When Woody Harrelson received a copy of the screenplay for “Zombieland” last year, he stuffed it into his duffel bag of unread scripts and promptly forgot about it.
Even after his agent started pestering him, Harrelson couldn’t be bothered to dig it out and have a look.
“I just thought ‘It’s a zombie movie; it’s gotta be stupid,’” the actor says. But Harrelson changed his mind when he finally read “Zombieland,” in which he plays one of four survivors of a plague that turns the United States into a country overrun by the flesh-eating undead.
And even though Harrelson describes his experience on the set as wonderfully collaborative and fun, he still had doubts about the finished film. “When I went to see the movie at a screening in Orange County, I was really worried it was going to be terrible, because you never know,” he says, chuckling. “But I was delighted. It turned out great. I’m really jazzed about it.”
Harrelson’s concerns are understandable. For every halfway-decent zombie flick, there are two dozen others so wretched and lame you probably have never heard of them. Within the horror genre, only slasher films boast a higher ratio of bad-to-good.
But “Zombieland,” which opens Friday, shares the crucial element that elevates many of the best zombie movies. Scary? Yes, in spots. Gratuitously gory? You bet. But, first and foremost, “Zombieland” is a comedy.
Although there would seem to be scant possibility for amusement in rotting bodies that rise from the grave to eat the living — there was certainly nothing funny about director George A. Romero’s exploration of the concept in his 1968 black-and-white drive-in cheapie “Night of the Living Dead” — filmmakers have discovered that zombies are also natural-born comedians.
Humor crept into the zombie genre gradually, beginning with Romero’s 1978 sequel, “Dawn of the Dead,” in which the X-rated, unthinkably graphic violence and gore gradually segued into a satire of consumerist culture (the zombies gravitated toward a gigantic mall, because even the dead want to window shop). When members of a biker gang invaded the mall, they chopped off the zombies’ heads with machetes — but also smacked them in the face with cream pies.
“One of the great thing about zombies is that they don’t really have a distinct personality, so they can stand in as a metaphor for anything,” says Glenn Kay, author of “Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide.” “They’re a really adaptable sort of monster, and the fact you can project onto them lends itself to comedy.
“The idea of a dead relative coming back to try to eat you is very scary. But they also move very slowly in a lot of films, so the sight of a zombie shuffling around and tripping over something results in a little moment of comedy. Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ acknowledged the absurdity of the premise. Then came other films such as Lucio Fulci’s ‘Zombie’ a year later, in which a zombie walks across the ocean floor and tussles with a live shark. That was an amazing sequence from the point of ‘Geez, that must be incredibly dangerous.’ But as an audience member, you can’t not see the humor in that.”
Later zombie films, such as 1985’s “The Return of the Living Dead” or Peter Jackson’s 1992 gore epic “Dead Alive,” pushed the humor further, delivering the horror goods but always with an eye toward making the audience laugh. By the time the British import “Shaun of the Dead” shambled across movie screens in 2004, the zombie comedy — or zombedy — had become a veritable sub-genre. Even straightforward zombie pictures that merely aimed to frighten, such as Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” made room for bits of funny business, such as a sequence in which the heroes start picking out celebrity lookalikes among the undead hordes to shoot in the head (“Look, Jay Leno!”).
The central premise of the zombie picture may be the grimmest in the horror genre, but the scenario also carries considerable built-in potential for comedic — albeit bloody — hijinks.
Writing partners Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese first conceived of “Zombieland” in 1995 as a pilot for a TV series that would detail the weekly adventures of a group of survivors in a zombie world. But after CBS passed, the writers got a rare opportunity to rethink the project as a theatrical film, centering on four still-human survivors (Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin).
From the outset, the “Zombieland” writers say they were always interested in stressing the lighter aspect of the gloomy prospect of the end of the world.
“We wanted to look on the bright side of the apocalypse and treat the world as a playground — as a place that might actually be fun to spend time in,” Wernick says.
“The movie functions primarily as an escapist fantasy. The apocalypse implies there are not going to be a lot of people left standing, which is obviously a tragedy. But it also gives you an opportunity to do a lot of crazy things, like hang out (at a dead celebrity’s Beverly Hills mansion) or kill zombies without consequence. That beautiful girl you meet? She is the last girl in the world, so she can’t use the boyfriend excuse any more. She’s stuck with you.
“We wanted to emphasize the ways you define humanity in a world without a lot of humans in it,” Wernick says. “And that’s where we found our comedy. As much blood and gore as there is in ‘Zombieland,’ this is a celebration of humanity amongst very few humans. Comedy and horror almost play off each other in that they’re both extreme emotions, so they go hand in hand. When people are scared, they’re more apt to laugh.”
“Zombieland” also introduces a fresh element into the familiar zombie scenario: A list of rules, illustrated on the screen by clever graphics, that instruct viewers on how to survive in case the dead really do return. Rule No. 1: Cardio, because when zombies start sprinting after you, the fatties will be the first to go. Rule No. 3: Beware of bathrooms, where you’re at your most vulnerable.
The writers came up with the rules from experience, the way stand-up comedians often draw on their day-to-day lives.
“My cousin used to take her kids to this place in Chicago called Safetytown, where they were taught certain rules about how to be safe,” Reese says. “Stuff like ‘Don’t drink the poison out of the cabinet,’ or ‘If you see a gun, don’t touch it.’ And as she told me this story, I realized I myself had been born and raised in Safetytown, because my parents were very protective and were always giving me rules about what to do and not to do.
“I became a very anxious person because of that, but I always lived by the rules,” Reese says. “And I thought that would be a very adaptive strategy for surviving in a world with zombies. Because, if you think about it, it’s probably the wuss — the overly careful person — who is most likely to survive, because he’s always looking around the corner for danger. And he wears his seat belt.”
Like the best zombie comedies, “Zombieland” populates its outlandish universe with ordinary people who react exactly the way anyone would. Director Ruben Fleischer is convinced that believable characterizations are the secret to making the undead funny: Zombies, after all, are just people, too, so what you’re really dealing with is a comedy of (grotesque) manners and (abominable) errors.
“When Romero put a Hare Krishna zombie in ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ it was preposterous but also so funny,” Fleischer says, “because Hare Krishnas are ridiculous in real life, but even more ridiculous as zombies. It’s basically an exaggeration of the real world. Filmmakers like Romero, who treat these movies as allegories, use zombies as alter egos of what we may become if we’re not careful — if we don’t respect the planet and take care of ourselves as a society. But when you look at zombies with a sense of humor, they are really funny doppelgangers of ourselves.”
The filmmakers stress, however, that in order for a zombie comedy to work, the actors have be stone-faced about their situation.
“One of my first talks with Ruben was about the tone of the movie,” Harrelson says. “It was important that we always play the piece true to the characters and the individual scene and just let the comedy arise organically. I personally get freaked out watching horror films. I liked ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ because I like horror comedies. But ‘28 Days Later’? I was sleepless, man.”
Fleischer also believes zombie comedies are a cathartic way for audiences to confront their fears about the end of civilization without anxious hand wringing. In one shot in “Zombieland,” the marquee at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles is showing “2012,” Roland Emmerich’s upcoming special-effects extravaganza about the planet’s destruction by natural disasters.
“Everybody has a lot of anxiety about the future, especially in these pretty uncertain times,” Fleischer says. “These movies allow a safe and fun exploration of the ‘What if?’ Certainly ‘2012’ is the most devastating way to do that. Ours is a more lighthearted approach. It’s fun to think about what you would do, other than running from zombies to save yourself, if there was no one left in America. You have to fill the hours somehow, and these characters come up with some pretty fun things. It’s something we’ll hopefully never have to experience in real life, but it’s fun to watch on screen.”
That fun factor is another quality that distinguishes the zombie film — comedic and not — from the rest of the horror genre. Vampires, werewolves and serial killers wane and ebb in popularity, but zombie movies have enjoyed a more modest but steady popularity since the late 1960s. Even Romero, the genre’s honorary godfather, is still weaving variations on the zombie theme he created. His latest film, “Survival of the Dead,” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this month and will be showcased Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 at Fangoria Entertainment’s Trinity of Terrors weekend horror convention in Las Vegas.
“Everyone said zombies were going to be dead for a while after the ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake, but they’ve come back faster than anyone expected,” says Scott Linica, vice president of Fangoria Entertainment. “There’s a scene in Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ where a character asks why the zombies come back to the shopping mall, and another replies ‘Because this is what they remember.’
“That’s kind of the same with audiences,” Linica says. “They may not know why, but they keep coming back. I think the reason is that the zombies are us. They’re rotting, and they’re ugly, and they want to eat us, and they could be your brother or your mother. But they’re still us. There’s something very powerful about that connection. Zombies also just happen to be a lot like the Three Stooges.”
FUNNY ZOMBIES OF THE PAST
At the movies, zombies are often as funny as they are scary. Here are some examples of the undead at their most amusing:
“Dawn of the Dead” (1979): There’s nothing remotely funny about the first hour of George A. Romero’s unimaginably gory, nightmare-inducing follow-up to his 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” which introduced the concept of flesh-eating zombies to the cinematic mainstream. But in “Dawn’s” second hour, as the four protagonists hole up inside a sprawling shopping mall where the undead wander the aisles as if they were still hunting for bargains, a cunning satire about consumerist culture begins to form. Although the film is never outright comedic, it definitely lightens up — a zombie even gets a pie in the face — at least until the finale.
“The Return of the Living Dead” (1985): “Alien” screenwriter Dan O’Bannon made a smashing directorial debut with this often-hilarious comedy set at a medical-supply warehouse where two employees (James Karen and Thom Mathews), who believe 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” was based on actual events, accidentally unleash a gas into the atmosphere that causes the dead in a nearby cemetery to rise from their graves. O’Bannon made a few changes to the zombie-flick rulebook by having his undead speak (“Braaaiiinns!”) and sprint. “Return” is genuinely scary in spots, uproarious in others and capped off by a surprisingly bleak finale that was a natural byproduct of the Reagan-era Cold War fears.
“Dead Alive” (1992): Also known as “Braindead,” director Peter Jackson’s third movie remains one of the wildest, most jaw-dropping (and gory) zombie comedies ever. About a momma’s boy-turned-monster slayer after Mom gets bitten by a rabid “rat monkey” and becomes a snarling flesh eater, “Dead Alive” boasts the genre’s first zombie baby, as well as the first zombie makeout session. Jackson, showing none of the good taste and class he would display in his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, goes so far over the top so many times he leaves you exhausted. Just try watching the lawnmower sequence without cracking a horrified (and repulsed) smile.
“Shaun of the Dead” (2004): This is essentially a romantic comedy about a slacker (Simon Pegg) who tries to get his life together for the sake of winning back his girlfriend. The story just happens to unfold on the same day the dead start coming back to life to eat the living. Pegg and co-writer/director Simon Wright, already known for the British TV hit “Spaced,” established themselves as real filmmakers via the movie’s breathtaking mix of laughs and jolts. “Shaun,” which introduced the term “rom zom com” into the horror-film vernacular, achieves a tone of dread and angst about the unfolding apocalypse, then — like any self-respecting zombie comedy — it makes you laugh about the end of the world.