The reanimated dead, hungry for human flesh. Zombies are the stuff of nightmares, for sure. But as this month’s new Jim Jarmusch film The Dead Don’t Die proves, the zombie comedy is still alive and kicking and biting.
Well-defined genres, even ones as grotesque and gutsy as zombie movies, have long been fertile ground for comedy. A codified set of tropes is the perfect place to play around with expectations and catch an audience off-guard. And if that surprise can involve someone’s innards becoming outtards, all the better.
Digging through the history of the zombie comedy, one discovers a mirroring effect: The movies that play the brainless hordes for laughs tend to adapt and evolve alongside the movies that mine them for screams. Ahead of The Dead Don’t Die, let’s take a look back at the films that defined the zombie comedy and how trends in the horror sphere shaped its growth and kept it shuffling along.
Return of the Living Dead (1985)
The story goes that Night of the Living Dead co-writers George A. Romero and John A. Russo couldn’t agree about the direction that sequels to their foundational zombie movie would take, so they split somewhat amicably. Romero’s sequels, including 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, would be considered the mainline series, while Russo kept the “living dead” moniker. It took nearly two decades for Russo’s punks-and-zombies movie to hit theaters, and when it did, the result was something more broadly funny than Romero’s slyly allegorical, dark humor. Return of the Living Dead Part II would take the comedy even further three years later. But laughs weren’t the only thing that Return brought to the zombie canon: The undead in Russo’s movie move quickly and aren’t just looking to munch on some human flesh. Specifically, they want braaiiinnsssss.
While Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead laid the groundwork for what a return from the grave would look like on the big screen for decades, the next big influence on the zombie-comedy genre didn’t technically involve zombies. The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi’s low-budget, gonzo-possession flick, injected horror with a new energy and irreverence that filmmaker Stuart Gordon wanted to channel in his Frankenstein-by-way-of-H.P. Lovecraft movie, Re-Animator. The story follows unhinged medical student Herbert West, who develops a formula to put life back into the dead — to horrific ends. The underground classic leans into exploitation, aiming its gross-out effects and pervy-ness directly at cult film fandom.
Seven years later, New Zealand upstart Peter Jackson (ever heard of him?) directed his third feature, Braindead (or Dead Alive in North America), a slapstick zombie movie that’s essentially what would happen if Buster Keaton was horribly maimed after every stunt. Teaming with his future Lord of the Rings effects guru, Richard Taylor, Jackson douses the screen and his actors in blood, guts, and viscera to the point of absurdity. The joy in the film comes from just how creative the carnage can be. There’s a reason that the one scene most people have probably ever heard of involves a foyer filled with zombies and a dude wielding a lawnmower as a weapon. The genius of Braindead is how long that sequence goes on for and how many insane kills are built into it.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The early aughts were a boom time for zombies, funny and not. Before then, zombies were largely relegated to the horror section of video stores. The Romero movies were considered classics, but in terms of modern zombies, culturally all we had were the Resident Evil games, poised to become their own strangely successful film franchise. Then 2002 brought us director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland’s 28 Days Later. The fast-zombie movie arguably kickstarted this new wave of zombie popularity, and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead only helped the virus spread. Boasting a loving endorsement from Peter Jackson, hot off The Lord of the Rings, Shaun combined heart, humor, and a love of the genre to become a sizable indie hit that grew and grew in popularity once out on video.
It’s at this juncture, with the releases of 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zack Snyder’s really good Dawn of the Dead remake within the span of two years, that both halves of the genre begin to lurch toward critical mass. Some of the effects were immediate. The 2006 Canadian comedy Fido, starring Billy Connolly, basically adapts a concept from Shaun — zombies as pets — to feature length. It’s beyond this point, especially with the premiere of The Walking Dead on AMC in 2010, that decomposing arms begin popping through every screen in your house.
Through much of the first decade of the 21st century, zombies roamed just short of true mainstream phenomenon. They were mostly for people who got the cinephile-targeting humor of Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s petrified half of Grindhouse. That changed with Zombieland, which caught stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Emma Stone all on upward trajectories and packed an unforgettable Bill Murray cameo to boot, becoming a huge hit. This road trip through the apocalypse knew that it could count on its audience to understand the tropes and be ready to laugh at them. Having Bill Murray on hand to play himself and die horribly didn’t hurt either — and as it happens, that training that would come in handy for Murray in The Dead Don’t Die.
A monster’s cultural dominance is almost certainly complete when it reaches the realm of animated children’s movies. Laika’s second gorgeous stop-motion film tells the story of Norman Babcock, a preteen with the ability to commune with ghosts. His recently deceased uncle tasks him with performing a ritual that will keep the dead in their graves, but, naturally, a local bully gets in the way and hell is unleashed. What ParaNorman lacks in true zombie gore, it more than makes up for it in visual inventiveness when it comes to its creatures. But most importantly, it whet the appetite of a new generation of zombie fans.
Warm Bodies (2013)
This 2013 zombie romance starring Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer is equal parts a product of Twilight and the zombie renaissance. But thanks to some winning performances and solid direction from Jonathan Levine (50/50), who adapted Isaac Marion’s novel, this odd hybrid movie is a worthwhile watch. Sure, it plays a little fast and loose with the rules of zombies. (Would you be shocked to learn that the cure for the virus is love?) But on the whole, Warm Bodies is far better than a zom-rom-com has any right to be, and it proved the zombie trend was more flexible than even the most hardcore horror fan would’ve guessed.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
By the time the long-gestating adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 Austen-inspired parody novel finally made it to theaters, the zombie comedy had chewed its way through the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, producing both the adults-versus-zombie-children Cooties and another zom-rom-com, Life After Beth. The novel had played a significant role in connecting comedy and the revitalized zombie genre, but after several false starts — including a version that would have featured David O. Russell directing Natalie Portman — the movie was significantly delayed. When it did open in 2016, with Lily James starring as Elizabeth Bennett, the joke felt played out, but still — Pride features a few genuinely entertaining moments and an inventive touch or two. It’s not one of the zombie comedy’s finest moments, but it’s perhaps one of its most unusual ones. Who knows, maybe time will be kind to this odd entry to the canon.