Over the past ten or fifteen years, the zombie has become ubiquitous in pop culture – first shambling out of its monster-movie grave in the early-to-mid 2000s with movies like 28 Days Later and the reboot of classic horror Dawn of the Dead. Zombies quickly became one of the biggest trends in entertainment, starring in all kinds of movies, video games, TV shows, books and comics, and appearing on a huge range of products: soft toy zombies, zombie car decals, zombie homewares, and even zombie fashion. The parade of the undead was everywhere – including a literal parade, as the ‘zombie walk’ phenomenon spread across the globe, creating a space for fans to dress up and (good naturedly) terrorize towns.
In recent years, however, the zombie trend seems to finally be running out of steam. 2017 ‘s only zombie-themes movie releases are Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and Patient Zero. World War Z 2 was due to come out this year, but the sequel lost its director and is currently without a release date. 2016 had a handful of zombie releases, including The Girl With All The Gifts and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, but it’s safe to say that the flood is slowing to a trickle. In other media, too, zombies seem to have fallen out of favor. The Walking Dead continues to shock fans in its seventh season, and pulls in some of the biggest audiences in its sector, but even these ratings are slowly starting to slide, with midseason finale audiences dropping 40% from the season premiere. The spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead, is suffering a far more severe ratings drop, leading fans to wonder if it will survive past season 3.
One of the big problems with the zombie genre is its relatively limited scope; zombies just aren’t a vastly varied monster. Yes, there can be runners or shamblers, causes of an outbreak can be viral, spiritual, or even alien in origin, and humanity can react in a variety of ways, but at the end of the day, zombie movies become a struggle for survival against an overwhelming force of flesh-eating foes. There are only so many places that humans can hide, ways they can run, and weapons that can be used, and the zombie genre has become increasingly repetitive as creators attempt to put a new spin on an old story.
The Rise Of The Zom Com
In among all this doom and gloom for the undead, there is a ray of hope for fans who still haven’t had enough of living corpses: zomcom. Zombie comedy is a sub-genre of zombie movie that mixes gore with black humor, providing a lighter, less frightening take on the survival story. Probably the best-known zomcom is 2004’s Shaun Of The Dead, brought to us by comedic geniuses Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright. Filled with dark laughs as a pair of friends try to survive the zombie apocalypse in London, the film launched a whole new style of zombie movie – although it is not the first zomcom, with films like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive predating it by more than a decade.
Since then, zom coms have become some of the most successful examples of the zombie comedy, with movies like Zombieland (2009) and Fido (2006) becoming cult classics. There have even been zombie rom coms, movies like Warm Bodies (2013) and Life After Beth (2014), adding a romantic twist to the undead tale. On the small screen, iZombie has become another successful comic book adaptation – and while it doesn’t have the same kind of audience draw as The Walking Dead, it has a devoted fanbase and has recently been renewed for a third season. Now, a Netflix Original Series joins the zomcom family: Santa Clarita Diet, which launched on the streaming service this month. The show, a black satire that sees a suburban realtor try and maintain her normal life as a zombie, has become a solid hit, scoring a 71% on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.
Why Humor Works
There are a few reasons why zombies are so popular as a genre – and a lot of it comes from the human drive to survive. Zombie movies allow viewers to speculate how they would survive a disaster of apocalyptic proportions, and with books like Max Brooks’ ‘Zombie Survival Guide’ hitting the New York Times bestseller list, it’s clear that viewers are identifying with heroes and survivors in these stories. A study by Clemson professor Sarah Lauro shows that zombie popularity peaks during tough times, and is connected to feelings of disempowerment, while other researchers have suggested that these movies are a way for people to safely explore their fears for a real apocalypse in a safe way. But happier films also seem to rise in popularity during tough times, as people seek out a more cheerful form of escapism, preferring uplifting films to more gritty offerings.
Zombie comedy offers the best of both worlds. The gore and apocalyptic scenarios provide the kind of catharsis and survival narratives that people are drawn to in tough times, while the lighthearted humor gives viewers an enjoyable escape from the real world. Comedy can also overcome the hurdle of repetitive storylines: in Santa Clarita Diet and iZombie, our undead heroines are both fully in control of themselves and able to function like living humans (other than the eating-people thing, of course).
This opens up a whole new range of options for storylines, as does the fact that comedies don’t have to rely on their characters running in fear, since they aren’t attempting to scare anyone. Comedy also reaches a far broader audience, as self-proclaimed ‘wimps’ can enjoy these shows and movies without worrying about nightmares. Despite the gore, these are often more suitable for a younger audience, which means more viewers, which can mean greater success.
The Future Of The Undead
It seems that zombie comedy is definitely the way forward – providing new areas to explore, and combining cathartic, post-apocalyptic viewing with the kind of light-hearted fun that can be binged in a weekend. That said, we are unlikely to see zombies as a sub-genre reach the same heights of popularity that they once did. Audiences are tired of seeing the same old story of a group of people running from zombies, and unless a script offers up some fresh ideas… they are unlikely to garner the kind of success that The Walking Dead did at the height of the craze. The zom com genre will also have to keep things interesting – iZombie includes elements of detective work, while Santa Clarita Diet pokes some Weeds-esque fun at suburban living.
Zombie comedy may be the best starting point for new undead series, but it’s not enough, and we’re hoping to see more shows and movies that balance that black humor sub-genre with great actors, scripts, and concepts to create something entirely different.