceased veterans of the current conflict are coming back, the cynical Rand says, and can’t be killed. He demonstrates this by firing a gun at the twitching corpse. These walking dead are turning up everywhere. But, says Rand, they can just hush it up for a day or two before emerging with “a good, solid lie.”
Things, of course, do not go that way. The dead have returned for a reason.
Some have claimed that “Homecoming” is biased. Damn betcha it is, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be. But it’s solidly behind the veterans themselves—Dante and Hamm are clearly on the side of the fighting forces of America. They’re deadset against the current administration. As Woody Guthrie asked in “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” why is it that “the worst of men must fight and the best of men must die?”
Dante covers all bases. The scene on the road and the one in which the dead first rise are treated for horror, and they’re effectively scary. But in another scene, a deli owner sees one of the walking dead outside, and invites him in, where he and his wife—who’ve lost a son in the war themselves—tenderly wrap the puzzled, frightened zombie in a blanket. It’s a surprisingly effective scene, warm and melancholy, unlike anything else Dante has ever tried.
He and Hamm may be presenting their case broadly, but they’re also striving to be fair. Not all of those recently killed in battle have risen from the dead. If they died for a cause they believed in, they’re at peace. And when the individual missions of the walking dead are fulfilled, they return to quiet death.
“Homecoming” is terse, blunt and well-told. The story has complex ramifications, but it’s not complicated in its telling. It’s an act of courage and daring on the part of the filmmakers and Showtime, and it has paid off well. This may be the best thing Joe Dante has directed to date.
As usual for a Masters of Horror DVD, this one is laden with extras, perhaps over-laden. One curious thing is the commentary track by Sam Hamm. He does a good job, but where’s Dante? He’s very good at this kind of thing, so it’s surprising he wasn’t included. There’s an elderly interview with him conducted by Masters of Horror creator Mick Garris, from the old Z Channel. This disc’s “Working with a Master” featurette includes Jon Tenney, Robert Picardo and Thea Gill from “Homecoming,” but also Roger Corman, Dee Wallace Stone and Corey Feldman, whose hair looks like obsidian. Frequent Dante actor Kevin McCarthy also appears, and pronounces the featurette’s closing line: “Joe Dante is a lot of person.”
These DVDs also usually include “Script to Screen,” a somewhat peculiar form which shows us the literal pages of the script as the soundtrack plays, then that scene being filmed, concluding with the finished scene. It’s interesting, but it’s also done by rote; surely not every one of these discs needs this feature. Nor does it need the “making of” featurette, at least not as Anchor Bay has been doing them: they’re scenes shot on the sets of the movies, but shown without any narration, without any context. We’re left to put it together ourselves.
Hamm and Dante separately reveal that they’re fully aware that roughly similar stories have been done in the past, including Abel Gance’s “J’Accuse” (in fact, Gance did movies of that title more than once) and Bob Clark’s “Deathdream.” Both also acknowledge their debt to the often-anthologized “The Monkey’s Paw,” a short story by W.W. Jacobs. Dante in particular is always well aware of film history, and “Homecoming” features a nod to directors of other zombie movies: their names appear on tombstones in a graveyard. Among the names glimpsed: John Gilling, Jacques Tourneur, Del Tenney, Lucio Fulci, Victor Halperin and, yes, G.A. (George) Romero.
“Homecoming” was actually in production when Cindy Sheehan began her protest; both Hamm and Dante feel the coincidence was good luck for them, though they also point out that any similarities between “Homecoming”’s Mrs. Hofstadter and Cindy Sheehan are indeed coincidental.
There are some slips here and there. We’re never sure why David and Jane are roaring through the night in the opening scene, why the zombies often act menacing, why one zombie in particular attacks David as he attempts to flee a cemetery. But these shows are done quickly, in just 10 shooting days; there are bound to be occasional missteps.
Some Masters of Horror viewers were annoyed that “Homecoming” was more funny (and satirical) than it was horrifying; others were offended by the political point of view it expresses. But I’m glad it was made.