What is it about the combination of horror and comedy that’s so irresistibly entertaining?
Mixing macabre humor with bountiful bloodshed has led to some horror-comedy classics over the years. One of the earliest, 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, proved that comedy and scares could be achieved in equal measure. And the sub-genre has continued to prove endlessly entertaining today—already this year we’ve gotten such treats as Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and the Fright Night remake, both of which provide an unsettling but satisfying blend of yucks and yuks. With Halloween just around the corner, MM thought it a perfect time to take a look back at some of the most spooktacular horror comedies of the last 30 years.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
directed by John Landis
John Landis’ genre-defining horror-comedy classic has the distinction of being the first film to win the Oscar for Best Makeup. In fact, the Academy was so impressed with Rick Baker’s amazing werewolf transformation effects that it created the award for Best Makeup specifically for this film, and it’s been a regular category ever since. In addition to Baker’s still-impressive work, the film features a truly original tone, which alternates nightmarish scenes of real horror with pitch-black humor, much of the latter courtesy of the deadpan, decomposing Jack (Griffin Dunne), who was killed by a werewolf and warns his best friend, the werewolf of the title (David Naughton) of his ultimate fate. Chock full of both scares and humor, the hugely influential American Werewolf made the horror-comedy combo seem easier than it looked. As the years have proven, this witty, innovative film is in a class by itself.
Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992)
directed by Sam Raimi
While the original Evil Dead is, as its poster proclaimed, “the ultimate experience in grueling terror,” the movie’s two sequels were handled with a significantly lighter touch. Co-writer/director Raimi’s madcap, Three Stooges-inspired sense of humor comes to the forefront, and the series’ everyman protagonist, Ash (B-movie god Bruce Campbell), is transformed into a snarky wiseass with a gift for physical comedy. In Ash’s defense, one isn’t likely to be in the best of moods when forced to do battle with evil spirits conjured up from the Book of the Dead. With their predisposition for slapstick and goofy humor (e.g., Ash sawing off his hand while standing next to a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms), these two films aren’t particularly scary, but they’re about as fun and groovy (to borrow an Ash catchphrase) as one can imagine. (For another Raimi movie with a similarly tongue-in-cheek tone—but more scares—check out the audacious rollercoaster ride Drag Me to Hell.)
directed by Peter Jackson
Before he became Mr. Middle Earth, Peter Jackson was an adventurous, independent moviemaker, crafting offbeat, subversive comedies like the sci-fi satire Bad Taste and the macabre puppet musical Meet the Feebles. But the zombie comedy Braindead (re-titled as Dead Alive in the U.S.) remains Jackson’s greatest achievement from this early period. The movie is an over-the-top gorefest concerning an introverted young man whose overprotective mother is bitten by an infected “rat-monkey” and subsequently returns from the dead as a mindless zombie who kills everyone in her path, transforming them into members of the living dead. Taking inspiration from the Evil Dead movies, Braindead is ultra-violent (especially the infamous “lawnmower” climax) but never takes itself too seriously; all the outlandish set pieces are completely played for laughs, and there’s even a sweet romance thrown in for good measure. Jackson also shows an innovative touch when it comes to the grisly special effects, which are surprisingly good given the movie’s low budget. In 1996, Jackson returned to the horror-comedy subgenre with the enjoyable (and more mainstream) The Frighteners. Once Jackson completes work on The Hobbit, hopefully he’ll return to the kind of risky, outrageous moviemaking exemplified by the goofy and gloriously gory Braindead.
Bride of Chucky (1998)
directed by Ronny Yu
While the previous three Child’s Play movies (featuring the nasty killer doll Chucky) were played as straightforward, creepy horror movies, Bride of Chucky goes in a completely different, wackier direction. Here, Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) hooks up with another murderous doll, Tiffany (a hilariously over-the-top Jennifer Tilly) for a murder spree across Route 66. The eclectic supporting cast includes John Ritter, Alexis Arquette and, in one of her early film roles, Katherine Heigl. With its winking, self-referential tone (the movie features references to many horror classics, including Psycho, Halloween and Hellraiser) and silly, pun-laden humor, this macabre doll’s tale is a guilty pleasure in the best sense of the word. In 2004, the follow-up Seed of Chucky (which revolves around Chucky and Tiffany’s offspring) was released, and while it attempted a similar tone, it lacked the sharpness of its predecessor.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
directed by Edgar Wright
This loving homage to zombie movies certainly lives up to its billing as a wholly original “rom-zom-com” (romantic zombie comedy). The movie begins as a perceptive satire on how our daily routines are turning us into zombies only to transform into an actual zombie movie, complete with splattery gore effects. While the zombies themselves are portrayed as a real, scary threat, what makes the movie such a fun ride is how the aimless title character (co-writer Simon Pegg) and his brutish best friend (Nick Frost) react to the zombie apocalypse: By making a daring journey to their favorite hang-out, the local pub. Equal parts hilarious, horrifying and heart-warming (Shaun’s relationship with his girlfriend is surprisingly sweet), Shaun of the Dead remains one of the greatest horror comedies of all time.
directed by James Gunn
James Gunn (who wrote the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake and helmed the offbeat superhero flick Super) made his directorial debut with this darkly funny, loving homage to classic 1950s B-movies and the gory creature features of the 1980s, like John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Slither is set in a small Southern town taken over by an alien plague that starts turning residents into zombies and various other revolting monsters. Despite his multitude of influences, Gunn creates a wholly original tale, complete with disgusting creatures and a streak of irreverent humor, especially Nathan Fillion as the deadpan sheriff and Gregg Henry as the crass mayor. Slither wasn’t a hit at the box office, but there’s no doubt this funny, frightful flick is sure to become a cult classic. After watching it, you’ll never be able to hear Air Supply’s creepy, soft-rock staple “Every Woman in the World” in quite the same way.
directed by Ruben Fleischer
This witty, stylish horror comedy also happens to be the highest-grossing zombie film in the U.S. to date. The movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic America where zombies have taken over the world and only a scant number of human survivors roam the Earth. The film follows nerdy Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) as he makes his way across the country to a supposedly zombie-free amusement park in L.A. Co-starring Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as the three survivors who join Columbus and form an unlikely zombie ass-kicking team, Zombieland expertly mixes intense, scary sequences with quirky, irreverent humor. Especially amusing are Columbus’ 30 rules for surviving in a zombie-infested world (e.g., “beware of bathrooms” and “check the back seat”). Zombieland also features a hilariously self-deprecating cameo by Bill Murray (playing himself), who provides the movie with one of its funniest, most surprising twists.