Is There Any (After)Life Left in the Zombie Comedy Movie?

By Tom Beasley on at

There's a real irony to the fact we can't get rid of zombie comedies. No matter how many critical hatchet blows hack away at the limbs of the genre, it keeps shambling back, determined to consume the brains and the wallets of any movie fan unfortunate enough to be in its path. Little Monsters, in which Lupita Nyong'o plays the kind-hearted kindergarten teacher on a nightmare field trip, is on the verge of showing up in British cinemas after screening at the BFI London Film Festival, while the decade-later sequel Zombieland: Double Tap is still available in multiplexes all over the world.

Aside from those two movies, this year alone has yielded Jim Jarmusch's uber-snarky The Dead Don't Die, the critically adored Japanese film One Cut of the Dead and low-budget British zomcom Shed of the Dead. If you reach very slightly into the tail end of 2018, there's also John McPhail's festive zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse. Zombie comedies are evidently having a real moment, but why? And is there anything new going on in the genre?

This year's zomcoms have, for the most part, been a little disappointing. The Dead Don't Die, in which Bill Murray and Adam Driver are cops dealing with a zombie invasion in their small town, disappeared up its own rear end in an onslaught of deadpan not-quite-jokes, while Little Monsters is a decidedly varied array of tropes, which vary from the pretty good to the outright terrible. Zombieland, meanwhile, exists in a bizarre fugue of irrelevance. It's not that it's a bad movie – in fact, it's loads of fun – but there's a nagging sense throughout that it has missed the boat of relevance. It's not so much closing the stable door after the horse has bolted as it is closing it after the horse has bolted, died, returned to life as a brain-feasting member of the equine undead, slaughtered its stablemates, and then bolted again.

People might have wanted a Zombieland sequel in 2009, but they don't really care about one in 2019. The film earned a pretty decent $26.75m domestically in its opening weekend – exceeding the first film's $24.7m bow – but sequels very rarely have the box office legs of the original, meaning this one will likely top out below the original's $102m global total. Zombieland was a rare example of a zombie movie that proved to be a bona fide box office hit based largely on word of mouth, but its sequel seems unlikely to deliver the same level of success, despite the cult appeal of the original and the increased fame of its cast since 2009.

It's easy to discern why zombies appeal to filmmakers. Ever since the iconic movies of George A. Romero, from the racial dimension of Night of the Living Dead through to the consumerism satire in Dawn of the Dead, the zombie has essentially served as an all-purpose allegory on the big screen. Much as Brexit allegedly means Brexit, zombies mean zombies – which essentially suggests they can be anything that the person wielding the camera wants them to be.

Zombies are also inherently funny. There's an obvious comedy to the notion of a vacant-eyed, blood-soaked remnant of recently deceased humanity wandering around at a snail's pace. Little Monsters features a scene in which zombies take part in a low-speed chase against a safari park land train, while the 2012 British zomcom Cockneys vs Zombies saw a bloodthirsty ghoul follow the late Richard Briers, who was using a zimmer frame, in an excruciatingly sluggish, but very funny, pursuit. Zombies are definitely funny and the comedy genre has spent the last decade or two squeezing every penny out of the udders of that particular cash cow.

The roots of much modern zombie comedy can be traced back to Edgar Wright's 2004 masterpiece Shaun of the Dead. Marketed as “the world's first rom-zom-com”, the film was an ambitious genre hybrid powered by Wright's unique visual energy and the whip-smart script he penned with star Simon Pegg. Even 15 years on from its original release, the movie stands as the most intricate example of the zombie comedy genre, as well as one of the most enjoyable comedies of the new millennium, regardless of sub-genre. Its ensemble cast is terrific, its suburban British milieu is recognisably ordinary in the most enjoyable way and Wright's direction gives every set piece a shot of whizz-bang adrenaline.

The problem is that nothing since has matched the intelligence and wit of Shaun of the Dead. It's not that there haven't been excellent zombie comedies since then, with Cockneys vs Zombies and the terrifically entertaining musical Anna and the Apocalypse standing out as particularly strong examples of the sub-genre – it seems Britain does it best. However, this is a brand of movie that exists entirely in the shadow of its best iteration, with the well of inspiration running almost entirely dry at this point. Zombie comedies are often simply the first port of call for a filmmaker looking to tell a lightly amusing genre story on the cheap, with zombie make-up capable of looking good without breaking the bank on expensive visual effects.

Too often, zombie comedies rely on the most basic of tropes. Whether it's the aforementioned plays on the speed of the trudging undead or gags about the need for “removing the head or destroying the brain” – Shaun of the Dead's simple zombie-killing ethos has become definitive – in order to finish off the creatures once and for all.

This is an issue as, more than any other area of cinema, horror movies thrive on innovation. Horror is always a reflection of the time in which it is made, and so it sits at the cutting edge of the medium. Whether it's the popularisation of found footage after The Blair Witch Project or the way Saw triggered a wave of torture-focused movies in the wake of the real world War on Terror, horror is always inspired by the world around it. Zombie films are no different, with Shaun of the Dead casting the ageing remnants of 90s slacker culture as walking, zombiefied through their adulthood and Anna and the Apocalypse using zombies to make a point about human connection in the age of smartphones.

The problem with this year's zombie comedies has been the lack of that sort of innovation. Zombieland 2, although enjoyable for its splatter and silliness, is a substance-free rehash of everything the first movie did a decade ago. It's eminently forgettable and feels more than a little lazy, coasting by on the appeal of its central performers. A similar affliction permeates Little Monsters, which only remains above water as a result of the luminous Lupita Nyong'o and her terrific central performance – an angelic educator who's never more than a few minutes away from an adorable Taylor Swift cover on the ukulele.

The Dead Don't Die is the most depressing of these films. Jarmusch delivers a meta-examination of zombie films with such an over-abundance of arch humour that it's impossible to ever fully enjoy the limb-lopping mayhem. The story is told with its eyebrow raised higher than Roger Moore watching a Carry On film and, as a result, there's a nagging sense that the movie itself has pretensions of being above the sub-genre in which it exists.

And that's almost the worst thing a zombie comedy can be. This is a genre that thrives when it's silly and when it embraces the ridiculousness of its blundering creatures. Sophistication and smarts can always be baked into the premise, but it's fatal to push too far away from that central core of madness. Just as Romero's films are as much about straightforward terror as they are about incisive social commentary, the best zomcoms never lose sight of what they're really about – delivering scares and laughs.

So this is undoubtedly a genre at a crossroads. There are more zombie comedies lumbering out of their shallow graves than ever before, but the number of good ones seems to be diminishing almost by the moment. There's every chance that something special will come along to provide the spark of (after)life in the near future but, until then, there's a whole horde of shambling, rotting nonsense to get through. Pass me that cricket bat.