Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.
It’s always been my opinion that the two hardest kinds of movies to make are horror films and comedies. This is mostly because they appear so deceptively simple. Both forms tend to rely on numerous tropes and formulas, which is probably why so many young filmmakers try to work in these fields at the start of their careers – and often fail miserably.
Yet, if horror and comedy are challenging genres to conquer on their own, how much harder is it when you combine them? Significantly so in my estimation, but that hasn’t stopped countless filmmakers from trying to merge the two forms over the years.
The latest attempt is Cockneys vs. Zombies, filmmaker Matthias Hoene’s loving ode to the plucky spirit of London’s East Enders and ever burgeoning zombie-film subgenre. This entertaining zombie comedy is often described as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels meets Shaun of the Dead. It’s a pretty accurate assessment.
The laughs and the gore are delivered in equal measure in Hoene’s film that finds two slackers (Harry Treadaway and Rasmus Hardiker) robbing a bank to save their grandfather's (Alan Ford) nursing home from demolition. Unfortunately, in the middle of their half-baked scheme, the zombie apocalypse happens.
Cockneys vs. Zombies manages to avoid the pitfalls that ruin so many other horror comedies – it keeps a respectable balance between the laughs and the gore, for starters. One never overwhelms the other – even if there’s nary a genuinely “scary” moment in the entire feature.
Hoene’s film’s ability to strike this balance puts it in some pretty rarified air, and the film would work perfectly as part of a double feature with several other zombie comedies. Which zombie comedies, you might be wondering? These zombie comedies.
Night of the Creeps
If you looked up “cult classic” in the dictionary, there should be a still shot of Tom Atkins starring as Detective Ray Cameron in Fred Dekker’s 1986 zombie comedy. Cameron’s the grizzled cop working alongside college kid Chris (Jason Lively) to stop an alien invasion that finds parasites taking over humans and turning them into zombielike monsters.
Filled with classic lines of dialogue, an unforgettable performance from the underrated Atkins, and a low-fi charm that’s all but absent from today’s films, Night of the Creeps is a blast for casual viewers who can simply enjoy it on its own merits and for hard-core horror geeks who will have a great time picking up on all the nods and winks to other films and genre luminaries. If you’ve never seen this minor classic before, now’s the time.
Return of the Living Dead
Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead is one of the earlier zombie comedies to emerge in the wake of George Romero’s reviving of the genre, and it’s every bit as entertaining today as the films that inspired it.
Featuring unforgettable performances from Clu Gulager, James Karen and Thom Matthews, RotLD is another entry that manages to nail the balance between laughs and gross-out moments. When Karen’s Frank tries to impress Matthews’ Freddy, he unwittingly unleashes a toxic gas that turns people into zombies. It’s a fight for survival – with hilarious results – from that moment on.
RotLD not only demonstrated that zombie comedies could work, it also expanded on Romero’s mythos by being the first film to mention that the walking dead had a very specific hankering for human brains. Romero often gets the credit for that, but O’Bannon’s film actually made the skull meat the zombie’s meal of choice.
Also interesting is that the film was based on a novel by Romero partner John Russo, and O’Bannon took over directing after Tobe Hooper bailed to make Lifeforce. O’Bannon reworked the script to make it a comedy and set it apart from Romero’s features. Seems like a brilliant choice in retrospect.
Horror has always been something of a niche genre, so it’s not surprising that many of the great horror comedies have been smaller indie films. However, Hollywood did take a crack at making its very own zombie comedy back in 2009, and the result, Zombieland, actually turned out well.
Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg star as unlikely partners navigating the postzombie-apocalypse landscape in this amusing addition to the subgenre. They eventually encounter sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) and even meet up with a nonundead Bill Murray on their cross-country trek to find an amusement park that’s allegedly free of zombies.
Zombieland did solid business at the box office and rumors abounded that a sequel would happen. That hasn’t come to pass, and an attempt to turn the film into a television series (the pilot aired on Amazon, which passed on moving ahead with a full run of episodes) appears deader than the film’s monsters at this point.
Horror icon H.P. Lovecraft was not known for his sense of humor – his tales of the macabre featured elder gods like Cthulhu that were so horrific that the mere sight of them drove men insane – but the author’s 1922 short story Herbert West: Re-Animator spawned one of the most amusing films on the this list.
Granted, director Stuart Gordon changed Lovecraft’s tale considerably in his screen version, but the changes work, as Re-Animator has a well-earned cult reputation amongst horror geeks.
The story of quirky medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs – who used the part to turn himself into a cult icon) whose plans to reanimate the dead go horribly wrong seamlessly blends gore and humor into a heady concoction that wil often leave you wondering if you should be laughing or puking. Veteran scream queen Barbara Crampton and actors Bruce Abbott and David Gale (the latter spending a huge portion of the film as a disembodied head) costar, but it’s Combs who steals the show.
Re-Animator proved to be so popular that it launched a franchise of films chronicling West’s adventures, along with rumors (that never came to fruition) of a television series.
Michele Soavi’s last horror film (the director still works in his native Italy, but has found himself plying his craft in other genres in recent years) isn’t a straight comedy – it’s a meditation on life, death, love and the meaning of it all with zombies mixed in – but it’s beautiful and hilarious in equal measures.
Rupert Everett stars as Francisco Dellamorte – the keeper of the Buffalora Cemetery. Francisco and his partner Gnaghi’s lives change forever when the dead start rising from their graves – but rather than alert the authorities, the duo just keep killing the reanimated corpses and putting them back in the ground so they don’t lose their jobs.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot of Soavi’s film (which was inspired by the popular Dylan Dog comic series) because it’s a movie better experienced cold. Soavi’s classic zombie flick is arguably my favorite living-dead film of all time (it’s a close race between Cemetery Man and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) and it should have ushered in another golden age of Italian horror films. That didn’t happen, but you can still find the movie on DVD and see what you missed.
Warning: Trailer is NOT SAFE FOR WORK
Shaun of the Dead
Edgar Wright’s zombie comedy is largely responsible for not only the plethora of zombie comedies to come out in recent years, but for helping this entire zombie-film renaissance gain legs in the first place.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are a couple of slackers forced to become heroes when the dead start walking the Earth, and while they’re not really cut out for the gig, they give it their best effort anyway.
Shaun of the Dead skews a bit more to the comedy side of the ledger than horror, but Wright clearly has a keen understanding of zombie cinema’s tropes and finds ways to subvert them while making us giggle in the process. Pegg and Frost make it all work as the two lovable losers, and the film’s only real flaw is an abrupt, and seemingly out of place, tonal shift in the final act that makes things unexpectedly serious.
Don’t let that turn you off, though – this trio is magical when they work together, and this is where it all really started.
Before Peter Jackson became synonymous with hobbits and rings, the filmmaker was better known for making gory low-budget films. The director’s Bad Taste is still beloved in cult-film circles, but he really reached his peak with his 1992 zombie comedy Dead Alive.
The film, which features another unlikely hero (Timothy Balme) forced into action when people start turning into monsters (started with a single bite from an infected Sumatran rat monkey), is one of the goriest movies ever made. Jackson spares no expense on his fake-blood budget and the gags (both the jokes and the gross bits) come fast and furious in this one.
Boasting a kung-fu priest (“I kick arse for the lord!”), a zombie baby, and the most inventive use of a lawnmower deck ever, it’s clear that you’re not supposed to take Dead Alive all that seriously, but dismembering monsters has never been quite so much fun.