Joe Dante is the least prolific of the 80s wunderkinds. The man responsible for Gremlins, Innerspace and a terrifying fourth of Twilight Zone: The Movie can direct at the same quality level as his contemporaries, but he hasn't been given a corner of Hollywood real estate to flesh out his signature style - less sugary than Spielberg and more cartoonish and mischievous than Zemeckis. This is the director who stopped Gremlins cold for ten minutes so that Phoebe Cates could give her classic "I hate Christmas" speech. He seems to pull together a feature film about once every five years, on average, so when you can catch him at work it's a treat. Witness his recent stint as a guest director on Showtime's Masters of Horror series, where he directed an hour-long episode entitled Homecoming. The homecoming in question: dead jarheads from the Iraq war, who pop out of their flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force base and up sticks for Washington, D.C.p>
These zombies have impeccable timing. They start their living-death march conveniently after the President - "POTUS" in the film's cheerful appropriation of Washington jargon - makes a speech in which he says that if our soldiers could come back, they would tell everyone how much they believed in the cause they died for. This is supposed to touch our ears as acceptable Washington spin-speak, but I submit that such a remark would be viewed as unacceptably creepy even if the dead did not immediately rise from their graves to protest it. After the President's remark, the media drones begin to pick up reports of camo-clad corpses wobbling across Florida, California and other states, terrifying the local rubes as they pass by. How they have come back from the dead in the first place no one knows, but Pentagon think-tankers immediately begin to cook up a plan to ship the zombies right back to Iraq. If they can walk, then why can't they keep fighting?
Needless to say, the film has already lost you by this point if it's going to lose you. Homecoming has the subtlety of an flamethrower assault, and the degree of the burn it inflicts will depend on your tastes in the areas of Bush bashing and brain eating. Can you stomach both? In attacking the current powers in Washington, the film mostly avoids trying to nail down caricatures of recognizable people. There's a Jerry Falwell clone on hand to discuss the religious implications of re-animated bodies and a potential Cindy Sheehan, although the film was probably produced before her fifteen minutes started clocking. The closest we get to a real likeness is a character based on Ann Coulter, the blonde conservative columnist and television pundit who can usually be found holding court in a Washington lunch spot or signing autographs with a Marlboro Light between her teeth.
Here she is as Jane, an oversexed, overzealous political consultant who must decide how to deal with the zombie horde from a public relations angle. When the zombies drag themselves to polling places and demand to have a vote on the acceptability of the war, Jane has a big PR dilemma on her hands: should these walking corpses be embraced as fallen soldiers returned to life through some generous act of God? Or should they be hunted down like the monsters from hell that they are? Jane opts for the former - she immediately heads for a cable news show:
Jane: If you remember what our President said a couple of weeks ago - how he wished that our fallen soldiers could come back and tell us how they felt about the sacrifice they made in this great cause - well that's what's happening now. Not even death will stop the march of freedom.
Marty: That raises another point; the marine in San Francisco, Sgt. Robert Bunton. We have reports that he went to an early registration center and cast a vote for President. Now Jane, is that legal?
Jane: Well Marty, the laws vary by state.
Jane's other half in the film is David, a political consultant for the administration. David is ostensibly just as core-rotten as Jane, but we see in flashbacks that he had a brother in Vietnam, so we're supposed to intuit that he may be suppressing a shiver of humanity under his Republican breastplate. He's not quite as gung-ho about promoting the administration's agenda as his friends, but he quickly gets on board. If zombies are going to walk the Earth, it's his job to make sure they walk in support of the President. The problem is that none of these zombies seem to want to vote Republican. And they aren't stopping at the ballot box. They begin to queue up for press conferences, belly-aching about the fact that they were killed for an unworthy cause. Shock! These undead are actually liberal scum!
The talking points must be quickly rewritten. The new line is: wake up everyone, there are bloodthirsty zombies out there that have to be stopped! That all of this takes place with a straight face is vintage Joe Dante; after all, this is the guy that tried to make us believe that every gremlin in Kingston Falls would stop pulling the brakes out of cars and re-wiring stoplights in order to turn up for the late show of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The premise of Homecoming is well-suited to an hour-long format - it probably couldn't be stretched an hour further. But in the hands of a true professional like Dante, it's more entertaining than you might expect.