Ed. note– Joe Dante’s episode from Season 1 of MOH has a lot in common with his cable-TV movie The Second Civil War. Except this one has zombies and a raging Ann Coulter stand-in. Yeah, I dig.– P.F.
A look at Joe Dante’s early career indicates that here was a director of great promise. His first solo film as director was PIRANHA, an admitted JAWS ripoff that transcended its cheapjack Corman studio budget to become a deliriously fun horror flick. From there, Dante made what I consider his finest work, THE HOWLING, a werewolf flick with groundbreaking special effects and some nice twists on the lore. He followed that with his most popular film, the enormously enjoyable, very dark horror comedy GREMLINS. After those three movies, though, things get awfully sketchy, in both quality and quantity. He only made three flicks in the 90s, and his last film before a long hiatus was 2003’s dreadful LOONEY TOONS BACK IN ACTION. During that hiatus, Dante devoted much of his time to directing television, including the Masters of Horror episode Homecoming, typically subversive fare that borders on being too preachy, but is a nice return to form.
Homecoming is based on Dale Bailey’s short story “Death and Suffrage,” that I read in one of my zombie lit anthologies long after I saw the episode. Dante and writer Sam Hamm keep the general idea, but turn it into the zany stuff Dante is known for. The premise: appearing on a CNN-style talk show, political consultant David Murch tells a war casualty’s mother that if he had one wish, he’d wish for her son to come back, so the man could express just how proud he was to lay his body down for his country. That old adage about being careful what you wish for comes back to bite him, as dead soldiers start rising from the grave, with a single purpose: they want to vote against the conservative incumbent for president.
Dante works this material as only he could. Jane Cleaver, an overzealous de facto Ann Coulter, thrills at how she can twist this to serve her cause. Ditto Kurt Rand, the candidate’s campaign runner, who salivates at how he can manipulate the election. Some of the things they say are off the charts. While they’re entertaining, the show itself becomes overwhelming in its extremely leftist message. Clearly an attack on the Bush administration and the American election process as a whole, it’s sure to divide those who watch it. In 2005 Dante’s message was topical, as the 2000 election scandal was still a hot topic. But 15 years out from hanging chads, almost half of that under the Obama administration, the message falls flat. And that’s Homecoming’s other problem. It’s a product of its time, and it doesn’t date well.
But it’s not without its joys. Watching Thea Gill as Jane firing on zombies as she calls them, “PUSSIES!” is hysterical. Dante crams the screen with his usual visual jokes (Jane’s license plate reads “BSH GIRL”) and sets up some dark scenes, such as a cargo bay full of coffins lined with the American flag. In true Dante form, he also creates scenes that are simultaneously terrifying and hilarious, as when the soldiers arrive in mass at the voting booths.
His gem here is Robert Picardo as Rand. Picardo can be funny and threatening at the same time. He nails the performance with the right brand of sleaze. If only Jon Tenney were in on the fun. His character is haunted by a family secret that ties into the main plot, but he’s in a Joe Dante film. He plays somber even when he’s getting hot wax on his chest during a kinky sex scene. But no worries; Picardo and Gill more than balance him out with their looney antics.
Joe Dante’s career never fulfilled the promise of PIRANHA, THE HOWLING or GREMLINS. But with Homecoming, he proved he still had some game left. Though a little too preachy at times and not quite as relevant in 2015 as it was a decade earlier, it’s great to see the director had at least one more burst of nutzoid filmmaking left in him.