Breaking Taboos

Under this flag is a coffin with a zombie in itHorror stories make people uncomfortable or scared in many ways. The most basic has always been fear of death and/or physical destruction. For example, I don’t want my body torn to shreds by zombies, so I’ll be scared if it happens to a character I empathize with.

In another sense, taboos are what’s being broken — taboo behaviour such as violence and all the other things that happen in a horror movie but not (constantly) in real life. But what happens when a zombie story breaks taboos that are unusual? If the zombies don’t eat very many brains, are they still scary?

That question came to mind while I was watching “Homecoming,” a short film directed by Joe Dante for the recent anthology series on Showtime, Masters of Horror. (“Homecoming” was written by Sam Hamm from a short story by a writer well-known in SF circles, Dale Bailey. Bailey’s story, “Death and Suffrage,” is different than the resulting script, as I’ll point out in a minute.)

It’s a zombie show, complete with hordes of zombies and stinkingly evil villains. But most significantly it’s an attack on the current American government, which is where the more interesting breaking-of-taboos comes from. Dead soldiers start coming back from the Iraq War, mainly in order to vote against the politicians who started the war.

The first scene with zombies is also the best: no photographs are allowed of coffins coming back from the war, and two guards go to investigate some noises since they have to chase off photographers. All of the flag-draped coffins start erupting. It’s a potent image! The restless dead leaving their flag-draped coffins is a peerless way to uncover all of the costs of war that the warmongers desperately want to stay hidden. Like the best genre work, it mixes the power of metaphor with the potency of a literal story.

Under this flag is a coffin with a zombie in itThe image is mirrored later in the show by zombies breaking out of their graves. Unfortunately, the hands rising up out of the dirt is an old cliche, and it doesn’t have the same power, to shock or to make us think. Somewhere, Dante loses his way.

In other words, “Homecoming” starts strong but doesn’t entirely know where to go. Death made manifest and making the cost of war obvious… this is all good stuff. Dante’s overly obvious anti-Bush messages are layered onto this basic structure, with some odd results. For example, within the show, the politicians and their PR spin are critiqued for speaking for dead soldiers, but the show itself is speaking for the dead by making them zombies who vote anti-war. The obvious distinction of course is that these are just moviemakers, and their targets are people who are actually doing the oh-so-heroic task of sending others to die.

“Homecoming” also breaks the taboo against cheesiness, to put it facetiously. Scenes too schmaltzy to be borne include the main character’s flashbacks to the real cause of his brother’s death. There’s also another scene in a cafe where parents of a soldier still serving in Iraq welcome a zombie. Even the soldier’s dog likes the zombie, which is a manipulation too far (and also flies in the face of all zombie knowledge that I’ve gleaned from the movies — dogs always start barking at a supernatural threat before anyone else knows what is going on).

The anti-Republican satire is pretty close to the bone, since the characters are so schematically drawn from real life. The “fictional” characters of Jane Cleaver and Kurt Rand in particular are harsh, but like most satire, it’s almost always overtaken by reality (to be perfectly clear on what I’m talking about, see this recent story about Ann Coulter calling Al Gore a “total fag”). Bailey finished his original story in 2000, so it obviously doesn’t have any material about the Bush Administration; also, it was about victims of gun violence rather than the Iraq War.

All in all though, this political stuff seems much less visceral than a typical zombie story. Politics is something people disagree on (even if the issues seem clear enough), but nobody really wants a zombie to chew on their intestines while they’re still alive and watching. I’m certainly not claiming that the only thing a zombie movie can do is show excessive gore and guts — more that Dante and his team have a hard job to stretch zombies into overt political satire. They succeed in scenes like the aircraft hangar filled with coffins, but the success is not consistent.

Showtime has been releasing all of the Masters of Horror series on separate DVDs, which would ordinarily be an annoying money grab. But it looks like each DVD is getting star treatment, with tons of extras and added value.

So I regret to note that most of the episodes are poor in quality. Masters of Horror was intended to give free rein to horror movie directors who have already proved their abilities. Instead, the opposite seems to have happened, and the series has proved that constraints are usually good for creativity.

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