Zomedy – Dark Humour of the Undead Kind
by Chantal Boudreau
Zombies are funny. They may be gross, frightening and tragic, but there is still something ridiculous about them, something that makes you hold back a laugh when you should be shocked or terrified. You’ll find amusing events in even some of the goriest, angst-ridden zombie stories, usually for the sake of comic relief and to give viewers or readers a moment to catch their breath. In some cases, like “Fido” and “Zombieland”, the entire premise of the tale is based upon dark comedy, with a variety of images of zombies doing crazy things, or constant references to silly but effective rules created to address the dangers of the apocalypse. In the more dramatic movies, it may be just the odd moment, like when the people shooting zombies from the roof in “Dawn of the Dead” identify the zombies as celebrities like Burt Reynolds.
Zombies have always made me laugh and when I started writing zombie stories, I found humour leaching into my writing in one form or another. My first story featured a woman feeding brains to her undead husband with a pool hook, a visual that always makes me smile. Zomedy has become an accepted term to describe a zombie spoof, or comedic zombie film, but I think the humour of zombies goes beyond the obvious laughs and the campy (a la “Weekend at Bernie’s II”). I thought it might be interesting to look at the more common tools of zomedy, both in written and cinematic comedic forms as well as in those genre pieces intended to offer a more serious approach to the undead. I’ve come up with a dozen that are prevalent and easily identifiable:
A good pun is the true essence of humour; even a bad one will at least elicit a chuckle or a groan. Titles of zombie movies and stories are notorious for using puns. One of the classic zomedies, “Shaun of the Dead,” used a pun in its title as a humorous way of paying homage to the legendary George Romero. This tool is even more prominent in the written zombie genre, at least in the aspect of a good play on words. One example of this is “Married with Zombies” by Jesse Petersen, with sequels “Flip This Zombie” and “Eat, Slay, Love.” Not only does it capture the domestic element of the zombie stories, it also links the stories to items in current culture.
Another tactic used to lighten the mood in genre books and movies is the inclusion of zombie animals. I discovered after writing my novelette, “Shear Terror”, that there was a movie from New Zealand with a similar theme called “Black Sheep”, one involving crazy evil scientists, a wealthy farmer, animal rights activists, a man with an ovine phobia and a combination of zombies and lycanthropes (in this case were-sheep). While the humour was cheesy in places, the gory zombie sheep attack scenes were so bizarre that they were down-right hilarious, perhaps because sheep are typically non-aggressive, so the attacks were totally uncharacteristic. Then again, perhaps it was because sheep already have a herd mentality so becoming a zombie throng just seemed so fitting.
Zombie dogs are the most common animals in zombie movies, with “Resident Evil” and “I Am Legend” immediately springing to mind, but they don’t tend to tap into that humorous element, likely because people are more attached to dogs in general, and they can be very frightening without being undead. The comedy comes from the unexpected, like the deer in “Slither”, another example of a zombie animal behaving in an uncharacteristic manner. And then there are the animals that are just funny to begin with, like cows, who are popular humorous zombies in the gaming world as well as in movies like” Dead Meat.” There is even a very funny zombie cow scene in A. Lee Martinez’s book, “Gil’s All Fright Diner.”
Let’s face it, the walking dead are hardly coordinated, at least the shamblers aren’t, and they can take damage and still keep moving in ways a normal living human couldn’t. The physical malleability of zombies makes them a prime candidate for slapstick. Throw them down the stairs so that their head ends up backwards or blow a gaping hole in their torso, and they keep on going, like in “Death Becomes Her.” Apologize severely for breaking their ankle in the door, only to have them limp hungrily after you, like in “Zombieland.” The possibilities for his type of humour are endless. This is the true form of zomedy however, and you are less likely to see a version of this in a dramatic zombie flick. It does not translate easily to the written page, either. This is one of the cheapest forms of humour going, and while some movies like “Zombieland” apply it sparingly and appropriately, it is one of the fallback forms of comedy that the low budget zombie movies resort to for cheap laughs.
No proper zomedy exists without at least one or two stinging one-liners, “Evil Dead II” and “Army of Darkness” are rife with them, but you can find the occasional witty and sarcastic zinger in even the hardest and nastiest of zombie tales. The one-liner is as much a weapon as it is a method of adding humour to the scene. It captures the real personality of the character speaking it in a few short words, it sometimes rebuffs a snide remark made by a lesser antagonistic character, or serves as a coup de gras when the hero has just conquered the enemy. For example, the one-liners from Columbus in “Zombieland” are self-deprecating, but amusing nonetheless, whereas Tallahassee’s zingers are cool and over-confident. Some critics see them as cliché or gratuitous, but I see the one-liners as a staple of the genre.
Zombie fighters with funny obsessions
Speaking of characters, it is usually the unruly and often unsophisticated survivors in the zombie apocalypse who are at the root of most of the humour. Some of us can sympathize with their quirky yet familiar traits, and we are laughing as much as ourselves as we are at the characters. Perhaps there is something about being particularly driven that has allowed these characters to survive in the first place, and it contributes to their appeal. I added that obsessive element to my veteran ranch-hand, Rudy, in my tale “What a Man’s Gotta Do.” The thing he craves would likely surprise you, but it is no stranger than Tallahassee’s yearning for Twinkies in “Zombieland.” The heroes’ obsessions with things like video games or zombie movies often give them the kind of knowledge they need to hunt and fight zombies in the first place – a suggestion that it will be those on the fringes of society who could end up rising to the top when all goes to pot.
Over-the-top zombie hunters
Every zombie story seems to have a character who is at least a little crazy, or who has a personality so loud you have to laugh in response to their antics. The true zomedies take that one step further and either all of the characters match that description (e,g, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland”), or there is a character so outrageous that the humour is built entirely around them, like Ash, in the “Evil Dead” series. Then there are those in possession of some unbelievable trait, perhaps something like a gun serving as a prosthetic leg like in “Planet Terror.” You don’t get much more over-the-top than that.
Characters in zombie books are no different. Jenni, one of the female protagonists, earns the nickname “Loca” from one of the other characters in Rhiannon Frater’s “The First Days” because she is crazy, albeit in a likable way. Witnessing the death of her children at the hands of her once abusive, zombie spouse is enough to drive the victimized woman over the edge. Although she recovers from a near catatonic state, she is never quite normal after that. She takes a perverse pleasure in picking off zombies with her gun, and the image of her swinging wildly over a group of zombies to play bait for the kill is one that makes you shake your head and grin.
Laughing in the face of sure doom
There is a scene in “Dead Snow” where the characters are facing down swarms of Nazi zombies and they resign themselves to defeat but with an edge of humour, intending to take as many with them as they can. These scenes are commonplace in zombie films and sometimes in books, where characters realize that they are about to be overwhelmed, but instead of panicking or becoming morose, they grin and lash out, prepared to die fighting. This resolve is admirable, but at the same time, funny. It’s a heroic gesture, but a crazy one too. You laugh with them as they fall, drawing satisfaction that they weren’t truly defeated, at least on a spiritual level. The humour in this act sometimes comes from a sense of irony in written works, as those falling to the zombies contemplate their fate and find something oddly amusing about their situation.
Another comedic plot device in the zombie genre is where people are unwilling to let go of friends and loved ones after they have turned, and find ridiculous ways to cling to them after the fact. They tie or chain them somewhere, and perhaps even allow them to play video games, as in “Shaun of the Dead.” This is one of the darkest forms of zomedy, since many people can relate to the idea of not being willing to let go of a loved one or close friend who has died and risen again. Woman writers in particular seem to be drawn to this type of black humour, the comedy present because the viewer or reader can recognize that the zombie is nothing like the living person, but blinded by love and a sense of dedication, the character cannot see this.
Random zombie pieces in odd places
Dismembered zombie bits are plentiful in genre movies and books, but the humour comes when they end up in odd places, or take on an undead life of their own. Some might suggest that the movie Idle Hands is an example of this, although others might argue that they are more like hands possessed as opposed to undead hands. Nevertheless, there’s something just plain goofy about a lone finger or toe wriggling along all by itself, or a single eye peering at you from some unexpected place. Viral zombies generally don’t exhibit this type of behaviour since they are subject to the “head shot” rule, but the supernatural ones often persist beyond amputation, as do ones reanimated by scientific means. The Re-Animator has various body parts scuttling around independently, in one of those instances where the head shot does not necessarily signal the end for a zombie. It’s creepy but funny, reminding us that zombies are definitely no longer human.
Zombies doing non-zombie things
Witnessing zombies doing things that should be reserved to living breathing humans is equally funny, also because they lack something essentially human and we are reminded of that by their shallow and obviously forced charades. In “Fido,” and a select number of short stories, the power of the zombie has been enslaved to benefit mankind, and they are recruited to do the mindless drudge work that most people don’t want to do. The zombies of “Fido” are controlled by a special technology, a collar that keeps them in check, and owning a zombie servant becomes a status symbol because of the expense involved – an amusing notion. Some people even use their zombie servants to service their romantic or sexual needs – gross, but hilarious. The same type of humour is evident in the spoof “Zombie Strippers!”, another case of zombies doing people work with a “ha ha” factor along with the “ew” factor.
Tales from the zombie’s point of view
You would expect this kind of story to be sad, or just disgusting, but sometimes it is the lack of understanding on the part of the protagonist, or their state of denial, that brings in that component of dark humour. In some instances, a story like this is so well-woven that it even draws on the sympathies of the readers, like the funny tale of a handicapped zombie in the story “The Hungriest Zombie”. His state is pitiful, but laughable, and by the end of the tale you are rooting for his success. “Ahh, Zombies!” presents this concept from a cinematic approach, a quirky but amusing zomedy. There are entire zombie memoirs out there, and even *ugh* paranormal romances centred on zombies. I don’t think I could keep a straight face while reading one of those.
And finally, truly the zomedy piece de resistance, there is the familiar catchphrase or trademark cry of the zombie – brains! This hungry plea can be found in practically every proper zomedy out there, such as “Return of the Living Dead,” and can also be heard uttered by a zombie Homer Simpson in one of the classic Simpsons Halloween episodes. This groaned demand is not reserved for strictly humorous fare. It sometimes serves as a moment of comedy relief in the more dramatic genre works, a chance for the viewer or reader to have that breather before returning to more serious and frightening things.
These are probably the most common comedic tales used in the zombie genre, but there are a plethora of others, many of them original and darkly delightful. They all tend to serve similar purposes – defining the protagonists and making them seem human and likable despite the fact that they are blowing away one zombie after another, allowing for a break in the action and tension so the viewer/reader can recover from the violence and gore before charging in for more, or even allowing the viewer/reader to distance themselves from the story altogether so they can grasp the “bigger picture” often a particular social or cultural message. The best way to get a proper sample of exactly what’s out there is to explore a variety of zomedies that the genre offers and to observe the assortment of black humour first hand.
Aside from being a long-time fan of the zombie genre via books, movies and now TV, Chantal Boudreau began her existence as a published author with a zombie short story named “Palliative” in an anthology called “Vampires, Zombies and Ghosts – Oh My!” published by Notreebooks. This was followed by the publication of several other zombie shorts: “Just Another Day”, “Waking the Dead”, “Escarg-0”, “Life and Undeath on the Chain Gang,” and “One Lonely Night” in the May December Publications’ anthologies “First Time Dead, Volume 1”, “Hell Hath No Fury” (all women writers), “Zero”, “Zombie Lockdown” and “Let’s Scare Cancer to Death” as well as “What a Man’s Gotta Do” in the anthology “Undead Tales” from Rymfire Books and “Deadline” in the anthology “Zombie Buffet” from Open Casket Press. She has done extensive research for her blog series “Chantelly’s Field Guide to Zombies” and a non-fiction article on Zomedy – the dark humour in zombie fiction. She is currently shopping a full zombie novel, Sleep Escapes Us, set in ancient Thrace and involving the myths surrounding the death god, Zalmoxis.