The Voting Dead
Can genre fiction become an effective vehicle for acerbic political satire? Director Joe Dante takes a stab at doing just that with his contribution to the cable TV anthology series Masters Of Horror. His episode, "Homecoming," mixes zombies and electoral politics.
The story is basically an extended flashback that charts the last month of the 2004 American presidential election. David Murch, a member of the inner circle shepherding the current presidentís re-election campaign, is touched by the grief of a Mrs. Hofstadter who lost her son in the Iraq War. In response, the campaign official wishes that the womanís son and the other American soldiers killed in Iraq could return from the dead. Murchís wish gets transformed into a pleasant presidential sound bite, and that would be that.
Then the wish comes true. Americans killed in Iraq start rising from their coffins.
The silent walking dead soldiers soon become an embarrassment to the presidential re-election campaign. Itís one thing to advocate a war. Itís another thing entirely to advocate a war when there are very visible reminders that in war, soldiers get seriously maimed and even lose their lives. But how do you get rid of zombie soldiers? As it turns out, you let them vote. Having voted, they return to the grave.
But what happens to the re-election campaign when the resurrections occur because the soldiers are willing to vote for anyone who can stop "the evil war in Iraq"? Further, how can political momentum be restored when the public starts to sympathize with the zombie soldiers and their views on the Iraq War? A plan to "persuade" the resurrected son of Mrs. Hofstadter to become the campaignís pro-Iraq War spokesman seriously backfires. Despite the campaignís political wounds, though, the election is not over yet.
"Homecoming" stakes out a moderate political position on Americaís presence in Iraq. Mrs. Hofstadter may question why America is in Iraq, but the episode declines to speculate on specific negative reasons. Thus, there is almost no articulation of such left-of-center ideas as obtaining control of Iraqís oil supplies or extending the American empire. On the other hand, the pro-Iraq War forces as represented by Curt Rand proudly talk about the invasion and occupation of Iraq as an unneeded product sold to the American people. Generous applications of horse droppings and elbow grease play a major role in the sale.
The film also clearly sympathizes with the men and women sent out to fight Americaís wars. The soldiers are generally shown as pawns of othersí politics. Viewers allergic to excess sentimentality will definitely have trouble with the scene of the impromptu family circle formed by a zombie, a family dog, and a couple of worried parents with a son in Iraq.
The film may not identify the party Murch belongs to, but several prominent Republicans provide models for "Homecoming"ís villains. Political pundit Jane Cleaver is Ann Coulter, right down to the best-selling "attack liberals" book and the personalized car license plate reading "BSH BABE." Campaign chief Curt Rand physically resembles Dick Cheney but displays the Machiavellian traits of presidential advisor Karl Rove. Unlike the Cindy Sheehan figure, Cleaver and Rand lack any humanizing characteristics.
The acting of the principal roles consequently doesnít rise above the "I enjoy being evil" level. One would be tempted on political grounds to let the one-dimensional villainy slide, saying itís a small payback for the 24-7 demonizing that the real-life Cleaver and Rand engage in on a daily basis. Also, the real life Republican Party controls the Presidency, both houses of Congress, a good chunk of the Supreme Court, and a majority of the state governorships. Their current party leadership wants still more power. Yet the mainstream media acts as if such ambition was natural and just.
But then Heimat comes to mind. The German television epic devoted episodes to showing the very human failings that caused average Germans to embrace Nazism without whitewashing Nazismís crimes. The evil of that belief became then a disturbing temptation. By contrast, the lust for power that motivates the supporters of "Homecoming"ís unnamed president never feels evil and disturbing. The filmís occasional references to real-life Republican dirty tricks donít bridge that emotional gap.
Had "Homecoming" appeared years ago, its genre fiction conventions would have limited its effectiveness as political satire. The film does mock the presidentís alleged empathy with common men. But it fails in the more crucial task of dragging forward and ridiculing the reasoning and motivations behind such Republican positions as supporting the Iraq War. The zombie soldiers may be sympathetic monsters, even if "Homecoming" assumes theyíd all oppose a continued occupation of Iraq. Yet the filmís most visceral charge comes from hoping the Republican politico surrogates suffer incredibly painful fates at the zombiesí hands.
Nowadays, though, mass American political discourse has moved away from reasonably intelligent sophistication to favor the nurturing and channeling of visceral reaction. The Us vs. Them equation feels like the beginning and ending point for modern political discussion (e.g. the continued popularity of the red/blue state divide). "Homecoming"ís target audience has thus intellectually slid downwards to the point where Danteís film appears sophisticated rather than mildly amusing. That thought oddly provides more scares than any shot of the filmís zombies.