People love zombies. Ever since George Romero brought us Night of the Living Dead there has been something viscerally gratifying about seeing people trying to survive in a world overrun by the living dead while splattering their brains on the walls with a variety of household items, gardening implements and occasional actual weapon. But in addition to being scary, zombies are also pretty damn funny: there's something about their limping gaits and moaning voices that makes them fun to look at. Not surprisingly, ever since there have been zombie films, there have been zombie films that make light of zombies, and this side of the twenty-first century we have seen quite a number of films in the zombie genre that mix things up with a bit of comedy. One such film is the recent blockbuster Warm Bodies, not only a zombie film but at the same time a clear parody of Twilight and its derivatives. Inspired by said film, instead of doing a traditional review of Warm Bodies I wish to juxtapose it with two other contenders in the genre of zombie comedies (if such a thing exists), as the mixture of comedy and horror has a number of pitfalls that a lot of movies fall into easily. The other films I am looking at are Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, the former a British romantic comedy with zombies in it and the latter a parody of zombie films that wallows in self-awareness of the genre's cliches.
Loyalty to the Source
If you wish to make a funny zombie film, you'd better make sure that your film is actually to some degree loyal to the zombie genre so as not to simply be a shallow parody of said genre. If there's nothing that actually unites your zombie comedy to the genre of zombie films at large, you're not making an effective mockery of a zombie film. The three films in question are all very loyal to the cliches of the genre, but with some innovation.
Of the three, Warm Bodies is the least traditional: not only does the main zombie protagonist R possess a degree of self-awareness (basically the foundation of the film's narrative and its main departure from traditional zombie fare), but an ongoing thread in the film's narrative is that the process of turning into a zombie eventually eats away the humanity of the person until they eventually lose all shreds of humanity and become one of the skinless "boneys." The idea of zombies evolving (or devolving?) into an even less humane form is very novel, as is the very idea of zombies possessing any self-awareness. Still, where it counts the movie plays its zombie cliches very straight, all the way to the eating of brains.
Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland are both very true to the source, even though Shaun uses the traditional shambling and slow-moving zombies while Zombieland makes use of the more modern running zombies. Each of them plays the tropes of zombie films very true to form (while Shaun is set during the onset of the outbreak while Zombieland is set years after the outbreak with the main cast being stragglers trying to survive in a world overrun with zombies) all the way to the main method of disposing of zombies. (i.e. removing the head or destroying the brain)
Of the three, Shaun of the Dead succeeds as a pure zombie film the best: while Zombieland
does have its share of scares, its self-awareness and constant poking at zombie movie cliches seems to take precedence over actually presenting people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse, whereas in Warm Bodies the main character R's falling in love with female lead Julia and his slowly returning humanity and self-awareness occupies the largest space in the narrative. Shaun is still largely about the main cast's struggle for survival, even though it is underscored by a romantic subplot and lots of laughs.
Okay, so your film actually works as a zombie film, now you just need to make it funny. For the record, I find all three of these films to be funny, but Shaun of the Dead by far the funniest, with Warm Bodies and Zombieland both having their own as far as the humor is concerned.
First of all, Shaun of the Dead is brilliantly written: writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg both have an amazing sense of comedic timing, and Simon Pegg (who also stars as the film's leading man) has absolutely amazing screen chemistry with his long-time comedy partner Nick Frost. The strength of Shaun's comedy lies in the good old callback: the film's first act (which is already funny on its own merits) portrays a normal day in main character Shaun's life before the zombies make their first appearance, and when the action finally begins the film builds its comedy upon a layer of calling back to what has been established in the first act. There is not a single throw-away gag in the film, as everything shown or even mentioned in the first act is brought back with a hilarious (or occasionally gruesome) twist, and the movie is an absolute barrage of comedy gold.
Zombieland is also a funny film, owing largely to the presence of Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg who each bring the movie their own particular brands of funny (Harrelson's being more manic and offbeat and Eisenberg's being more awkward and subdued), and the movie has a great sense of humor about the cliches of zombie films it mocks endlessly. However, the movie eventually runs out of steam and during the final act of the film the comedy takes a backseat to playing the cliches of zombie films straight. While there is still the occasional gag about the tropes and cliches of zombie films, the final act plays many of them completely straight and seemingly forgets its great sense of humor.
In this sense, Warm Bodies is not all that different, although its problem is even pronounced than Zombieland's: before the romantic plot of the film is brought out the film has a constant barrage of offbeat and dark humor (with one particularly great gag directed at people's detachment from each other thanks to the power of smartphones), and when the romantic plot is finally introduced it starts out as a great parody of Twilight and its ilk, a vicious mockery of the subgenre of "monster-boy-meets-human-girl" made all the more silly by the fact that the pretty monster boy in question is a brain-eating half-corpse. However, the film does a complete U-turn around its silly premise and commits the cardinal sin of starting to take itself too seriously. A promising premise eventually turns into a by-the-numbers teen romance, albeit one set against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, and you will cringe when you finally get the Shakespeare reference hidden in plain sight all the way through the movie. After act two it almost feels as if you're watching a completely different movie from what was promised during the promising first act.
It should come as no surprise that Shaun of the Dead is the superior of the three films: not only does it work as a zombie film and a comedy, it doesn't silo its zombies and comedy into different parts of the film, but retains its sense of humor and great comedic timing throughout. Zombieland is still great for all of its flaws, and even Warm Bodies is still a fun film, although one with a severe personality crisis.
My advice? If you're into zombies and love a bit of British comedy as well, get your hands on a copy of Shaun of the Dead immediately. Consider renting Zombieland and Warm Bodies once it finally comes out on DVD and Blue Ray.