The DNA of the American horror film irrevocably changed in the wake of Vietnam. Films such as Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Deathdream presented, to quote our own Eric Henderson, “terror in America as a messy, brutally honest implosion from within.” Even the shellshock of ordinary Americans victimized by home intruders, supernatural ghoulies, or worse, was fraught with metaphoric implications; there was a sense, as in the films of Wes Craven, that our nation’s wartime exploits abroad had forever warped our everyday perceptions of self and space. The invasion of the body, the home, somehow seemed more personal—that is, until the war dimmed from our collective memory and our wonder and fear of our culture’s vast scientific and technological advancements became dominant fixations of the American horror film.
But now, after Iraq and Afghanistan, our masters of horror and their acolytes are again mining the loam of post-war trauma for essential truths about war and its effects on our moral character. Joe Dante’s Homecoming, from Showtime’s first season of Masters of Horror, was a vibrant but literal-minded political provocation, a platform for Dante’s gripes with how the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections turned out. More notable is the especially turgid fifth season of True Blood, which features one striking storyline about a group of war veterans who aren’t haunted by vampires or wolves or fairies or shape-shifters, but by a freakish curse put upon them by an Iraqi woman whose friends, family, and neighbors are murdered in cold blood by American troops. This strand from the show derives its poignancy from the character Terry’s crippling sense of guilt, the fear that he won’t be able to conquer this demon until he exorcises the more brutal horror that eats away at him from within.
The premise of writer-director D. Kerry Prior’s The Revenant is a killer one. In the deserts of Iraq, a soldier, Bart (David Anders), disobeys protocol by hopping out of his truck in the dead of night after running over a toddler, only to be gunned down by a group of militants. Shipped back to the States and buried, Bart will rise from the dead weeks later as a zombie, though with his verbal articulateness still intact and with a vampire’s insatiable taste for blood. After amusingly stealing blood from a hospital and accidentally stopping a convenience-store robbery, he and his best bud, Joey (Chris Wylde), stumble upon the win-win situation of satiating a dead man’s thirst with the blood of Los Angeles’s lowlifes.
But like the apparent zombie baby seemingly used as bait in the opening scene, the premise of the film is never successfully justified, as Prior never conveys Bart’s zombieness as an inheritance—as either curse or manifestation of guilt. Though Bart’s goodness is what kills him, it’s the convenience of being in the right place at the right time, not any sort of serious moral reckoning, that leads him on the path toward vigilante justice. Since Bart’s bloodlust is never matched in tenor by his righteousness, though he does briefly hem and haw about Joey killing an innocent at one point, the story remains rife with unfulfilled moral inquiry.
The film, which has been understandably compared to Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, forgoes such seriousness in favor of sometimes funny yuks that convey only flippancy. Rather than elaborate on the racial and class strife that intriguingly seethes throughout such scenes as the convenience-store robbery, the story will opt to set up a running gag, or to obsess over the crudeness of Joey’s humor and opportunism. And while the film almost gets by on its yuks, as well as on Prior’s capable direction and the delirious foregrounding of remarkable makeup and special-effects work, it adds insult to innocuous injury with an ill-advised capper that reduces the premise of the film as a mere setup to a fascist punchline about hardline, eye-for-an-eye ethical relativism.