Two weeks ago I traveled to New Jersey with Mark Svenvold, a published author of non-fiction and poetry who teaches creative writing and literature courses at Seton Hall University. Mark, who I’ve known for many years, also co-hosts a half-hour Saturday morning show called “Talk Art Radio” on Seton Hall’s campus station WSOU @89.5 FM. I got a kick out of the fact that WSOU (which proudly calls itself “Seton Hall Pirate Radio”) basically airs nothing but heavy metal throughout the week, and then there’s this weekly arts show where writers, musicians, and artists come on to talk about what they do. Mark had asked me a month or so earlier if I’d be interested in being on the show to talk about movies. Despite some reflexive panic and anxiety at the thought of doing something I’d never done before, I realized I’d be nuts not to give this a shot. Besides, Mark and I have a good rapport and share a love of movies and the bizarre in general, so that made it feel safer. The show doesn’t air live, which also lightened the pressure a lot. However long we talked would be edited down to a hopefully brilliant 28 minutes. So not to worry if in my excitement I let loose with an F-bomb or two (which, for the record, I did not).
Mark follows this blog, so he’s familiar with what I write about. In preliminary discussions we decided I should talk about my background as an Iowa farmboy and how I fell in love with the films that hijacked my imagination at an early age (which was covered in one of the first pieces I posted, “Famous Monsters & Me”). On the drive from Manhattan to Seton Hall in South Orange, New Jersey, it became clear that Mark also wanted our discussion to focus on zombie movies. We were talking about the state of zombie movies before and after George Romero’s jaw-dropping Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Nobody had seen anything like this. It was a game-changing, watershed moment. There was a profound difference between zombie films before Night of the Living Dead and basically everything after. Films such as White Zombie (1932), with Bela Lugosi, and the Val Lewton production of Jacques Tourneur’s incredibly poetic I Walked with a Zombie (1943) followed the more traditional concept of zombies as being created for slave labor, generally a product of Haitian Vodou (aka Voodoo) practices. Zombies also appeared in comedies, such as The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Bob Hope, and its remake, Scared Stiff (1953), with Martin & Lewis. Romero’s flesh-eating, brain-chomping, highly contagious walking dead forever changed the template for zombies in films, television, fiction, and in the culture at large. Its influence cannot be over-estimated. The contagion aspect has a particularly metaphoric resonance in a pandemic world. And really, in addition to everything else, just think of that movie being released in 1968, a year as filled with domestic turmoil, assassinations, and general insanity on a national level as any in our recent history. It’s no wonder that Night of the Living Dead was such a freak-out, amped up as it was by all that anxiety and paranoia. As the evocative tag line for Romero’s 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, put it, “When There’s No More Room in Hell, the Dead Will Walk the Earth.”
At one point during the drive I mentioned Homecoming, a 1-hour film Joe Dante had made for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series in 2005, in which the bodies of soldiers being sent back from a war (unnamed, though obviously Iraq) start coming back from the dead in an election year in order to vote out of office the president (unnamed, though obviously George Bush) who started the war. When I told Mark the premise he jumped right on it and said we had to talk about that on the show.
I first became aware of Homecoming in a review by Dennis Lim that appeared in The Village Voice in November, 2005. Referring to the film as “The dizzying high point of Showtime’s new Masters of Horror series, the hour-long Homecoming is easily one of the most important political films of the Bush II era.” Michael Sragow, writing in The New Yorker in April 2006, calls Homecoming “The best political film of 2005…” High praise, indeed. Lim goes on to write, “With its only slightly caricatured right-wingers, the film nails the casual fraudulence and contortionist rhetoric that are the signatures of the Bush-Cheney administration.” So Homecoming is not a traditional post-Romero zombie movie, though it utilizes the format to promote a very angry agenda which is clearly not meant to please anyone who was for George Bush and the Iraq war. There’s never a doubt where it’s coming from. It’s the kind of black comedy where the laughs are spiked with bile. (Another insightful review of Homecoming is by Grady Hendrix in The Slate online in 2005.)
The Village Voice review made me really want to see Homecoming, but we didn’t have Showtime, so I was out of luck until it came out on home video. When I finally saw it, I was definitely not disappointed. It reflected my take on things, so naturally I liked it. But it’s not just that. I’ve always liked Joe Dante’s films. He started out, as did so many others (John Sayles, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard, etc etc — the list is long) working for Roger Corman making low-budget exploitation films, getting paid very little and learning everything about filmmaking in the process. In 1978 he made Piranha, a Jaws knock-off written by John Sayles, who also wrote one of my favorite Dante movies, The Howling (1981), a werewolf film that paid homage to the basic tropes of the genre while reinventing them at the same time. Dante may best known to general audiences for the much-loved Gremlins in 1984 (which he followed up with an edgier, satiric sequel in 1990, Gremlins 2: The New Batch). Per Wikipedia, “Dante has cited among his major influences Roger Corman, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, James Whale, and Jean Cocteau…” His filmography certainly reflects that range. Homecoming shows those influences in various ways, though the film is fueled by a serious anger I don’t think is seen in his other work. If you haven’t seen Homecoming and think you might be interested, I highly recommend it. It’s almost 10 years old, but Homecoming still resonates and still has a nasty jolt. — Ted Hicks
All of the films referenced here are available for sale, rental and/or streaming from Netflix and/or Amazon. Homecoming is available for rental from Netflix and for sale from Amazon, listed in both venues under the lengthy title “Masters of Horror: Joe Dante: Homecoming.”
P.S. “Talk Art Radio” programs are available as audio podcasts and iTunes downloads at the station’s website. When the show I was on (which has not yet aired) is available, I’ll put a link on one of my blogs for those who are interested. I had a really good time doing it, and it turns out this might become a semi-regular gig for me. Our next one is slated to focus on Film Noir. Stay tuned.