Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Vacationing in Zombieland: The Classical Functions of the Modern Zombie Comedy

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Vacationing in Zombieland: The Classical Functions of the Modern Zombie Comedy

Article excerpt

TWO OTHERWISE PROLIFIC AND SUCCESSFUL CINEMATIC GENRES REGULARLY fail to win the esteem of the so-called "serious" academics and critical scholarship: the film comedy and the horror movie. Of the eighty-two Best Picture awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1928, for example, only six can be described as true comedies, and only one, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), fits the bill of a horror film (Dirks). (1) Comedies are dismissed for being lowbrow, unsophisticated, or merely fodder for the masses, while horror movies may be seen as being anti-social, subversive, or even catalysts for real-world social unrest and violence. It should come as no surprise, then, that horror comedies are doubly stigmatized. For example, Ruben Fleischer's recent zombie comedy, Zombieland (2009), has been described by Manohla Dargis of The New York Times as "a minor diversion" that represents "an already overstuffed, undernourished subgenre" (C10). In fact, despite recent investigations by the academic community, (2) the zombie comedy--or zombedy--remains underappreciated by the cultural elite.

However, Fleischer's film caused something of a popular sensation, making approximately $24 million its first weekend alone and eventually tripling its estimated $23 million production cost in gross receipts ("Box Office"). In addition, Zombieland has earned a score of "90% fresh" among critics on the Rotten Tomatoes online "Tomatometer" ("Zombieland"), and Clark Collis and Chris Nashawaty at Entertainment Weekly have declared, "Thanks to 'Zombieland,' what was once an entrail-strewn footnote to the horror genre is now mainstream." But Zombieland is actually just the latest installment in a now almost decade-long renaissance, (3) and it operates as part of a long-established tradition of zombie movies, screen comedies, and road films. This unique movie represents the unlikely fusion of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) with Harold Ramis's Vacation (1983), particularly in the way Zombieland deals with familial tensions and social expectations. Because of this synthesis, Fleischer actually delves into largely uncharted territory with his zombedy, and Zombieland does much to add to this oft-maligned subgenre by openly embracing the classical conventions of the romantic adventure via a plot that is more about the hero's quest to establish a traditional family structure than it is about abject sight gags and gross-out humor.

The now canonical zombie invasion narrative, particularly those films produced by or made in imitation of Romero, traditionally offers audiences a rather bleak view of the apocalypse, one in which society's vital infrastructures are quickly destroyed by the unstoppable armies of the walking dead. Furthermore, as evidenced by Romero's early zombie movies, the primary target of such supernatural devastation is nothing less than the American nuclear family. In Night of the Living Dead (1968), for example, a young girl ends up devouring her bickering parents, and the film's female protagonist is ultimately murdered by her teasing brother. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, although admittedly more lighthearted and sometimes comedic, can hardly be described as having a "happy ending" either. This hallmark film plays out as an almost mythic tragedy, for although the four survivors of the beleaguered Monroeville Mall manage to create a new human society and something of a surrogate family structure, that family is literally torn apart during the mayhem of the film's catastrophic conclusion.

Zombieland, on the other hand, provides viewers with a comedy in the classical Greek sense of the mode, a dramatic narrative in which "a young man wants a young woman" and whose "desire is resisted by some opposition" (Frye 163). (4) For Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), that opposition comes in the form of an intimidating, machismo society and uncaring parents--all now destroyed--and the life-threatening presence of the walking dead--which must be destroyed. …

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