Few modern films have successfully combined horror and comedy to equal effect without diluting the scares, John Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and Sam Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD being prime examples. Filmmakers, that include Dan O’Bannon (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD), Frank Henenlotter (BASKET CASE trilogy; BRAIN DAMAGE; FRANKENHOOKER; BAD BIOLOGY), Peter Jackson (BAD TASTE: BRAIN DEAD) and Jake West (EVIL ALIENS; DOGHOUSE), have tended to rely on sickening their audiences with gross out gore to balance the humour. Whilst others have had to rely on well written scripts that push the laughs to the forefront to keep their movies from floundering. Successful comedy is dependent on a keen understanding of comic timing, an awareness of popular culture, and witty dialogue, as a result it’s usually this third brand of ‘horror comedy’ that is so hard to get right but when the filmmakers succeed they can almost certainly be guaranteed a box office success.
Until recently, the British appeared to hold all the aces when it came to critically acclaimed horror-comedy. The pitch-black satire of BBC TVs THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMAN (1995) featured a number of horror themes: cannibalism, serial murder, epidemic outbreaks, kidnapping, bestiality, curses, spawned from the fertile imagination of writers Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. The team also created a feature film spin-off, THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN’S APOCALYPSE (2005), after which Pemberton and Shearsmith going to create the equally dark seria TV serial PSYCHOVILLE (2009).
In 2003 another British comedy writing team, comprising of Simon Pegg (SPACED) and Edgar Wright (A FISTFUL OF FINGERS), started work on the first of a proposed “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy” kicking off with SHAUN OF THE DEAD, an apocalyptic tale of zombies set in London suburb. The film was a universal success having earned over $30 million in box office receipts worldwide at the end of 2009, with additional huge profits from international DVD licensing. Pegg and Wright went on to make HOT FUZZ (2007) which follows the efforts of two police officers (Pegg and Nick Frost) in their attempts to solve a series of serial killings in a countryside village. Sinc e it’s release the film has grossed over $80 million worldwide, clearly horror comedies have become big bucks!
Step forward USA screenwriting duo, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (INVASION IOWA; JOE SCHMO 2) whose screenplay for Ruben Fleischer’s ZOMBIELAND utilises similar plot concepts from SHAUN OF THE DEAD: A geeky film nerd whose parents have been killed, goes in pursuit of love, meets up with a motley crew of survivors, and tackles post-apocalyptic zombies. Like SOTD, ZOMBIELAND displays an acute sense of popular culture and includes several set-pieces that parody scenes from classic horror films. ZOMBIELAND’s running gag involves revamping ideas previously published in Max Brooks’ excellent 2003 “The Zombie Survival Guide”; a list of thirty-three comic rules (not all of which are featured in the film) that college student Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) quotes in order to survive the zombie outbreak. These rules, that include the obvious: “When in doubt, know your way out”, and the obscure: “Bounty Paper Towells” are accompanied by on-screen captions and hilarious set-pieces that explain why a zombie survival rule-book is necessary.
Columbus hitches a lift to Ohio with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) in order to find his parents who may or may not have survived the zombie outbreak that has been triggered when “mad cow disease became mad human disease and then worse”. Tallahassee has an obsession with eating Hostess Twinkies cakes and when the two stop at a grocery store they encounter streetwise sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and 12-year sibling Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) who con the guys into handing over their weaponry and make off in Tallahassee’s 2003 Cadillac Escalade. It’s here that ZOMBIELAND again displays a penchant for sending up cultural obsessions with nods to high powered cars and road movies when Tallahassee comes across a pristine Hummer H2 and the pair pursue the girls across the states, where they decide to settle differences and check out chic Hollywood.
It’s here that the film delivers several brilliant one-liners and thematic set pieces involving film culture, the best of which involves a visit to Hollywood star Bill Murray’s lavish mansion. Murray has managed to survive and go about his daily routine (including rounds to the local golf course) by disguising himself as a zombie with make-up consisting of cornstarch, berries and liquorice: “Oh, I just do it to blend in, you know. Zombies don’t mess with other zombies”. Murray has always been great at sending himself up (GOUNDHOG DAY; LOST IN TRANSLATION: BROKEN FLOWERS) and here the self-referential jokes come thick and fast. When Little Rock asks him whether he has “any regrets?” regarding his handling of events pertaining to the zombie outbreak, Murray replies “Garfield, maybe”.
With Wichita having promised to take Little Rock to a deserted Pacific Playland where the two can enjoy free rides (as everyone is dead), the group split, but a smitten Columbus who still yearns to “push a girl’s hair behind her ear” pursues Wichita to the amusement park, where his rule-book for zombie survival is going to come in very handy.
ZOMBIELAND grossed over $85 million in less than three weeks making it the most successful zombie movie of all time and I have to say it’s critical reception is justified. I’m usually wary of films that attempt to fuse the elements of gore and comedy but this one works very well.
The actors prove more than competent, though of course Harrelson steals the show with his scenery chewing gun freak spouting lines such as "My mother always told me, 'Someday, you'll be good at somethin'.' I didn't think that thing woulda been zombie killin'", and dispatching zombies with an array of weaponry that include guns, sledgehammers, vehicles, and banjos. The zombie make-ups and gore effects are also effective, several having been inspired by the director’s research into “syphilis, mad cow disease and Ebola”, and “really gnarly research photos of the way the disease manifests.” The pacing is intense, though it would have to be with a running time of eighty-four minutes. Into this frame Fleischer and his team of writers squeeze more one liners and visual gags than most film directors do in a lifetime, and the entire world of geekdom ranging from virginity, computer games, loneliness, inexperience of rites of passage, parental obsessions, is touched upon. Equally amusing is the film’s disregard for political correctness, “Fatties go first” and refusal to pander to the usual dystopian worldview, with its characters able to take advantage of the free-for-all and “Enjoy the little things” in life, though here the little things happen to be Twinkys snacks. A sequel, as you may have guessed, is on the cards.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
English Language / USA / 2009 / 84 minutes / Colour / Rated 15
Region 2 / PAL
A Sony Pictures Home Entertainment DVD release
Region 2 DVD and Blu-ray(UK)
Release date 15th March, 2010