The Zombies Will Feast On Your Funny Bone
Zombies are funny.
By this I don’t mean zombies are laughable creatures, rightfully mocked by canny hipsters who find a hidden amusement in violent, horrible death.
No, I mean ‘zombie’ is a comedy genre.
Zombies are, and just about always have been, a joke. Like Adam Sandler, but (a lot) funnier and (a little) less revolting…
Nevertheless, Netflix’s new comedy Santa Clarita Diet has been treated as something of a novelty mash-up — a zombie situation comedy, if you will.
“Santa Clarita Diet goes where no zombie show has gone before,” Esquire declares.
The offbeat series follows real estate agent Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) as she turns into an insatiable, undead flesh-eating monster who does things like vomit her internal organs all over the easy-clean rug in front of horrified prospective buyers (“I threw up a lot,” Sheila notes over a power-walk and a juice made from human flesh). Meanwhile, her freaked-out, yet loving, husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) cleans up the blood, pops her eye back into her socket when it starts to come out, and kills their neighbor when he starts to threaten her secret identity.
He also promises to bash her head in with a baseball bat if she starts to threaten the family, which upsets Sheila only because he didn’t choose a more romantic method of hypothetical zombie killing (she prefers a pearl-handed revolver):
But although the combination of deadpan suburban angst and nauseating horror is highly entertaining, it’s not exactly new.
Indeed, zombies have long served as a metaphor for the American consumerist dream…
Probably the most important zombie film, George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, is a tongue-through-rotting-cheek satire of America’s shopping obsession literally set in an abandoned mall, through which the undead wander like….well, like zombie shoppers, staggering from window display to window display, tripping over escalators, flailing ineffectually in fountains.
“What are they doing? Why do they come here?” one character asks in horror, to which another soberly replies, “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
The mall is a church, towards which the shoppers yearn indistinctly, hoping to fill some void in their souls; just as the humans, facing apocalypse, scurry hysterically through the empty stores grabbing guns, medical supplies, candy, and cosmetics.
The brilliant Shaun of the Dead (2004) picks up where Dawn leaves off and shambles onward.
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a directionless electronics salesman who lacks both talent and ambition. He and his housemate Ed (Nick Frost) drag their carcasses through their lives, from apartment to local pub and back again with an instinctual futility. When the zombies show up, Simon barely notices. Zombies shuffle around, he and his friends shuffle around; what’s the difference?
At the end of the film, zombified Ed is tied up in the basement playing video games and growling nastily, which is pretty much exactly what he did before he was a zombie.
People are just hunks of meat lurching aimlessly about, occasionally pausing to eat one another.
Katie Van Brunt at Esquire argues that “one of the greatest differences between Santa Clarita Diet and all zombie genre is that there is no idea of ‘the other,’” but that doesn’t make the show different from other zombie narratives; it makes it the same. Zombies are always people, people are always zombies.
As Peter (Ken Foree) observes in Dawn of the Dead while looking at the shopping-mall zombies, “They’re us, that’s all, when there’s no more room in hell.”
Van Brunt’s confusion is understandable, though. Recently, zombies have started to look less and less like us — in part because they’ve started to get more ‘serious.’
The Walking Dead episode “Here’s Not Here,” for example, is all about Morgan (Lennie James) struggling to regain his humanity by forming bonds of friendship and learning not to kill. It’s a contemplative story of personal growth and friendship, which hammers home the message that “Humans don’t have to be zombies.”
Melodrama, in an ironic fashion, involuntarily transforms every zombie story into a Manichean duel. Somber heroism separates the good guys from the bad guys. Even in the face of apocalypse, you can find a guru, meditate, and make something of yourself.
Humor, however, puts everybody on the same level in the same apocalypse/suburban development.
Sheila’s zombiefication isn’t an existential, tragic fall into evil. It’s just an embarrassing and icky family problem. The family does their best to downplay her sudden bursts of id-driven aggression and human flesh consumption. They approach her transformation in much the same way as they approach their neighbor’s hypersexual affair, or the fact that the geeky neighbor kid Eric (Skyler Gisondo) has a crush on the Hammond’s daughter Abby (Liv Hewson.) Joel reacts with tightly restrained exasperation when Sheila tells him about (literally) devouring a coworkers balls; he reacts with tightly restrained exasperation when Abby tells him she doesn’t want to go to college. People, zombies—they’re equally bizarre and upsetting.
In fact, Santa Clarita Diet sometimes suggests that zombies are more human than humans.
After she becomes undead, Sheila self-actualizes; she’s much more outgoing, her libido spikes, she buys a new car. When gangster and drug dealer Loki (DeObia Oparel) gets bitten and turned, he abandons the murdering and dealing to become the singer-songwriter he always dreamt of becoming. It’s humans who are gormless and adrift; zombie Sheila is filled with direction and purpose. She firmly shows Joel just where she wants his mouth in bed, and convinces her neighbor with the new baby to go on tour following John Legend.
With apologies to Sly Stone, you do have to die before you live…
Sheila may be a peppier human, though she’s still kind of anticlimactic as a monstrous threat. But that’s in line with the tradition too; zombies have always been smaller than life terrors. Vampires are dark, mysterious, and sexy; werewolves are animalistic and virile and sexy; Jason and Freddie are unstoppable forces of nature. But zombies are merely beautifully anticlimactic monsters: slow, ugly, and pathetic, driven by dumb hunger rather than evil malevolence. They’re ridiculous — which makes them a lot like people.
When Sheila’s toe falls off, and she tries desperately and futilely to reattach it with glue, with thread, and finally with nails, it’s funny because it’s gross. But it’s also funny because DIY fixer-upper projects often feel like that.
Humans are bad at the living thing. They are ugly, inept, and eventually, they decay. You have no choice but to laugh at them.
Zombies can relate.
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