How The Zombie-Comedy Became The Ultimate Genre For Our Times

Bill Murray gets zombified in 'Zombieland.' (Columbia Pictures)

Remember in 2009's Zombieland, when the gang went to Bill Murray's house to get some rest, only to find him alive and well and in full zombie make-up? And then, after some casual Ghostbusters cos-play, Columbus confused Murray for a real zombie and accidentally killed him? Not only was it probably the greatest cameo in recent movie memory, but in the process of filming it, the real-life Murray apparently also got bitten by the zombie bug.

This year, not only is he re-appearing as himself in the Zombieland sequel, Murray is also starring in The Dead Don't Die, alongside Selena Gomez, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi and Adam Driver. As zombie reckonings go, this one—written and directed by Jim Jarmusch—looks particularly epic.

That Bill Murray is showing up in two zombie-comedies this year isn't particularly surprising, all things considered. This very niche but unrelentingly popular movie category has had an unstoppable run since Shaun of the Dead ambled onto our screens in 2004. Like Simon Pegg's TV show Spaced before it, Shaun blended action and dry humor with smart references to old movies (Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead and directors John Landis and Lucio Fulci all got nods). Along the way, the film accidentally invented a new genre—the zom-com (although, technically, it called itself a "rom-zom-com").

Long before Shaun, horror lovers had known the joy of combining the undead with comedy. It started in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead, a zombie horror movie that used bouts of humor to break the tension. Three years later, American Werewolf in London followed Dead's example, using Jack—David's slowly rotting, undead best friend—almost entirely as a vehicle for comic relief. 1985's Return of the Living Dead, '88's Return of the Living Dead Pt. 2 and 1992's Dead Alive (a Peter Jackson movie!) were all self-consciously ridiculous—more farce than frightening.

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At their core though, zombie films were always intended to be the thinking person's horror sub-category. Night of the Living Dead was about racism in America; Dawn of the Dead was about capitalism run amok; World War Z was about governments made ineffectual by their own bureaucracy. Zombie horror audiences were never just watching for the blood and the brains—the movies always meant something more.

Zom-coms, then, are the logical end-point for horror audiences in the post-modern age. These days, audiences have become too worldly for a straight-forward horror allegory and need horror movies to acknowledge that monsters are a bit silly. When zom-com movie characters retain their eye-rolling calm in the face of gory catastrophe, they are serving as an extension of the audience's own cynicism. It's why Aubrey Plaza was the perfect person to star in Life After Beth.

The key to the success of every good zom-com is the juxtaposition of horrific circumstances and everyday mundanity. Movies like ZombielandWarm Bodies, Cockneys Vs Zombies and Anna And The Apocalypse, as well as TV shows like iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet (Netflix is never getting forgiven for canceling that last one), all use that combination to achieve both humor and tension. The amalgamation not only gives these movies a semblance of relatable everyday ordinariness sometimes lacking in traditional horror, but it also acts as a metaphor for how huge catastrophes beyond our control sometimes land on us at home, where we are supposed to be safest.

Professor Sara Sutler-Cohen writes: "What recent filmic incarnations of the Zombie tell us is that we must micromanage our lives as the mysterious (or not so) veil of death is lifted, and the stench of rot surrounds us... Zombified humor continues to be refined today, the terror of the possibility of a life with the roaming dead has once again morphed and the joke is seated comfortably in the possibility that a future with Zombies just might be real."

In an age of sharp divisions and of overarching, exhausted cynicism, the zom-com offers us a guidebook on what to do when the worst happens. Part of the appeal is in how disarmingly attainable the solution is: carry on, roll with the punches, and, when the worst does happen, find humor by any means necessary.

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