We’re halfway through season 1 with one of my favorite directors and the most savagely political episode of the series.
Season 1, Episode 6: “Homecoming”
Director: Joe Dante
Original Air Date: December 2nd, 2005
We horror fans adore Joe Dante, and we’re right to do so. His films are special: funny, subversive, self-referential, smart, and silly. He loves genre movies and his work reflects that, whether it’s the monster movie adoration of The Howling or the celebration of science fiction that is Innerspace and Explorers, or just the wonderful absurdity of The ’Burbs or Gremlins 2. But because he’s such a sweet and lovable guy, what we rarely talk about when it comes to Dante is his edge. There is a darkness to Dante’s work that can be cutting. I mean, this is the filmmaker who insisted Phoebe Cates’ Santa Clause monologue be included in Gremlins, and who bit the hand that fed him (Warner Bros.) by making Gremlins 2, a brilliant and anarchic sequel that’s basically a “f**k you” to sequels when the studio asked him to follow up his biggest hit. It’s their own fault, really, for giving the filmmaker total creative control. If you’re going to let Joe Dante run wild, you’d better be ready for what you’re going to get. For further proof, look no further than “Homecoming.”
Based in part on Dale Bailey’s 2002 short story “Death and Suffrage,” “Homecoming” takes place right in the throes of the Iraq war, which was very much going on when this episode was produced. George W. Bush, never mentioned by name, is the president seeking re-election. When Marty Clark (Jon Tenney), a presidential speech writer, goes on a popular cable talk show, he is confronted by the mother of a soldier who died in the war. Asked what he died for, Marty expresses regret, admitting that his own brother was killed in Vietnam and that if he had one wish, he would bring those dead soldiers back.
And that’s exactly what happens.
Hundreds of dead soldiers begin rising from their graves, wanting to know why they were sent to war to die. Unsure of what they want or how to get rid of them, Marty begins conspiring with his girlfriend Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), a pretty, blonde conservative pundit spouting hateful rhetoric and clearly modeled after Ann Coulter or any number of talking heads on FOX News, as well as strategist Kurt Rand (Dante regular Robert Picardo), a scheming monster in the Karl Rove tradition, to figure out how to make these dead soldiers go away—or, at the very least, how to use them to curry political favor with the public. Unfortunately, it turns out that what these soldiers want is to cast a vote against the current president and against the war, at which point they will finally be at peace.
Pretty heavy stuff, huh? It’s difficult to feel the full impact of “Homecoming” now, 13 years removed from when it first aired. We still have troops overseas, yes, and we still don’t really know how they wound up having to be there, but technically the “war” has ended and so much has happened in the ensuing years that it’s hard to remember being angry about that particular thing. The anger hasn’t gone away, of course, but there’s just so much else to be angry about these days that just the last year and a half has drained the fire from most of us. We are exhausted. “Homecoming” is not coming from a place of exhaustion. “Homecoming” is full of anger and fire, and Dante isn’t interested in subtle satire that cuts like a razor blade. He and screenwriter Sam Hamm are swinging a giant sledgehammer and hoping to lay waste to the false narrative the country had been sold—one which is now generally recognized as false, but in 2005 was still widely accepted. “Homecoming” hopes to undo that.
Dante’s work has always been critical of the militarization of America; like many of the Masters of Horror, he’s cynical about large institutions, whether they be corporations (as in Gremlins 2 or Small Soldiers) or the United States government. Dating all the way back to Piranha in 1978, Dante’s films have found the government—and often the military branch of that government—to be at the root of whatever evil the movies are depicting. The killer fish of Piranha were part of a government experiment to weaponize the fish and use them in warfare. Same with the toys in Small Soldiers. His HBO movie The Second Civil War finds government officials turning the military on one another because of a disagreement on immigration (if that’s not still relevant in 2018, I don’t know what is—and don’t get me started on how Gremlins 2’s Daniel Clamp completely predicted the mess we’re in right now). None of Dante’s work, though, is as savagely critical and mistrusting of the government as his first Masters of Horror episode.
This criticism doesn’t extend to the soldiers, though. “Homecoming” is completely pro-soldier. Dante is angry that these men are dying and demands answers. He isn’t critiquing them, he wants justice for them. Despite his mistrust of the military industrial complex, Dante is a humanist. It’s the humans he cares about. The wartime fears of Matinee are of governments making threats and refusing to back down, putting the safety of entire countries at risk. They do not extend to Gene’s absent father, who is serving on a Navy vessel and who is missed and loved and respected. The same goes for the soldiers in “Homecoming,” all of whom are respected and missed and loved by families, many of whom we get to see within the story, who simply want to know why their kids were killed. Even those soldiers who agree with the cause are afforded respect, as Marty explains why no pro-war soldiers have returned: “They died for a cause they believed in. They’re at peace.”
“Homecoming” is not the first time we’ve seen soldiers inexplicably returning from the dead in a horror film. The premise may sound familiar to those who have seen Bob Clark’s terrific Deathdream, which covers similar ground in a darker, more somber manner. The way that “Homecoming” is constructed makes it play more like a black comedy, albeit a black comedy targeting an issue that no one involved finds funny. The horror elements are central to the plot—zombies!—but Dante doesn’t direct it much like a horror movie. The performances are very big, the zombie makeup a bit cheap-looking and unconvincing. He shoots in canted angles and extreme close-ups, with a bouncy score by Hummie Mann. There’s an exaggerated, cartoonish quality to the construction that underscores the satire without cutting it off at the knees. And while the usual Joe Dante references aren’t as prevalent as in his usual work, there are a few of his touches: check the names on the headstones in the graveyard scene, for example, itself a chance for Dante to riff on Night of the Living Dead.
I think what I love most about “Homecoming” is that Joe Dante refused to waste an opportunity to say something. Given total creative control to make whatever he wanted, he seized the chance to make both an entertaining hour of horror TV and a major political statement. Horror is no stranger to sneaking in social and political subtext, but Dante opted to do away with the subtext and just made it the text. Over a decade removed from its broadcast, some of the issues may have changed, but the anger remains. “Homecoming” reminds us that we need to stay angry.
“Homecoming” Score: 4/5
Coming up next: After a brief mid-season hiatus, we return with the back half of season 1 and John Landis’ “Deer Woman!” Plus, we introduce the Masters of Horror episode rankings!
Editor's Note: To read all installments of this series, check out our Masters of Horror Rewatch hub!