Why are there so many zombie comedies?

What's so funny about the walking dead? With Jim Jarmusch's star-studded zombie comedy The Dead Don't Die about to hit cinemas, we look back at the horror movies that make gags out of these undead ghouls

Feature by Lou Thomas | 17 Jun 2019
  • The Dead Don't Die

Horror and humour have long been eager movie bedfellows. Scares and laughs co-exist in films as different as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), An American Werewolf in London (1981) and the entire Scary Movie series (2000-2013). While one can argue over the merits of such titles, it’s clear horror staples including slasher movies, ghost stories, werewolves and gothic horror can all be mined for merriment. Now, with the release of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, the zombie comedy sub-genre has risen from the grave yet again. But why is the zom-com such a popular cinematic cocktail?

As with so many things in cinema, much can be traced back to George A. Romero. His hugely influential zombie masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (1968) spawned legions of undead copycats with macabre laughs interlaced with scenes of abject horror. The scene in which a little girl murders her mother with a masonry trowel is particularly demented but so outrageous that it provokes shocked laughs even half a century after its release. Romero’s satirical sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) is perhaps even more renowned for its comedic impact, with the ridiculous sight of a zombie getting a portion of his head lopped off by a moving helicopter blade just one of its chucklesome moments.

Since the Dead films proved the undead hordes could be prime fodder for giggles, many have pushed the comedy much harder. Director Edgar Wright’s breakthrough feature Shaun of the Dead (2004) saw its star and co-writer Simon Pegg expand a sketch from their TV sitcome Spaced with hilarious results, as zombies terrorise north London and the laughs flow as frequently as the blood. Wright skewers many zombie tropes with glee by poking fun at things we could always see on screen but never really appreciated.

In one key scene, the cast of living characters openly mimic the funereal moans and staggering gait of the dead. There’s another scene where the age-old method of killing a zombie by 'removing the head or destroying the brain' is mined for belly laughs as Shaun (Pegg) and best mate Ed (Nick Frost) sling records at heads of the dead, ideally using their worst albums first. Once again, Wright and Pegg correctly spot the potential for zombie silliness and exploit it. The commercial and critical success of Shaun meant what it normally means in Hollywood: its zom-com recipe would soon be baked again and again.

Back on the other side of the Atlantic, Zombieland (2009) sees Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) fight the hordes in post-modern fashion, introducing his film with tips on how to survive a zombie apocalypse including “beware of bathrooms” – clearly a man who’s also braved a few pub toilets at closing time on a Saturday. Later in the film, the narrative takes an unexpected turn when Bill Murray arrives on-screen playing himself, only to meet a bloody end when he scares Columbus as a joke. With the zombie feature, laughs and death are seemingly never far away and often linked.

All of which leads us back to The Dead Don’t Die. American indie auteur Jim Jarmusch is seemingly obsessed by death, having made alt-western Dead Man (1995), two off-kilter assassin pictures in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and The Limits of Control (2009). He also knows his way around comedy, with the majority of his fiction feature films from Permanent Vacation (1980) onwards having a whimsical or absurd edge to them and some being out-and-out funny – Down by Law (1986) and Broken Flowers (2005) being the most obvious examples. Jarmusch, for his part, seems to innately understand that grief and death scare us but make us laugh, in the way that the most serious subjects often do. To laugh is a human response and, perhaps, the only response to things we’d rather not face.

And as any zombie worth its unbeating heart knows, it’s better to laugh than cry.

The Dead Don't Die, 21 Jun, 8.35pm & 23 Jun, 6pm, Vue Omni

Read more about Edinburgh International Film Festival at theskinny.co.uk/festivals/edinburgh-festivals/film, and follow our coverage on Twitter (@theskinnymag), Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheSkinnyMag) and Instagram (@theskinnymag)

The Skinny is partnered with EIFF on Agnès Varda retrospective The Features of Agnès – details of the season here

To receive the best of the Scottish cultural scene in your inbox every week? Sign up to our mailing list!