Thoughts on Joe Dante: Matinee and more
Guts, but No Intestines:
Joe Dante’s Homecoming
I was drooling to see Joe Dante’s Homecoming. Soldiers killed in Iraq and shipped home in coffins break free and rise up against neoconservatives and the religious right? From the minute I heard about it, I was hot to see George Bush, Ann Coulter, and Jerry Falwell, all of whom are lampooned in the movie, disembowelled and eaten by war dead. I figured that both the inner logic of the genre and a powerful need for cathartic, bloody justice among liberal viewers made such scenes necessary; and what better fate for Bush than to have his intestines ripped out and chewed on by undead veterans, perhaps while he gurgles “stay the course?” Imagine my surprise, then, when viewing the film at the Vancity Theater, to discover that there isn’t a single intestine on view, and that Bush and Falwell escape uneaten! (Ann Coulter does get shot in the back of the head, but even there – you don’t get to see her brains). It seemed a shortcoming, and I had to ask Joe Dante about it. He chuckled.
“I don’t think that having the president dismembered is really what we’re looking for, here. It’s not about hanging people from trees, as much as it often is on the other side; it’s a sort of wake up call… It’s such an obvious polemical movie that a lot more time is spent on politics than on horror, and of course that’s been a bone of contention with a lot of horror fans, because they go, you know, ‘if you got a message, send Western Union’… but that’s part of the appeal of Masters of Horror, to me – you’ve got 13 episodes, 13 different directors, and people have different things on their minds.”
All the same, the reader might wonder, what do the zombies in Homecoming do, if not kill and eat people? True to the pre-9/11 short story on which the film is based, “Death and Suffrage,” by horror writer Dale Bailey – which takes gun control as its issue, since the second Iraq war was only a neoconservative/PNAC fantasy at that point – the zombies come back to vote. The year is 2008 and the decomposing vets pose a problem for politicians; at first, when it’s assumed they’ll vote Republican, they’re hailed as heroes, but when it’s discovered that they intend to vote against the incumbent, they’re herded into pens as a public health threat. (It’s one of the nice touches of the film that the zombies are forced to wear Gitmo-style orange jumpsuits). The problem is that the only way to kill them is to let them cast their ballots, and more keep arriving from Iraq every day. Finally, the government has to let the dead have their say – since, being Republicans, they don’t intend to count the ballots anyhow.
”Death and Suffrage” author Bailey was happy to see his material adapted thus, by screenwriter Sam Hamm and Dante. “I'm no supporter of G. W. Bush or his disastrous foreign policy. I didn't have any input, though, on how the story was altered. I wouldn't have objected, though. It's nice to know somebody is willing to take a stand on this stuff! …I really liked the scene with the zombie in the diner – I think it's the best scene in the film, because it really highlights the sacrifices families who have loved ones in the service are making. I totally disagree with the war in Iraq, but I respect the soldiers on the ground enormously, and I didn't want the episode to make light of their sacrifice, so that scene really worked in that way, I thought.” The scene, in which a couple who have a son in Iraq welcome an undead soldier into their shop, at some cost to their business, has no parallel in the story and may bring a tear to the eye of sentimental zombie fans.
Dante acknowledges that the success of Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck – and, indeed, of Homecoming – are signs of “some receptiveness” to left-of centre views, “but it’s hardly a groundswell, like in the 1970’s, when there were a lot of pictures made that criticized the war.” Given the “bungling incompetence” of the current administration, the lack of an outcry in the mainstream media is deeply disturbing. “Forget about the ideology and forget about their plan to remake the world in their own image; the sheer stupidity with which they’ve conducted themselves is enough reason for them to be impeached.” They would be, too, Dante believes, without “the prop of corporate media.”
Here in Canada, where it’s more or less publicly acceptable to speak of Bush as a war criminal, to express bewilderment that nobody has assassinated him yet, and to step on his effigy on TV, it may be difficult to comprehend this, but to make a film like Homecoming in the United States right now takes guts. “There’s people who hate me. I’m a traitor, I should be hung up from a tree. You know, it’s a free country, up to now, and if that’s their opinion, they’re entitled to it, but I’ve already lost one job because of Homecoming. I can’t tell you the specifics, but I can tell you that I was up for something and I foolishly gave them a copy as an example of something I’ve been doing, and the guy who was running the place turned out to be quite a Republican. It was not the right move on my part…” Negative reviews online speak of Homecoming as a “disgusting piece of partisan propaganda,” which only makes things seem stranger, since to my eyes, however on-target it is as satire, it’s pretty mild compared to what I’d imagined.
Like other episodes in the Masters of Horror series, currently showing on Showtime in the USA, Homecoming was shot on a shoestring budget in Vancouver during last year’s teacher’s strike. There are a few local cues – Terry David Mulligan plays a Larry-King style talk show host who fawns over his right-wing guests and reads their own press announcements back to them, and Queer as Folk star and Victoria resident, Thea Gill, plays the Ann Coulter character (Dante notes that “ours is better looking;” amusingly, Coulter is depicted as having a taste for kinky sex, which somehow fits). Those of you who missed the series at the Vancity Theatre will be able to catch it as part of a box set DVD release sometime in the upcoming year, from Anchor Bay.
Even though he hasn’t made a horror film proper since 1981’s The Howling (scripted by liberal favourite John Sayles, who also penned Dante’s 1978 Piranha), Dante remains fond of the horror genre. “In times of paranoia and times of turbulence, horror movies have always been very popular, for example, during the 1930s and 40s, or during the cold war. I mean, if you want to look at societies and see what they’re thinking, look back at their horror movies. It shows you what’s going on politically.”
We need to see Bush eaten, Joe. It’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.