Do you remember Masters of Horror? It was an anthology show that gave big name directors the chance to make short horror movies to show off their skills, but which didn’t require as much time, budget, and accouterments as filming a traditional horror movie. Since this month is dedicated to everything zombies, though, I wanted to take a shuffle into the past to talk about an episode that is just as good (and perhaps even more poignant) now than the first time I saw it.
Homecoming, an episode by director Joe Dante, is a zombie classic.
Zombie Movies Should Be About Something
When you think about classic zombie movies, they all have subtext and symbolism that makes them about something. Because while zombies are scary walking corpses, they work best when they’re being used as an allegory for some bigger cause. Like how in Dawn of The Dead we were actually talking about rampant consumerism, or how Maggie is actually a big metaphor for watching a loved one die from a wasting condition that you can do nothing to stop.
So what is Homecoming about?
First, let’s talk about the actual movie.
The film starts off with political spin doctor David Murch being interviewed about the president’s unpopular war in an unspecified country. The implication is that there is no need for this war, and that brave young men are dying for no reason (and while the president looks like a caricature of George W. Bush when we see him, no one mentions names or locations). Murch, in order to deflect criticism, makes things personal by opening up about how he lost his older brother in Vietnam, another war many people thought was senseless.
When he tells the viewing public that if he had one wish, that it would be for the brave servicemen who’ve perished in this conflict to be able to come back to tell us how they feel, things go straight to hell.
In a classic case of, “be careful what you wish for,” the recently deceased service members answer the call. At first they’re rounded up and put in camps, with government officials terrified by these unkillable soldiers (these are pulp zombies, where even if you dismember them they can still crawl toward you as a pile of murderous limbs). When one of them that can speak attends a presidential speech, though, it’s made clear what they want.
To be heard, and to be allowed to vote.
To sum up, the politicians agree to give the dead soldiers the right to make their voices heard, and promise to honor their words. Since none of them vote for the regime that got them killed in the first place, it’s quickly turning into a disaster for that political party. When Murch’s side cheats by simply not counting the veteran’s votes, breaking the promise they made to the dead soldiers. The dead rise again, but this time they bring reinforcements. Every American veteran rises from the grave to take back their country, taking stronghold after stronghold, their numbers growing as they’re joined by those who believe in their cause.
Cool movie, right?
Beneath this fun skin, though, Homecoming is making a lot of points about our society, our morality, and our attitude towards war, our veterans, and the military. When the dead rise, they are scary. Lots of them are ragged, and bearing gruesome wounds they sustained in battle. The reaction from a lot of the public is to demand they be rounded up, locked away, and branded as monsters. Some people, though, open their doors to the dead. They invite them inside, and show them kindness. Because while many of these zombies can’t properly express themselves, and they may look scary, most of them aren’t dangerous until someone starts pushing them.
As metaphors go for how people react to veterans who need help once they return home, it’s pretty on the nose.
Those metaphors keep going, though. Lots of the shiny media personas talk about the veterans with sympathy on-camera, but behind closed doors see them as little more than casualties they wish would lay down and stop making so much noise. People are reduced to numbers, and seen more as a PR threat (particularly when the public is faced with the horrors of what the country’s latest war has done to their sons) than as humans. That lack of empathy extends to promising these veterans that you’ll listen to them, abiding by their vote, only do disregard them as soon as it becomes inconvenient.
There’s also a big, fat implication at the end of the movie that you can only push a group so far before they get fed up and do something. In this case the zombie uprising is less of a, “My god, they’ll kill us all!” and more of an Americanized version of a military coupe, led by the dead who have seen the true face of the nation’s corruption, greed, and willingness to throw its citizens into a meat grinder for no reason beyond poll numbers and maintaining the status quo.
That is a lot of stuff to pack into a movie that’s not quite an hour long when you look at the run time. And I didn’t even bring in the relationship subplot Murch gets involved with, or the twist regarding what really happened to his brother. But Dante can make these points in the space of seconds with a single shot, and they often slip in under the radar if you’re just trying to pay attention to the text rather than the subtext.
As zombie movies go, this one is not subtle with the issues it’s talking about. However, there is more than enough shotgun-pumping, panicked running, shuffling, moaning, and gruesome wounds for most of us to still enjoy a bloody romp while also taking the message medicine mixed in with it.