Friday, December 02, 2005

Interview With the Maestro 

Many years ago, during an especially misspent portion of our misspent youth, we emerged in a state of lycanthropic bliss from the Brooklyn theatre where we had just seen The Howling and thought to ourselves: That Joe Dante! Now there's a guy we wouldn't mind hanging out with over a couple of double Manhattans. In the intervening decades Mr. Dante went on to make such witty, entertaining, and sneakily subversive films as Gremlins (parts I and II), Explorers, Matinee, The Second Civil War, and Small Soldiers -- while we, as you know, assumed the throne of a distant northern land and all the niggling responsibilities that go along with it, and were forced to set our boyish dream of boozing with Dante aside.

But the story does not end there! On the eve of the premiere of his remarkable "dissident-zombie" film, "Homecoming" (on Showtime's Masters of Horror series -- 10 PM EST/PST tonight, 10:30 tomorrow), Mr. Dante finally consented to meet us for that long-delayed conversation, and we are pleased to report that we found him every bit as amiable, gracious, engaging, and brainy as his splendid body of work had led us to imagine. That is, once the liquor loosened him up:

KoZ: We were quite thrilled when we discovered that you had left a comment here not long ago. Apart from King of Zembla, are there any blogs you read on a regular basis?

DANTE: Well, yeah, pretty much all the usual suspects--but y'know you can't visit all the blogs you'd like to, there just isn't time. And each blog you do visit has its own list of recommended blogs! So I hit the ten or so I've gotten to know, and if there's time I go to more. Always good to check out the Opposition, too, to see what lies they're supporting/disseminating/defending.

KoZ: We ask because “Homecoming” seems deliberately conceived as a Blogger’s Delight, touching upon a vast number of left-wing talking points from WMD lies to VA benefit cuts to election irregularities in Ohio and Florida. (We half-expected Kurt Rand to meet his fate in a kitchen sink.) Are there any additional hot-button issues you would like to have addressed, if you’d had more time?

DANTE: Well, we only had an hour, but I think Sam Hamm did a pretty good job enfolding many of the concerns we all have about what's going on into a story that makes its point and, hopefully, is dramatically involving as well. It's not exactly DR. STRANGELOVE, but we felt that movies of that type, which are based on deeply felt fears and issues of the moment, just weren't being made any more, or if they were they were being de-politicized. I was happy to see SYRIANA and I'm looking forward to AMERICAN DREAMZ, which has the potential to be another NETWORK.

KoZ: One oddity we noticed. Although the episode itself is, as we’ve described it in the past, “aggressively Zemblan,” there is no one in the cast who espouses an identifiably liberal viewpoint. For that matter, there are no Democrats; we never get to see the opposition party’s response to the “Formerly Deceased Veterans.” Was this a conscious decision, and if so, what does it imply?

DANTE: Well, look around--there are no Democrats! At least damn few worth the name. For that matter, I don't see many real Republicans in the classic sense. Conservatism: "to conserve" ! Guess that went out with Barry Goldwater. Anyway, when I introduced the film at the Turin Festival, I told them it was a horror story because all the main characters were Republicans, which was admittedly pretty glib, but it's true that the events are almost entirely seen from the viewpoint of people in the administration--but when the lead character played by Jon Tenney registers the meaning of what's happening, he does the right thing. So it's a humanized portrait of that vanishing breed, the Republican with a conscience.

KoZ: Various commentators have suggested that “Homecoming” owes a conceptual debt to works as diverse as Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, Bob Clark’s Deathdream, the Irwin Shaw play Bury the Dead, and William Friedkin’s Twilight Zone episode “Nightcrawlers.” (Actually, we added that last one ourselves.) Because you are known as a scholar of the cinema, and of the horror genre in particular [N.B.: Mr. Dante published his first article in Famous Monsters of Filmland at age 12; his Film Bulletin reviews, written from 1969-1974, are currently being reprinted in Video Watchdog – S.], we are wondering: should viewers be on the lookout for any other sly winks or hommages to other, more obscure genre works?

DANTE: Well, the zombie movie has always been one of the cinema's most disreputable genres, so there was no intent here to "class it up". I limited my usual background doodling to some of the tombstones on view, for John Gilling (director of Hammer's class-conscious PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES), Jacques Tourneur (the mesmerizing I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and of course George Romero, who single-handedly transformed the prior West Indies image of the zombie into the shambling mook ghouls of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I guess the scene in the cemetery looks a little like it. If only it was in black and white!

KoZ: Are we wrong to sense the influence of EC Comics? We refer not only to the bracing admixture of grue, black humor, and serious moral purpose, but to the basic construction of the plot, in which sinners must eventually face some form of ironically apt supernatural retribution; in other words, they’re forced to lie in the graves they’ve dug for themselves.

DANTE: There is a horror comic quality to the images, which was done in part to get around the limited budget (you can have three zombies for this scene, but two can only have makeup on one side of their faces). Again, it's a ten-day movie, so it's a quick sketch with areas to be filled in by the viewer.

Look, the horror conventions in "Homecoming" are pretty conventional; I bet it's one of the least "scary" of the MOH series. The horror in this one comes from the real-world parallels.

KoZ: To follow up on the previous question: for the last few horrific years, we’ve felt that we were living in an EC Comic, with one major difference. EC Comics, like the Judeo-Christian faith, offer the soothing reassurance that bad people will eventually receive their just deserts. In real life, however, that hasn’t been the case for Bush et al: “accountability moments” have come and gone. Now that public opinion seems to be turning against the Bush administration, do you see retribution on the horizon? And can popular entertainment, like “Homecoming,” help speed it along?

DANTE: Hah! If movies could really change the world, we would have all disarmed after STRANGELOVE.

And now with the country so split ideologically it's become riskier for films/tv to take a stand and risk alienating the customers. And don't misunderestimate these guys...they may be down today, but they're not out. They have the media (as Ms Coulter has reminded us) and despite their almost unbroken record of jaw-dropping incompetence in nearly every area, they still know how to play the Rubes.

If our cut-rate zombie movie can make even one Bushevic question their beliefs it'll have been worth making. Sam and I look at it as kind of an act of patriotism, actually.

KoZ: “Homecoming” features ruthless spot-on caricatures of several noted right-wing media figures. Are you worried that they’ll seek retribution against you?

DANTE: I can't imagine what you are referring to.

KoZ: During production, there must have been a couple of bits that made you think “Shit, they’ll never let us put this on the air.” What were they?

DANTE: Honestly, the bad taste factor kicked in for me when we were shooting the scene at Dover Air Force Base where the dead soldiers emerge from their coffins, draped in American flags. The imagery was so potent, it gave everyone pause. But it's also emotionally very loaded, and since we were bending over backwards to subvert the audience expectations that the living dead are always bad guys, it worked well as a prelude to the later, more poignant sequences with the soldiers. Personally I think the scene where the first soldier shows up to vote is quite moving. It got quite an audible reaction in Italy ---gasps and applause.

KoZ: You said, in an interview with the Village Voice, that “This pitiful zombie movie, this fucking B movie, is the only thing anybody's done about this issue that's killed 2,000 Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis? It's fucking sick” – and we couldn’t agree more. The major studios wouldn’t touch Fahrenheit 9/11 or Passion of the Christ, yet both went on to rack up enormous grosses. Now studios are chasing the evangelical dollar with mammoth productions like The Chronicles of Narnia. How come no one in money-hungry Hollywood is going after the disaffected-lefty market that dropped all those millions in Michael Moore’s pockets?

DANTE: You jest, right? FAHRENHEIT 9/11, which, for all its grandstanding, stands as the bravest movie ever made about a US administration, is now widely discredited and vilified as a pack of lies by the lying liars who inspired its production. Go back and look at it it. If anything, it's even more powerful today than it was at the time. But as a Big Hit, it's an anomaly. I think the demoralized-lefty market is waiting for the next George Clooney movie and a Dem candidate who isn't Bush lite.

KoZ: There’s definitely a buck to be made in the international market, if your five-minute standing O at the Turin Film Festival is any indication. How did that feel?

DANTE: There were two, actually, at separate screenings. Dave Kehr noted in his review that he felt it was just liberals applauding their own ideas, but I actually think it was a response of gratitude at seeing an American movie that doesn't toe the usual freeper line. After Bush "won" the first election, Europe figured, well, at least they didn't really elect the guy. But after he "won" the second election, they started thinking, wait a minute - this guy has been screwing up (and screwing us) for four years and they reward him with another term??? So I think they're all pretty wary of us now, and they're encouraged when they see we haven't all drunk the Kool Aid.

KoZ: Quo vadis, Joe Dante? We know you’ll stay funny. Will you get the chance to stay angry? We like you when you’re angry.

DANTE: Fuck you. And I mean that in the most whimsical way, of course.

KoZ: Oh, yeah? Well, how'd you like to come over here and --

(In order to spare the tender sensibilities of our readership -- a group that may well include Mr. Dante's lawyers -- we have omitted the balance of the interview, which swiftly deteriorated into what television pundit Bill O'Reilly likes to call "satirical riffs.")

N.B. -- For the weekend of Dec. 2, Showtime is reportedly offering its programming free of charge to basic-cable and satellite subscribers. Check with your local provider to find out whether they're taking part in the promotion.

UPDATE: "Death and Suffrage," the story that inspired "Homecoming," is available in the excellent Dale Bailey collection The Resurrection Man's Legacy. Downloadable versions may be purchased here and here.

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