Funny or Die: The Evolution Of Zombie Comedies

An all-star cast, an abundance of gore and violence - let's break down the elements of successful zombie movies
Funny or Die: The Evolution Of Zombie Comedies

"The more I know about people, the more I love zombies." – JJ Zep.

A Zombie invasion is far-fetched but certainly not discounted as a possibility in the movies. There's a level of comic relief associated with the idea of getting our brains eaten by a friendly neighbourhood zombie. This can  part be owed to a large number of zombie comedy movies produced over the last few years and our fascination with this absurd genre.

A history of the Zom-Com

The origin of the Zombie goes as far back as 1621, appearing in Haiti, which was then Saint-Domingue, a French colony. African slaves were brought to the sugar plantations and made to work till they died. This compelled them to believe that death would be liberation. A number of these slaves would die by suicide, unable to bear the brunt of the torture. The myth goes that these slaves would then be condemned to walk the plantations for eternity.

With the Haitian Revolution in 1821, French colonialism  ended in Haiti and the Zombie had become part of its folklore. The association with slavery was removed and the zombie was now a corpse reanimated by voodoo priests.

The first of its kind

Believe it or not, Zom-Coms stretch back to the 1940s. Typically, the genre was explored in B-grade, lower-budget films that focussed on the original Haitian-style zombies. The first of its kind, Jean Arbrough's King of Zombies, features a doctor who uses voodoo to create zombies at his mansion. The genre was pretty much established with the release of Zombies on Broadway in 1945. Most zombie films around that time had their fair share of comedic elements.

The modern zombie shifted away from the Haitian one and was much more centred on society. These were zombies created when science experiments went wrong or when deadly plagues infected humans. The earliest-known depiction of the modern zombie can be found in films like The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and An American Werewolf in London (1981).

The film that remains as a classic is Shaun of the Dead. Edgar Wright's film was both refreshingly hilarious and intricately crafted. Most Zom-Coms released in the 21st Century pay homage to this masterpiece.

Romantic elements

More recently, the Zom-Com genre has expanded even further, adding romantic and musical elements to typical slapstick comedies. Warm Bodies is a film about a humanised zombie who falls in love with a human girl. Fido shows us a society where zombies co-exist with humans and are a part of the neighbourhood.

Internationally, films like Spain's Juan of the Dead, South Korea's The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale and India's Go Goa Gone have been well received.

No rules

The popularity of this genre is reflected in particular by a film like Zombieland, which was commercially successful. No matter how many rules Jesse Eisenberg made up in the film, it's important to remember that the first rule for any Zom-Com is that it cannot and should not follow any rules. This is true for both, its characters and the film's creators. A Zom-Com, by nature, is a stitched-together genre, created to have fun with. Most of its pioneers have experimented with it and made unique concoctions that cover a very wide variety of themes and scenarios. Likewise, to survive in a zombie wasteland, it is wise to prepare for the unexpected.

An all-star cast

There is nothing more satisfying than watching your favourite celebrities get trapped in a zombie horror show. To make a commercially successful Zom-Com, an essential factor is to have a star cast or well-placed cameos. Zombieland boasts the likes of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. The Dead Don't Die features an ensemble cast that includes Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi and Bill Murray, who earlier made an iconic cameo in Zombieland. Cooties, although a commercial failure, brought together Rainn Wilson, Elijah Wood and Alison Pill. And  who can forget John Mayer popping up as a truck driver on Zombeavers?

A discourse on society

Going back to the roots of the zombie archetype, one sees how deeply embedded within it is a discourse on society and culture. So it makes sense that most films made about it touch on relevant themes. Juan of the Dead is smart about its representation of class conflict and is one of the best political satires. Shaun of the Dead and Cockneys VS Zombies subtly depict British society. Fido depicts the middle-class struggle through zombies working basic income jobs.

An abundance of gore and violence

This point makes one wonder why Quentin Tarantino or a Robert Rodriguez are yet to make a Zom-Com. Gore and violence are the key ingredients in any well-made zombie film. Headshots, pools of blood, humans being eaten alive; these elements are liberally added. Everyone's in on the fun, from the teenage zombies in Cooties to a bunch of senior citizens with submachine guns in Cockneys VS Zombies. A landmark scene is the lawnmower bloodbath from Braindead, which required about 300 litres of fake blood to get right.

Meta humour and pop culture references:

Almost every production has self-referential elements or some form of meta humour that alludes to previous zombie flicks. Shaun of the Dead is filled with Easter eggs and hints at past films through dialogues and posters. It's also evident how Go Goa Gone is inspired by titles like The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later.

A metal/punk rock soundtrack: 

An adrenaline-pumping genre like the Zom-Com is fuelled with a punkish or a metal sound. One of the reasons The Return of the Living Dead is a cult classic is because its soundtrack was composed by some of the most popular punk-rock/death-rock bands from LA at the time. The unforgettable opening sequence of Zombieland features the popular track For Whom the Bell Tolls by Metallica. The Cranberries would be proud.

A macguffin:

A macguffin is an object or a device that lends motivation to a character but is itself irrelevant to the main plot. The most obvious example of this would be that twinkie that Tallahassee hunts for throughout Zombieland. The Cornetto is a macguffin in Edgar Wright's trilogy of films, which includes Shaun of the Dead.

The brings us to a curious point. The zombie itself can be called a macguffin sometimes. For instance, Warm Bodies is a love story about a boy and a girl, in which the boy just happens to be a zombie. Shaun of the Dead features zombies only in the backdrop of a coming-of-age story.

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