Richard J. Leskosky: Zombie comedies are alive and well
Zombies seem to have shambled into success almost everywhere these days: Big-budget films with big-name stars (Brad Pitt's "World War Z" comes out in June), groundbreaking TV series ("The Walking Dead"), best-selling novels ("Pride and Prejudice and Zombies") and even the auto industry (Subaru just recalled 5,000 "zombie cars" that start themselves).
In fact, in films, they've been around so long there's even a sub-genre of zombie comedy or "zomcom" (not to be confused with the classic Internet site zombo.com). Just last month, the zombie romantic comedy (or zomromcom) "Warm Bodies" ranked among the top five box office films for its first three weeks in release.
"Warm Bodies" is not the first zomromcom, however. That would probably be "My Boyfriend's Back" (1993), in which the title boyfriend's love is so strong it brings him back from the dead. But "Warm Bodies" (based on Isaac Marion's novel) is notable for having higher aspirations than most zomcoms because it's basically a zombified "Romeo and Juliet."
The hero/narrator's name is "R" (that's all he can remember of it) while the love of his unlife is named Julie. Her father hates zombies even more than daddy Capulet despises all Montagues.
R's best friend is M; Romeo's is Mercutio. R kills Julie's boyfriend; Romeo kills Juliet's cousin. Both Julie and Juliet at some significant point in their respective stories pretend to be dead (though with differing results). OK, that's as far as I'm going to push it: Shakespeare just doesn't have enough brain eating in his version.
The zombie comedy (at least with the current brain-eating version of zombies) dates back to 1985's "Return of the Living Dead." And Peter Jackson ("Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Hobbit") did the over-the-top horror comedy "Braindead" in 1993 (Tolkien fans might not want to check this out, though). But the genre really took off with 2004's "Shaun of the Dead."
George Romero included comic elements in his zombie films as early as 1978's "Dawn of the Dead," but his films were still primarily horror films even at their most satiric.
Romero realized that the zombie apocalypse provided two rich areas to mine for satire: 1, brain-dead human figures bearing signs of their previous lives and society; and 2, the willingness of the living to exploit the dead whenever they could get the upper hand. Subsequent filmmakers have expanded on this in interesting ways.
In "Shaun of the Dead," the dead continue some aspects of their lives, which were important to them — video games in one significant case. But the living also continue the humdrum details of their own lives as well: Shaun and his friends take refuge in the pub they frequented previously to escape the boring aspects of their lives.
The British "Shaun of the Dead" inspired other foreign zombie comedies, but by far the most interesting is the surprising Cuban "Juan of the Dead" (2011). It's amazing that the filmmakers were able to make this satire in Cuba. It focuses on enterprising ne'er-do-wells who are basically petty criminals — industrious types but not in terms of working for the good of anyone but themselves.
When the zombie plague breaks out, government-controlled media refer to the undead as "dissidents" and immediately blame the USA for what is happening. After exploiting the situation as much as they can, Juan and his friends ultimately make plans to escape to the USA.
"Zombieland" (2009) is probably the most straightforward of the recent zombie comedies in terms of plot, though its cast of rising young stars (Jesse Eisneberg, Emma Stone) and seasoned comedy veterans (Woody Harrelson, Bill Murray) sets it apart — especially Murray's memorable cameo as himself.
The Canadian "Fido" (2006) casts an almost unrecognizable Billy Connolly in the title role as a zombie servant in a post-apocalyptic world where zombies can be controlled and put to work as slaves in an oppressive patriarchal society. Since the young boy who befriends Fido is named Timmy, you can imagine the Lassie parallels that weave throughout the larger satire.
A more intelligent title zombie shows up in the 2009 "George: A Zombie Intervention" (aka "George's Intervention"), where the title character's name is no doubt an homage to George Romero. George may be a zombie, but he still inhabits his own apartment and has living friends with whom he can converse intelligently. He just has this tendency to eat people.
So his friends stage an intervention. Things do not go as planned and a lot of people wind up dead, but there are a few twists (and not just of necks) along the way.
"Woke Up Dead" (2009) also features an intelligent zombie protagonist, this time played by Jon Heder ("Napoleon Dynamite"). Though this film adds something new to the plot — Heder's character is not just dead but developing superpowers — its most interesting aspect is that it started out as a Web series. The film re-edits the first season into a single feature. Unfortunately, no second season appeared, so the film ends with many unanswered questions.
The 2007 "Wasting Away" (which shows up at video rental stores as "Aaah! Zombies!!") surely has the most intriguing formal elements of any zomcom. When some twenty-something friends accidentally ingest the usual toxic chemical waste, they're amazed when military types start shooting at them. They don't realize they've become zombies. And in fact, we see much of the film from their point of view and in color, where they appear perfectly normal — except maybe for some decreased hand-eye coordination making it difficult for them to drive.
But the filmmakers also show us things, in black and white, from the still-living point of view, where the young people are rotting shamblers. Particularly funny is the revelation that drunk humans see the zombies the same way they do themselves — the worst sort of "beer goggles."
Then there's also the problem faced by zombies in love when body parts start falling off (something "Warm Bodies" doesn't explore).
Well, these are the most interesting of the zombie comedies that I've dug up, but actually not the most bizarre. There are, after all, a couple of weird sub-genres I haven't discussed because they're simply not very good. I'll just let their titles speak for them. So, there are doper zombie comedies such as "Bong of the Dead" and "Deadheads," and then there are zombie-stripper comedies such as "Zombie Strippers" and "Strippers vs. Zombies" also known as "Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!" (but please note that "Zombies vs. Strippers" is not a comedy!).
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.