Bow Before the Master By Mark Peranson

in 23rd Torino Film Festival

by Mark Peranson

For most of the Torino Film Festival’s audience, there was only one game in town: the Masters of Horror. The series is airing on North American TV on Showtime, and in Canada on the Scream Network. Save for Miike Takashi’s episode, all were shot and produced in Vancouver. And what was a barely registering TV show in North America, has become a major cinematic event in Italy. There were long lines snaking outside the Massimo theatre, sold out houses, and even an “incontro” with the masters in attendance: local boy Dario Argento (who shot Deep Red (Profondo rosso) in Torino), executive producer Mick Garris, Don Coscarelli, and the star of the festival, previous recipient of a complete Torino career retrospective, and the new hero of the American Left, Joe Dante.

In Italy, America’s sharpest satirist is referred to colloquially as one word, “Joedante,” kind of like Madonna (or, as seen this year in Torino, Walterhill). Maybe it’s the Italian ancestry, maybe it’s Italy’s rich B-movie history, maybe it’s just plain anti-Americanism, but Dante’s one-hour Masters of Horror episode, Homecoming, was greeted by nothing less than a five-minute standing ovation. The cathartic experience of watching a blunt expression of Yankee dissatisfaction at the Bush junta’s Iraq war policy brought the house down, and made John Carpenter’s rather decent take at cult movie-love horror, Cigarette Burns, (probably the second-best of the episodes, though marred by a rather ridiculous finale) an afterthought.

Adapted by Sam Hamm from an award-winning short storby fantasy writer Dale Bailey entitled “Death by Suffrage,” Dante’s Homecoming revolves around a cadre of Republican policy makers (in an office with a noticeable “Mission Accomplished” banner) who are thrown into a loop when the Iraqi war dead begin coming back to life – in order to vote. They are invoked into being, Jacques Tourneur style, by right-wing talking head David Murch (Jon Tenney) who challenges a war mom’s patriotism by claiming that if the dead came back they’d tell us they were glad to give their lives for their country. (The film was made before the hullabaloo over irate war mom Cindy Sheehan; satire, says Dante, is very close to science fiction – it is guessing what can conceivably happen in the future.) Murch, needless to say, is quickly proven wrong.

From this premise, Dante and Hamm spin a straightly told, devastatingly acerbic satire, where Murch and his leggy conservative galpal, Jane Cleaver (a stunning approximation of American right-wing skank Ann Coulter, played by Queer as Folk’s Thea Gill as if she were constantly on coke) try to control the zombies with their TV show spin (after all, they say, “we sold a war based on horseshit and elbow grease”). Eventually they come to discover that you just can’t keep a dead soldier down. Dante even gives us a Karl Rove surrogate, Kurt Rand (played by one of his stock actors, Robert Picardo), and the highly rewarding scene of watching a zombie repeatedly smash his head into a table.

Homecoming transforms the classical zombie movie paradigm that began with (the here name-checked) George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the return of the repressed, into the return of the suppressed, into that which has been beaten down being political dissent, and disapproval of the Bush government’s handling of, well, everything. (Though in a clever twist, we come to learn the real reason for Murch’s action being a repressed episode from his childhood involving his Vietnam War vet brother.) Homecoming’s most stunning scene is in fact the first appearance of the zombies, which takes place at Dover Air Force base, as the zombie soldiers emerge from beneath the American flags covering their coffins: the very scenes that the Pentagon has forbidden the media to cover, the return of the war dead to their homeland.

In a way, such an overt political statement has been a long time coming for this sometimes too-cynical director. In Dante’s recent films, starting with the 60’s set Matinee, moving to the brilliant Small Soldiers, and finally, the under-appreciated (in North America, at least) The Second Civil War – a film where American revolutionaries actually blow up the Statue of Liberty, and thus a movie that could not be made today – one sees a trajectory away from coded subversion into something beyond subtle. (The words Bush and Iraq aren’t voiced, but it’s quite clear what Dante is onto.)

Talking about his film, as well, Dante is eager to speak his mind, bluntly. “The thing that’s amazing to me, and the thing where this movie came from,” he told me, “is that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what a fucking mess we’re in and what we’ve done to the image of this country around the world. And it didn’t just happen last week, it’s been happening steadily for the past four years. And nobody said peep about it. The New York Times and all these people, they actually abetted the lies and crap that went into making, selling this war….And this pitiful zombie movie, this fucking B-movie is the only thing that anybody’s done about this issue that killed 2000 Americans and untold amounts of Iraqis? It’s sick, it’s fucking sick.” Amen to that, Joedante.