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Tabula Rasa

The West Wing and the Living Dead

An Interview with Dale Bailey

by Alex Pitofsky, 2006

Dale BaileyIn Dale Bailey's short story "Death and Suffrage" (2002), an American presidential election is thrown into turmoil when thousands of corpses rise from their graves and demand the right to vote. The candidates are initially stunned by this development, but the presence of the undead soon becomes little more than a wedge issue to be exploited by campaign strategists. In 2004, Bailey learned that the producers of Showtime's Masters of Horror series were interested in filming an adaptation of "Death and Suffrage." Director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) and screenwriter Sam Hamm (Batman, Never Cry Wolf) retained the central image of "Death and Suffrage"—hordes of zombies shambling toward the polls—but their film places the image in a new context. Early in the film, titled Homecoming, the audience discovers that the would-be voters are former American soldiers killed in Iraq and that their aim is to promote regime change in their homeland.

Bailey, raised in West Virginia and educated at Bethany College and the University of Tennessee, teaches English at Lenoir-Rhyne College. He is the author of three novels—Sleeping Policeman (with Jack Slay, Jr.)(2006), House of Bones (2004), and The Fallen (2002)—and The Resurrection Man's Legacy (2003), a collection of short fiction.

Tabula Rasa: Do you imagine how your fiction might look onscreen while you're writing?

Dale Bailey: I think fiction has changed a lot since the introduction of television and film. Nineteenth-century fiction was much more narrative, and contemporary fiction is scene-driven. Almost anybody who has grown up in a visual culture has a scene-driven imagination rather than a narrative imagination.

TR: That's especially apparent in the work of writers raised in the sixties and seventies.

DB: Yeah, look at [neo-noir crime novelist] George Pelecanos. In everything he writes, he uses discrete little scenes. When I was writing House of Bones, I was specifically thinking in terms of screenplay structure, but I usually don't think that way.

TR: Have any of your novels or stories begun as responses to something you'd seen in a film? You've said in interviews that the biblical passage which begins "There were giants in the earth in those days" was the starting point for The Fallen, and that phrases and images you've encountered in literature have started the process that led to some of your other novels and stories. What about films, or television shows?

DB: I don't think so. I can't think of an example where a story got started that way.

TR: Which film adaptations of horror literature strike you as particularly effective?

DB: My favorite movie based on a work of horror would have to be The Haunting, which was directed by Robert Wise [in 1963]. It's a great adaptation. And it's instructive to read the original novel [Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959)], to see Wise's adaptation, and then to see the adaptation that was made a few years ago [1999; directed by Jan de Bont]. The newer version has no subtlety. It substitutes explicit gore for horror.

TR: What impressed you about the Wise adaptation?

DB: Everything is suggested, nothing is seen. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King's study of horror as a genre, he defines that kind of approach as something in the tradition of horror stories adapted for radio. A massacre is only suggested; a ghost is only suggested—you never really see anything.

TR: So the horror is produced mainly in the viewer's imagination?

DB: Right, and in Wise's version of The Haunting, that [use of suggestion] comes straight from the novel. It's a haunted-house story. The characters hear something coming down the hall. While they're cowering in bed, it comes to the door and stops. You can hear something sniffing on the other side of door. Then you see the door—it's locked, but it starts shaking in its frame. You see the doorknob turn, but Wise never lets you see what's on the other side of the door. That's what King means when he talks about horror narratives influenced by radio.

TR: Maybe a film like Jaws is also in that tradition. Steven Spielberg has often been praised for delaying the moment when the audience finally sees the shark. The audience has been thinking about this threat for at least an hour before it finally appears.

DB: That wasn't the way they originally planned to do it. While they were shooting some of the early scenes, they couldn't solve some technical problems with the mechanical shark, so they weren't able to show it. That reminds me of another Spielberg movie called Duel. It's based on a Richard Matheson story and it was made for TV in the early seventies. It's about a guy who gets into a kind of road-rage conflict with a tractor-trailer on the highway. He tries to get away, but the truck keeps showing up again, trying to run him off the road. The audience never sees who's driving the truck.

TR: Not even by the end of the movie?

DB: You never find out who's driving it. At one point, the victim is coming out of a rest stop and he can see the boots of the truck driver, who's standing on the other side of the truck. Aside from that scene, though, the truck begins to take on a supernatural quality. It almost seems driverless.

TR: It sounds as though that film might have been influenced by The Birds. That's another movie where the audience expects to find out what's happening. Why have the birds become so menacing? What will it take to bring them under control? Hitchcock withholds all of the answers.

DB: That's another effective adaptation of horror fiction. It was adapted from a short story by Daphne DuMaurier. When they started to develop this project [Homecoming], I never expected the story to lend itself to the kind of approach you see in The Haunting and Duel. You have to show the zombies in a zombie movie. One element of Homecoming is particularly relevant to the tradition of withholding the reason why certain things are happening in horror fiction—in "Death and Suffrage," zombies come back, but their actions aren't as issue-driven as those of the zombies in Homecoming. The main political issue in the story is gun control. A presidential candidate speaks out in favor of gun control, and the zombies seem to have returned because they want to vote for him. But after the candidate wins, they don't go away. They continue to wander around. In the end, no one knows exactly why they've come back or what they want. The movie jettisons that sense of uncertainty, so it's issue-driven in a way that the story wasn't.

TR: Do you think filmmakers have generally done a good job of converting horror fiction into powerful films, or do you find that something is usually lost in translation during the process of adaptation?

DB: I think most successful horror films begin as screenplays. So much of horror literature has to do with imagining something frightening—and film, as a visual medium, usually forces you to see it. Again, I would go back to what King points out in Danse Macabre: if you don't open the door, the reader is going to be more afraid than if you do open it.

TR: When the Homecoming project was first getting off the ground, did you feel as though your work was going to be reshaped without your participation?

DB: I knew that the story would be altered and that I'd have no participation in the writing, but I wasn't apprehensive about it. In fact, before they started filming I thought a faithful adaptation wouldn't work. I didn't know how well the original story would translate. A few years ago, I got a call from Roy Lee, who produced The Ring (2002). Both of our names ended up on the ballot for an award from the International Horror Guild, so he called me and asked if I had any projects that might be adaptable. The idea of a movie version of "Death and Suffrage" came up in that conversation, and I told him it was probably the least cinematic thing I've ever written. I told him it was a story about zombies who want to vote. In a way, it's a pretty static, unexciting idea.

TR: I'm surprised you thought it was so unpromising, since The West Wing has been a successful show for years, and "Death and Suffrage" taps into the whole literature of political campaigns. It takes the reader into the circle of advisors who help a candidate get through a tough election season. That kind of narrative has been filmed successfully dozens of times.

DB: I guess I was thinking in terms of a horror movie, as opposed to a political movie.

TR: Maybe the non-horror elements of "Death and Suffrage" are more cinematic than the horror elements.

DB: That's why [Homecoming] is really a comedy. There's nothing all that frightening in it. The political dimensions of it are scary, but it's not scary in a visceral kind of way. It's funny you should mention The West Wing, because I love that show. When I was writing "Death and Suffrage," I constantly had The West Wing in mind. I should go back and revise my earlier answer. This story is the one that was directly inspired by television and film. And if you think about it further, the idea of zombies as they're envisioned in the story springs from George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The story is the unholy offspring of The West Wing and Night of the Living Dead. I like that.

TR: When you watched Homecoming for the first time, which aspects of it immediately caught your attention?

DB: I knew it had been changed to focus on the Iraq War. So that didn't come as a surprise, but I was apprehensive about how that issue might be handled. I'm no fan of the war or of George Bush, but I didn't want to see the film demonize the soldiers, who have no choice but to be there. As much as anybody else, they're victims of this policy. So I was worried when I thought that this war is still going on, and there are families out there losing people. I didn't want those families to see the film and say, "They've turned my son, who sacrificed his life for his country, into a monster." That was the one thing I was concerned about—would they be able to write a movie that was anti-Bush foreign policy but, at the same time, pro-soldier? When I saw the film, I thought they pulled that off well. There's a scene in the film that didn't appear in the story—couldn't have appeared in the story—because it hinges on the idea that the returning dead are dead soldiers. It's the scene where a soldier is walking during a storm, and a man comes out of the diner and says, "Son, you shouldn't be out in that rain." And so the soldier, this zombie, goes inside and the man and his wife are talking about their own son, who's in Iraq. I thought that was the best scene in the film because it dramatized the human costs in a way that . . . It moved me, even though it's part of a pretty comedic screenplay.

TR: How did it feel to have your work adapted and filmed for the first time? I have a friend who was presented as one of the main characters in the movie Shattered Glass [2003; directed by Billy Ray]. This friend is a very successful journalist—one of the most articulate people I know—but in an interview he had trouble finding the words to explain how it felt to see "himself" in a movie. I wonder how you would answer a similar question: how did it feel to see the adapted version of "Death and Suffrage" unfolding onscreen?

DB: What's striking about the experience, in the moment, is the feeling that the story both is and is not yours. The adaptation made some really significant changes. The story I wrote and the film don't really have a great deal in common. What was weird was seeing little bits and pieces of what I had done showing up in a new context. It made me think that a single story idea can produce so many different stories. And it reminded me of the days of pulp fiction, the thirties and forties, when editors would sometimes buy a painting to use as a cover, give the painting to several writers, and have them write stories based on it. Even though the stories were all based on the same source, they would be totally distinct from one another. So there was a little bit of that sense—there were elements, including little bits of dialogue, that I recognized as mine, but they were also not mine. It was hard to take ownership and hard not to take ownership.

TR: You've described your work as "weird fiction," a hybrid form that combines elements of horror fiction and "literary" fiction. Do you think Homecoming could be labeled as "weird cinema," or did the story move closer to pure horror storytelling through the process of adaptation?

DB: It definitely moved closer to pure horror. Horror introduces an element of chaos into an ordered system. And then the narrative is about restoring order and banishing chaos. That's what happens in the film, in the sense that the zombies represent an eruption of disorder caused by the government's foreign policy and in the end, even though the election is stolen, they take over.

TR: The film portrays neo-conservative government officials and media commentators as villains generating horrible chaos and disorder. Some viewers might find them more frightening than the zombies.

DB: That's right. The zombies are trying to restore order. In the film, we understand by the end that an eruption of chaos has occurred because of an unjust war. In that sense, a kind of moral order is restored. We understand the world again.


Alex Pitofsky is Assistant Professor of English at Appalachian State University.

 

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