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Nights of the Celluloid Dead:
A History of the Zombie Film

Part Three: Look Who's Laughing Now

by Robert Hood

First published in Bloodsongs#6, 1995; ed. Steve Proposch.

Perhaps because of the physical excesses of the seventies and eighties, many recent living dead films play for comedy. Partly this is the classic fin de siècle syndrome of mocking a style that's gone as far as it can go, but I think there are other forces at work as well, some of them basic to understanding why the excesses have proven so popular. That the zombie movie hasn't, in fact, gone as far as it can go seems to be indicated by its continuing ability to produce such wildly inventive films as Peter Jackson's Braindead and even the more conventionally bizarre Death Becomes Her. Moreover, humour has been present almost from the beginning.

7. The Inhuman Comedy

Perhaps the epitome of the pseudo-zombie cum possession film (as discussed last issue) is Sam Raimi's wonderful Evil Dead series. The first in this trilogy indulged in a strain of black gore-comedy which was inherent in much that preceded it, but which had rarely, if ever, been so wantonly elaborated. Clearly gaining inspiration from the energy of Romero's living dead films, rather than from the mythos of them, Evil Dead (1982) places a limited cast in an isolated cabin, releases ancient demons onto them, then splatters blood from wall-to-wall as each corpse is killed and possessed. In retrospect, this first film is more grimly horrific than those that followed, the humour adding to the overall effect of uncontrollable horror. Bruce Campbell's performance is desperate and edgy and the sheer invention of Raimi's technique, albeit low-budgeted, is astonishingly effective in evoking a sense of ancient and inhuman threat, and in painting that threat with blood and gore.

Evil Dead 2, which appeared in 1987, is actually a remake of the first film, not a sequel. Bruce Campbell's character Ash and his girlfriend arrive at the cabin, without reference to 'previous' events, and the whole thing soon starts up again. This time Raimi has a big budget and the display of energetic special effects he presents us with is exhilarating in its intensity. Evil Dead 2 is much funnier than the first film and a real tour de force; the fact that it is also entertaining and involving is a tribute to his skill and imagination. It ends with Ash transported to the past, where the evil began, called upon to act as the legendary hero referred to in the Necronomicon. Like the first, this sequel has minimum plot, but maximum style, energy and technique.

Army of Darkness: Evil Dead 3 (1992), a genuine sequel, starts where 2 ended (though with a revisionist tendency), and propels Ash into a struggle against, as the title suggests, an army of animated corpses. These range from the grotesquely decayed to the skeletal and represent an awesome SFX endeavour. But the film is much less horrific than either of the previous films. Horror elements are still there, but generally the terror has been replaced by a sense of fantastic adventure. Humour abounds, as Raimi indulges his avowed passion for the Three Stooges (as, for example, in the scene where the skeletal arms of the awakening dead engage Ash in an eye-poking, face-twisting, slapstick routine). We are far away from Romero's original inspiration here, however good the movie may be in its own right. Despite a plot element which produces Ash's split-off dark side as the main bad guy, the dead in Army have become merely fantastical rather than grim and are less a vision of humanity at war with itself than fantasy creatures inhabiting an exotic otherworld.

On a conceptual edge between serious and comic horror similar to that occupied by the first Evil Dead film -- though nowhere near as inventive or scary, of course -- is The Boneyard (1990). Moreover, this is one of the few zombie films to actually reflect the difference between a zombie and a ghoul (as discussed in the first part of this series), in that some of its creatures are demonic and do actually feed on corpses (ghouls) and some are re-animated corpses (zombies). The idea is subsumed by a more immediate imperative -- getting the zombies to attack the living protagonists -- but it's there at least in the first instance. The plot puts two policemen investigating a murder/child abuse case, a psychic, attendant staff and a revived suicide victim in a huge soon-to-be-closed-down mortuary along with three ghouls and (eventually) several demonically re-animated corpses. The narrow plot/character range and sense of claustrophobia work well, as they have elsewhere, and some of the carryings-on are bizarrely funny -- though essentially the film plays for suspense rather than laughs (and only occasionally succeeds with either). A big problem is the dodgy, if interesting, make-up FX and the puppet-like nature of the creatures -- too stiff and bug-eyed to be convincing, yet appealing in a way. Phyllis Diller as Poopinplatz, a mortuary overseer, delivers a strung-out version of her standard persona, but it is her poodle, Floofsoms, who steals the show. The dog eats some of the slime left over from the disintegration of a ghoul, gets possessed by the evil spirit that causes the dead to rise, and turns into a gigantic, fluffy, well-groomed poodle-monster, with snarling face and outstretched, zombie-like paws. When the zombie-dog-monster first breaks through the door one of the characters laughs; I can't help thinking that her "you've got to be kidding" gesture was probably, in fact, genuine. Certainly it's a feeling shared by the viewer.

* * *

Living dead humour has produced a range of films from minor spoofs to major horror works such as Raimi's. Tending more to the former are the 'teenage' zombie films: Teenage Zombies (1957), Hard Rock Zombies (1985), I Was a Teenage Zombie (1986) and Zombie High (1987). Some of these take themselves more seriously than others, even if the viewer finds it hard to do likewise; Zombie High, for example, evokes The Stepford Wives (1975) in its depiction of an exclusive, smilingly pleasant school environment that hides a subtle evil -- students who would otherwise bring disgrace to the college are turned into mindless zombies with a will to succeed, in the meantime providing the ageing governors the brain fluid they need to extend their own life beyond its allotted span.

Having satiric intent but lacking much credit even as a spoof is Hard Rock Zombies, a weird, but largely ineffectual, dig at small-town bigotry, in which the heroes -- the members of a touring rock band -- are murdered. They are then resurrected by a young female fan who plays a song based on a voodoo resurrection chant over their grave. The hard rock zombies turn their killers -- Adolf Hitler-in-hiding and some of his henchmen -- into cannibalistic zombies, who spread the effect over half the town. Needless to say, the band performs a final concert and it's a hit with a visiting big-time producer, though unfortunately he gets turned into a zombie too.

Other 'teenage' films variously address specific issues affecting adolescence, such as drugs (as in I Was a Teenage Zombie, where the protagonist returns from the dead to wreak vengeance on a drug-pusher who has also been turned into a zombie through the agency of a nuclear spill), but also provide a sort of metaphor for the awkwardness and existential fears of youth. My Boyfriend's Back (1993), for example, plays the teenage-romance angst bit and gains most of its humour from the sheer nonchalance of the presentation: that is, when the young hero is killed but returns as a zombie so that he can go to the prom with the girl of his passions, everyone accepts this as a matter of course. His girlfriend, committed to him now because of her 'deathbed' promise to go to the prom with him, is less than enthusiastic, especially as all her friends give her a hard time about it ("Aren't you going out with that dead guy?"). Anyway, how much enthusiasm can you have for a lover whose ear comes off it your mouth when you try to nibble it?

Another film, Night Life (1989) is also about teenage zombies -- and is billed as a black comedy, though actually it is a surprisingly effective horror thriller, albeit one with a sense of humour. In it, a group of dead upper crust hoodlums rise from death to harass a young mortuary attendant -- snobbish dead against working-class battler. There are some gruesome bits (for example, the mortician getting blown up -- in both senses -- with an airhose), some effective zombie sequences, an extended chase scene at the climax, and acting and atmosphere that are better than might be expected. The film is little known and undoubtedly minor, but is certainly worth the effort.

Looked at with a slight squint, zombies are funny, farcical creatures, clumsy and socially inept. Elements of zombie farce were present as early as 1945, in Zombies on Broadway, for example, in which a pair of promoters seek out zombies in order to put on a Broadway musical. Funny-scary comedies of the Abbot and Costello Meets ... type and Ghost Breakers (1940) sometimes included a zombie or two, and modern farces such as Weekend at Bernie's 2 (1993) and Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town (1989) carry on the tradition. This latter is in the Troma vein of over-the-top horror exploitation flicks, and is about the Cycle Sluts -- biker gals who arrive in town Wild One fashion, only the town is dominated by an evil undertaker who creates zombies to work the mines, in a plot device reminiscent of various films from White Zombie and Plague of the Zombies to Dead and Buried. The Sluts proceed to clean the place out. The film is generally well-made (much more appealing than your average Troma release), and even includes a song or two.

But if a zombie musical is what you're after, Nudist Colony of the Dead (1991) -- supposed by the blurb on the video case to be in the tradition of The Little Shop of Horrors and Michael Jackson's Thriller -- is as classy as its title leads you to expect. A fanatical group of nudists commit suicide when they are driven from their land by the town's religious zealots. But they emerge from their graves whenever their rest is disturbed by the presence of Christian youths on retreat at the camp built on the site, Camp Cutchaguzzout. Though cheap, often static and poorly paced, filmed on lousy stock, with bad jokes and cheesy acting, it does include some jolly songs, some humorous moments and silly gore. Its amateurish qualities and unsophisticated approach to its own tastelessness are part of the ambience of the thing, I guess. At heart, it's fairly innocent, as indicated by the fact that, though it's about nudists, the zombies are modestly covered by rags (apart from a bare breast or two). Old-time horror fan guru, Forrest J. Ackerman, plays the judge who rules that the nudists must leave their land. Even allowing for poor film technique, the movie never exploits its own premise, let alone the traditions of the zombie sub-genre. This particular failing is a common one.

Ed and His Dead Mother (1992), though more professional (it's produced by Sean Cunningham, the creator of the Friday the 13th series), also suffers from a limitation of vision. It has its moments, however, and does manage an effective nod or two toward traditional zombie themes -- often in a pleasantly bizarre manner. The story goes like this: a year after the event Ed Chilton still can't come to terms with his mother's death. His obsession attracts the attention of the Happy People Corporation, in the person of their top salesman, who offers to give Ed back his mother -- for a price. Re-animation of the dead is a growth industry apparently, with the Japanese already working on "home re-animation software". Anyway, the price is relatively cheap, despite the appalling condition of Ed's mother's corpse. So Ed coughs up the money and soon his mother is fussing around the house again. But all is not well. Soon the household turns weird, there's blood and gore in abundance (depicted in a too-restrained manner, however) and Ed wants his mom dead again. Basically, the film has some fun with the serious Pet Semetary business of foolishly wanting the dead back, and combines it with big-business paranoia. But it cops out overall, never going quite as far as it should, let alone too far -- and going too far is, let's face it, one of the primary characteristics of the zombie genre's best works.

The Video Dead (1987), as well as taking a different slant on zombies, is a satire of both zombie films and the influence of television. The story concerns a rather strange television set, which appears to show only one channel and that channel runs only a zombie movie called "Zombie Blood Massacre". Moreover, even unplugging the set won't stop the movie from playing. The film on the TV shows typical Romeroesque zombies shuffling through a wooded area; suddenly one of them turns to the camera and reaches out. Next thing you know four living dead characters have emerged into the real world, where they proceed to cause havoc, often gruesome. The hero, a teenage boy, sets about trying to stop them and the result is severed limbs, chainsaw massacre and much running about screaming. In general the film's approach is one of farce, though there is a dark and often vicerally nasty undercurrent. Typical is a scene where one of the zombies attacks a woman in her kitchen; she grabs the nearest weapon -- in this case an iron -- and slams it into the zombie's skull. Unfortunately this doesn't stop the creature, which looks puzzled for a moment, kills her, then walks around for the rest of the movie with the iron firmly buried in its head.

The House movies -- or at least the first two of them -- take a similarly farcical approach to the dead. House is generally more gruesome and more effectively scary than its 'sequel' (which isn't a sequel at all, except in spirit, as it were). Here the dead Vietnam vet out for revenge is a wonderfully comic-book creation, with his skeletal and decaying gauntness used to good effect. In House 2, the zombies (the hero's great-great grandfather and the man he'd murdered back in the old west) are similarly comic-book, the great-great grandfather more like a dead version of Jed Clappett than anything else. Again the SFX and make-up are very good -- much better than the movie as a whole -- and the scene where the hero blows away the bad guy's head, bit by bit, is nicely done, spoilt only by the somewhat anticlimactic and unconvincing nature of the following scenes.

Also farcical is C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud (1989), which has nothing to do with the much more horrific C.H.U.D. This non-sequel is something of a show-piece for actor Gerrit Graham. His depiction of the comic zombie, Bud, is often physically hilarious, at its best adroitly slapstick -- though the movie itself is as flat as a tack. Bud's general appearance, the loose, barely-coordinated stumble of his movement and his cannibalistic tendencies are on a direct line from Romero's more fearsome creations.

More recently Robert Zemeckis, of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Back to the Future fame (not to mention Forrest Gump), made a quirkily black-hearted, big-budget excursion into living dead territory with Death Becomes Her (1992). This 'basic black comedy' does not appear to be a zombie movie at first, but in fact by midway through the movie both the female leads are dead -- the Meryl Streep character from falling downstairs and breaking her neck and Goldie Hawn's thwarted ex-lover from having a hole blown through her stomach with a rifle. Here, mortality in the form of loss of youth is at issue, so that a formula guaranteed to make you young and keep you that way seems like an attractive proposition. Unfortunately, there are consequences. The formula does not regenerate bodily damage after death, so that though the Streep and Hawn characters live on, their bodies become increasingly tatty. In the end they trip down stairs and are smashed to pieces -- though those pieces still want to know where the car is parked. Here Zemeckis addresses the fear of mortality, laughing sceptically at our desire to "screw the natural law". The film is unusual because it is a big budget Hollywood headliner, but still manages to be quite blackly quirky. Some of the SFX are stunning.

Perhaps the most popular, and successful, comic interpretation of the Romero zombie tradition is Return of the Living Dead (1985). Written and directed by Dan O'Bannon, Return, even in its title, makes obvious reference to Romero's original classic. Canisters containing bodies reputed to have been part of a 'walking dead' scare sometime in the past (one of the characters even makes direct reference to Night of the Living Dead) lie in the bowels of a cadaver supply factory. One is accidentally opened and the corpse inside emerges -- along with a gas which revives, grotesquely, the partial bodies in the factory. There's even half a dog (cut long-ways) which comes alive. The main characters eventually chop up the squirming remains and burn them in the adjacent crematorium. The smoke of their burning rises into the night sky but then falls back to earth when it rains, dribbling into the graves and setting the wheels of zombie revivification in motion. The next thing you know there's corpses rising everywhere, cannibalistically intent on eating the brains of the living, as only thus is the pain of death eased for them. While much of the film is played for laughs, it works too as a straight-on horror movie, with some scary scenes, effective zombie make-up (in all stages of decay) and plenty of suspense.

The sequel (1988) moved even further toward farce, comic elements of the situation being emphasised ("I'm not into dead guys," says one young woman to her living dead boyfriend). It is an amusing enough film, though considerably less effective than the first, taking a far too camp approach to its subject matter. A second sequel, not yet released here (and apparently not going to be, theatrically anyway) but enthusiastically anticipated as being even better than the first film and extremely gory to boot, takes a stab at a 'zombie love story'. Interestingly, the 'lead' zombie is a beautiful, if nihilistic, young woman, who perpetually disfigures herself punk-fashion, as only such simulated pain allows her to fool herself that she is alive.

As an aside, there's a typically splendid Simpsons episode which contains a great zombie sequence as part of that season's Halloween special. In a misguided attempt to bring back their dead cat, Bart and Lisa read the wrong incantation and raise the dead instead. As in Return of the Living Dead, these zombies want brains. When they break into the Simpsons' house, Homer yells: "Leave my family! Take me instead!", but, after pausing to consider the offer, the zombies stumble past him still crying "Brains! Brains!", much to Homer's annoyance. Or the great moment where Ned Flanders, now dead, comes toward the Simpsons, only to be shot in the head by Homer. "You shot the zombie Ned Flanders!" yells Bart. "He was a zombie?" Homer says in surprise. As usual, the creators of The Simpsons show that they understand the object of their satire well. If you can, it's certainly worth seeking this one out.

But back to the movies. Director of the first Return of the Living Dead, Dan O'Bannon, also made The Resurrected (1991), a darkly humorous mad scientist opus based on H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward". It is in the tradition of Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (Stuart Gordon, 1986), full of grotesque humour and visceral imagery. Its monstrosities -- the distorted remains of dead people revitalised through an obscure evolutionary process -- are many and varied, and like many modern living dead movies, the film relies heavily on complex make-up, and prosthetic and animatronic effects.

Though low-budget, Blood Diner (1987) manages to be both amusing and bloodily inventive. Made as a follow-up to H.G. Lewis' influential Blood Feast, Blood Diner is actually much gorier and much funnier than its more infamous inspiration, even though (or perhaps because) it replicates many of the earlier film's ideas. A pair of brothers, worshippers of the goddess of blood and lust, Sheetar, open a diner as a front for their bloody quest to incarnate their goddess in the flesh. Led by a homicidal relative -- a disembodied brain in a jar, sporting a pair of eyes on stalks and an impatient turn of phrase -- the Brothers butcher young ladies (including a squadron of naked aerobic dancers) in order to prepare a special feast. At the climax, the body they've patched together for Sheetar comes alive, while various members of the crowd eat the soup and turn into zombies. It's excessive, often funny, and delightfully messy.

Also messy, but less funny, is Redneck Zombies (1987), a British-made low budget, filmed-on-video comedy about a bunch of hillbillies who are turned into zombies through the agency of a batch of moonshine contaminated by toxic waste. Often quite humorous, it suffers from a typical failure to keep things moving -- especially when acting, effects and script leave a little to be desired. Its exuberance is winning though; it's just a pity that once again the film promises much more than it delivers, as is too often the way with low-budget gore comedies.

To date, however, the two goriest post-Romero/Fulci zombie films are also two of the most audaciously funny horror movies ever made, Re-Animator (1985) and Braindead (1992). Re-Animator, directed by Stuart Gordon, is a fabulous Grand Guignol gorefest based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, though offering little of Lovecraft's peculiar atmosphere. It chronicles the experiments of medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) into the re-animation of dead tissue. Complications of love in the life of West's room-mate and accomplice, and jealousy on the part of West's superiors, result in a chaos of revivification, as dead people begin a blood-splattered dance of death through the corridors of the morgue. A favourite scene is the one where West's decapitated enemy, Dr Hill -- holding his head in his outstretched hands -- approaches the naked heroine with lascivious intent, giving new meaning to the phrase 'a head job'. The film is outrageous and audacious and very well done. Its humour, never patronising or self-mocking, enhances the horror and makes it an unique experience. A sequel (1990), directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, takes the premise even further, filling the movie with 'doodles in flesh' which West has pieced together in idle moments and re-animated using his magic green substance. This movie, however, owes more to Whale's Bride of Frankenstein than to Romero, with a dose of Freaks thrown in.

No one guessed, given the levels of bloodshed that films like this and those of Romero, Fulci and Gordon had brought to the screen, that anyone could ever take the gore factor much further. Then in 1992 New Zealand director Peter Jackson (known for his outrageously funny alien-invasion film Bad Taste -- which also contains zombies -- and the puppet extravaganza Meet the Feebles) released a film he had been struggling to finance for many years. It was going to be 'the ultimate zombie movie' and in the event proved to be just that, at least from some perspectives. Braindead (retitled Dead Alive for US distribution) is an unbelievably exuberant flight of zombie fantasy that is so outrageously gory that it makes what preceded it seem rather restrained. The story, set in New Zealand in the 1950s, concerns a monkey-rat, brought into the local zoo, which is infected by a nasty disease that causes death and zombification in those it bites. In fact it bites the somewhat repressed hero's mother, who then dies -- but not quite. Soon her corpse becomes rather violent, while going to pieces physically, and the hero is forced to lock her up in the cellar. Others follow. Then, about halfway through the film, the zombies are loosed into a huge crowd of people whom the hero's uncle has invited to the house for a party -- and it's all on for young and old. Soon only the hero and his newly acquired girlfriend are still alive, and staying that way becomes a distinct problem. In the end, the hero deals with the zombies using a lawnmover.

The last half hour of the film is an absolute bloodbath and what happens to the zombies takes the concept of zombified flesh to an extreme. All the bits remain alive: the top half of a head which has been sliced off by a spade (in a reference to Romero's Day of the Dead) spends the rest of the movie getting kicked around the polished and increasingly bloody floor, blinking wistfully at the goings-on; one character's torso is eaten away, but the rest of the body, connected to the head by its spinal column, still waddles around the room; another zombie, cut in half, spills its guts onto the floor, and those guts then proceed to take on a homicidal life of their own. You get the idea. It's extreme -- but astonishingly well done and hilariously funny too, and Jackson showed considerable bravery in determinedly making a film that was doomed to receive only minor theatrical release, despite a reasonable budget. Braindead won several film awards in Europe and received rave reviews everywhere, but Hoyts in Sydney choose to screen it during the day, largely unheralded, for only a week, afterwards relegating it to a short run of midnight showings. When I rang up to find out about it, the person on the desk commented in explanation that the film was excessive and implied that only very sick people would want to see it. The Valhalla (a small 'art' cinema in Glebe) ran the film at a 9 pm session for a few weeks. Presumably most people (sick or otherwise) had to wait for the video release.

Braindead is an excellent horror movie, though it isn't in fact very horrifying. Gross, yes, yucky, yes -- but scary? No, not really. This being the case, what exactly does it do? Like many modern horror films, made in an age when advances to SFX technology mean that almost anything can be convincingly recreated on the screen, Braindead is full of the most outrageous images, and is, as the Hoyts receptionist pointed out, quite gorily excessive. If the purpose of the horror film is to horrify (in the sense of scaring the viewer), then Braindead probably fails. Some people, perhaps, would find it horrifying, or at least they would find the concept of making such a film at all horrifying. But there's really little chance that anyone's going to confuse what's happening in Braindead with what happens in reality, or relate it to their own experience in any direct way. So what is the main underlying drive of this 'ultimate zombie movie'?

Like many films of its ilk, I think that Braindead deals with mortality by mocking mortal flesh. With great irreverence, Jackson in his film subjects the human body to the most undignified and disrespectful treatment, turning it into a grotesque parody of itself. Perhaps thereby he takes the hex off it. We're still going to die, but for a moment, at least, the concept of not dying is too ludicrous to worry about. We may not get the last laugh, but some irreverent fun can be had along the way.

 

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