Back in 2005, for the Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror, director Joe Dante and writer Sam Hamm were given carte blanche to make whatever they wanted, so long as it came in under an hour and could be classified as "horror."
They delivered, in Homecoming, one of the sharpest and angriest films about the Iraq war to date — a blunt allegory about U.S. soldiers who rise from the dead not to feast on the living but to vote the president out of office. It's an anti-war satire that only technically functioned as a zombie movie.
The clever horror comedy The Revenant plays like the inverse of Homecoming: It isn't technically a zombie movie — a "revenant" returns from the dead as a corporeal spirit — but it more or less functions as one, and its anti-war sentiments are trafficked in like a subterfuge that blows up with unexpected force.
Where Dante and Hamm delivered their message with caustic wit, writer-director Kerry Prior opts instead for a silly, shambling bloodbath in the Shaun of the Dead vein, following a couple of buddies as they trade jokes and confront dastardly forces from beyond the grave. It ultimately makes a statement, but getting there amounts to a half-fun, half-tedious clearing of the throat.
While on a night mission in the Iraq desert, Bart (David Anders) dies from multiple gunshot wounds after he stops to tend to a wounded child and enemy troops ambush his supply truck. Though he gets a respectful funeral back home, Bart doesn't stay dead. After waking up 6 feet under and crawling his way to the surface, he's both relieved to discover that he's still alive and horrified that his eyes have turned milky white and the decomposition process hasn't abated.
He turns to his stoner pal Joey (Chris Wylde) for help, but after some hilariously disgusting trial and error, Bart learns that human food isn't for him — unless, that is, the food is human.
It's here that The Revenant starts getting into dicey territory. Bart isn't some brain-thirsty zombie, but a conscientious person who happens to crave blood and flesh; he can't bring himself to ravage the innocent. So he and Joey instead become a team of vigilante crime fighters, gunning down stickup men and drug pushers to cheers from the community, who mostly look the other way as they abscond with the bodies.
The bloody, chaotic incidents that follow add most of the fat to the flabby two-hour running time, and they hijack the movie tonally, too, obliterating the deft, fish-out-of-water comedy of the early scenes in favor of carnage and mayhem.
Perhaps the problem is that Bart's predicament is novel while his solution is overly familiar. Before Bart realizes that he must feast on human flesh and blood, The Revenant gets huge laughs from its hero coming to terms with his situation, from the trial-and-error of sating his appetite — a bite of cold pizza unleashes a torrent of black sludge from his mouth — to a hospital visit where he matter-of-factly pleads to a freaked-out nurse, "I'm kind of decomposing here."
On the other hand, The Revenant is about aligning Bart's conscience with his horrific needs, and that's where Prior's allegorical agenda starts to pay off. Bart gets killed in Iraq when his compassion wins out over protocol; the ironic arc of The Revenant is that as he slowly divorces himself from humanity, Bart finally becomes a real soldier.