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.
“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.
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. 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.
“One of the great things 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.”
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).
“The movie functions primarily as an escapist fantasy,” Wernick says. “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.”
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.
“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. “… That’s kind of the same with audiences. They may not know why, but they keep coming back.”