Jane Cleaver: “It’s words. It’s a game. You say whatever it takes to win.”
David Murch: “Well, maybe that’s the problem.”
This dialogue exchange happens early in Homecoming (dir. Joe Dante), a strange but unique zombie story from the Masters of Horror anthology series created by director Mick Garris (The Stand). It serves as a preamble for what’ll come soon after the two conversations between the two characters ends, which flips the zombie formula on its head with bravado. An army of undead war veterans rallies from beyond the grave for one final mission: to vote against the president that sent them to war based on a lie. A lie that killed them.
The episode came out in 2006, two years into George W. Bush’s second term as president, at a point where the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ excuse used to justify the War on Terror was wearing off and being heavily portrayed as the lie that got the US stuck in the Middle East (and the reason why dead soldiers come back to vote in Homecoming).
Homecoming follows a White House speech writer called David Murch as he navigates Bush’s reelection with a team of public relations pundits hellbent on winning the election, by any and all means necessary. During a televised panel discussion, Murch is confronted by the mother of a dead soldier who’s protesting the war, which inspires the conflicted speech writer to sincerely wish her son could come back and tell the world why he died for his country. He gets his wish, only it comes with a battalion of undead combatants desperate to fulfill their civic duty.
Watching it now, just as Americans are casting their ballots on the Biden v. Trump election, it’s unsettling how relevant this story still is, if only for its discussion on how politics is ultimately a game of words. As Murch and his team pick up on the fact zombie votes are leaning towards the other side, a mad dash for control of the narrative takes place. What was first scene as an act of patriotism—rising from the grave to vote—becomes an un-American rebellion looking to steal the election from the living.
While Homecoming is firmly rooted in the context of the Bush presidency, it comments enough on the dangers of political storytelling to effectively turn its metaphors on the politics of today. Murch will struggle with his own morality throughout most of the episode, always hesitant as to how and when to use the undead as part of the campaign. Here’s where Jane Cleaver comes into play.
Basically a stand-in for Ann Coulter, Cleaver becomes the right-wing commentator that puts on her radical pro-America persona when in front of a camera only to later admit she’ll say anything to secure her party’s victory. She basically stands as the unethical extreme of public discourse. The game, as Cleaver puts it, is won by the best storyteller. Homecoming does a magnificent job of proving this point through her, with the other PR people acting as her chorus, encouraging her to further spread her warped political views.
There are a lot of parallels between Cleaver’s philosophies and Kellyanne Conway’s media performances (which she had to put on as the former counselor to the President), especially when she was asked to explain or defend Trump’s comments on most about everything. There’s a scene in Homecoming, after the soldiers have revealed who they’re voting for, where Cleaver doubts the legality of undead voting after previously championing it. She supported the undead vote before she knew the problem it posed to her party. Conway’s “alternative facts” statement comes to mind here, which was uttered when asked to comment on the actual number of people that attended Trump’s inauguration. It’s as if you can trace a solid genealogical line, if you will, from Bush era politics to Trump era politics. The side with the best spin on information wins the crowd, and potentially their vote.
It should come as no surprise to Joe Dante fans that this movie is as blatantly political as it is. As Homecoming’s director, Dante pulls out every trick in his book to make each metaphor land. Be it the violent nature of American politics (seen in his werewolf movie The Howling) to a people’s inability to keep chaos at bay by following simple instructions (Gremlins), Dante likes to put his movies’ messages in full view, covered in blood if he has to. Homecoming is no different.
During a televised Presidential rally, Murch and Cleaver ruminate on Bush’s ability to command an audience. Cleaver asks just what it is about the President that makes people adore him. Murch responds, “He’s not stupid. He has a way to make stupid people feel like they’re just as smart as he is.” A bit crude, but it speaks to the power of storytelling. In Bush’s America, militaristic values were the way to win hearts and minds, especially after 9/11. There was an appeal to patriotism that the Bush administration took and turned into a party value. As a result, to criticize the war was to criticize the need to protect America, to badmouth its soldiers. Being anti-war meant being un-American.
In Trump’s America, the idea is to show America as a place that’s been robbed of greatness by liberal policies that see their own country as the problem. The principle is the same. It’s just a matter of taking outdated story elements out and putting new ones in. By then, it’s a race of two stories and it all boils down to the side that tells it better.
Homecoming is a horror story with a call to action. It’s not cynic in its entirety but it’s not entirely hopeful either. It’s about awareness. Stories are never one thing or another in the world of politics. They’re in constant spin and can spiral out at any moment to the benefit of those who can harness their power best. It might take zombie voters to come back and put us all in our place for things to get better. Until then, it’s up to the living to make sure we don’t screw up so bad this time.