THIS JUSTIN: The Fine Art Of Comedic Horror

Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talk your ear off about why I love it so much. Heavy spoilers ahead for both AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and SHAUN OF THE DEAD, so stop now if  you haven’t seen these films!

“Horror-comedy” is a subgenre that when it’s brought up I kind of inwardly groan and outwardly nervously laugh. For every Beetlejuice or What We Do In The Shadows, you have dozens of Scary Movie clones, deliberately shlocky bullshit like Lesbian Vampire Killers, cash grabs like Zombieland and Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, or lackluster teen thrillers like Idle Hands. Even the two good movies I mentioned are more like comedy films with touches of horror. Other films like Gremlins, The Frighteners, Night Of The Creeps, Return Of The Living Dead, Fright Night, and Evil Dead II lean into one genre more than the other. This isn’t a bad thing, per se. It’s just a very difficult subgenre to do well and even more difficult to do great. And, in my opinion, there’ve only ever been two films that have done it perfectly: 1981’s An American Werewolf In London and 2004’s Shaun Of The Dead. Spoilers ahead!

An American Werewolf In London is the story of David Kessler, an American college student who is attacked by werewolf with a friend one night while they’re hiking across the moors in England. His friend is killed, but David survives, now the titular werewolf. He falls in love with his nurse, and over the course of the movie as his life devolves into lunar driven nocturnal murder sessions. He is plagued by his undead friend who urges him to take his own life so as to end the curse of the werewolf and bring rest to all of its victims. The film has rightfully withstood the test of time and is often cited as a milestone in practical effects due to Rick Baker’s absolutely phenomenal makeup and puppetry. John Landis, famous for creating the iconic Animal House, infused the film with a steady flow of humor. From the first scene, actors Griffin Dunne and David Naughton exhibit a natural chemistry, portraying two lifelong friends busting each other’s chops over and over again. The scene at The Slaughtered Lamb pub, where the infamous “remember the Alamo” joke is delivered, is ripe with an awkward stiffness from the English characters that makes the whole scene even funnier. And Dunne’s self-deprecating bemoaning of his situation as a mutilated walking corpse is made hilarious by the stark contrast of said corpse lamenting that not only was he murdered by a werewolf but had to suffer through the indignation of seeing his crush back home run into the arms of celebrated asshole Mark Levine for comfort after the funeral. Landis presents us with horror and tragedy and turns it into comedy through how absurd the whole situation is.

Shaun Of The Dead is an homage to the films of the late George Romero. It’s the story of Shaun and Ed, two lovable slackers who go out on a bender in London one night to try and help Shaun get over his breakup with his girlfriend. Unfortunately for them, the zombie apocalypse has been incrementally creeping up on the citizens of London (and the rest of the world). Shaun awakens the next day, hungover and heartbroken, to discover the city in ruins as the dead roam the streets. He rescues his mother and his ex-girlfriend along with her best friend and her insufferable boyfriend as they seek shelter at a local pub and are forced to reckon with the situation.

It’s a classic zombie “castle siege” film done as a comedy film, and it works. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are absolutely delightful as Shaun and Ed, and similarly to AWIL the genuine chemistry between the two actors is what makes the film so endearing. There’s some insane gore, a ton of Easter eggs and nods to older zombie films, and a near perfect joke to laugh ratio. There’s a lot of clever but not heavy fisted commentary on social issues, much like Romero’s original films. And, best of all, the film absolutely feels like it could be occurring in the same universe as the OG Romero films. It hits every mark that it sets out to hit.

So, what makes these two films the perfect examples of horror comedy? Well, for one, they’re not simply horror movies with funny parts, or comedies with some scary parts. They’re both extremely funny, extremely scary, and both present themes that don’t usually exist in the genre, be it a tragic love story (in the case of AWIL) or a clever social commentary/allegory for accepting adulthood (in Shaun Of The Dead). I won’t be talking too much about the comedic elements of the films because they’re already largely acknowledged as comedy masterpieces, and I’d rather focus on the aspects of these films that are largely brushed aside. It is these unorthodox elements that makes them truly great, the saltiness to the sweetness of the rest of the film that make the horror and the comedy truly pop.

AWIL, for all the pitch-black midnight chuckles it presents, has a handful of truly terrifying moments. My personal “holy fuck I can’t watch this” moment in the movie is the scene in which a luckless businessman is stalked through the London subway. We first hear the wolf growling in the darkness of the tube, and then watch as the man is followed up a flight of stairs, through a hallway, all the way through a seemingly abandoned subway station. We only ever see the werewolf for a flash at the end (in one of my all-time favorite shots), so most of the scene is a POV as we watch the victim run through the subway station in a futile attempt to escape. It doesn’t sound like much but goddamn is it effective. I marvel every time I watch it. David’s surreal nightmare in which he witnesses his family back home gunned down by half-formed werewolf creatures in Nazi regalia before one of them cuts his throat might be a top five depiction of a nightmare in a horror film ever. It makes the stuff we see in any Nightmare On Elm Street film seem bush league in comparison.

And the scene in the beginning where David and Jack are attacked is another perfect exercise in terror, in which the anticipation of something scary happening is as scary as it actually happening. We watch as the two friends stumble around the English moors on a foggy moonlit night, nervously joking with one another as an unseen something stalks them just out of sight, howling freakishly to taunt them. And it’s honestly kind of funny as they’re doing it. Their reactions are so genuine as the façade machismo melts away and they realize they might be in actual danger (Griffin Dunne’s quietly panicked “oh shit David what is that?” has such a genuine pathetic tone that it’s heartbreaking to see). The banter leading up to that moment is pitch perfect for the moment. When the attack actually occurs, there’s a second where they think they’re in the clear before Jack is actually attacked and viciously mauled to death.

And here we have one of the saddest moments in any movie I’ve ever seen: for a moment, David sprints off into the darkness, leaving his friend to be brutally murdered, only to realize (too late) what he’s done. He runs back to find Jack torn to shreds before he himself is attacked and mauled. It’s an emotional rollercoaster for sure, something many people don’t really talk about in the film, and it manages to make the scene hilarious and terrifying and tragic all at once.

There isn’t too much gore in the movie, although the little there is done surprisingly well. The way the wounds look in the movie (when Jack is killed, when the first werewolf is killed, and when David himself is killed in the end) is strangely realistic in how minimal they are. Rick Baker’s slowly leaking bullet holes feel like something you’d see in a mob war back in the ‘40s on the streets of Chicago. Griffin Dunne, when he first shows up in the hospital as a wisecracking cynical corpse, looks so fucked up and realistically mutilated it’s almost difficult to watch. There’s a reason the film won the first ever Academy Award for Best Makeup; Rick Baker’s work, both for Jack’s reappearance and David’s transformation, is god-like and must be seen to be believed.

There’s simply nothing else out there like in terms of realism. Dunne as the freshly mauled Jack might be taking it with a smile, but his wounds are ghastly to behold. Anyone who’s seen the film can attest to the weird little flap of flesh hanging off of his jaw. Even more unsettling is that if you look closely you can make out the exact way that werewolf attacked him: a claw across the face, defensive wounds on the hands from Jack desperately trying to ward the wolf off, and most notably a gaping wound through which you can see the various muscles and tendons of his neck and shoulder. Jack’s somewhat jaunty and cynical nature makes it even more unsettling, as he’s complaining about being bored while looking like “a walking meatloaf.”

This description of emotional whiplash could be applied to the rest of the film as well. Much of it is dedicated to the blossoming romance between David and Alex Price, the nurse who was taking care of him at the hospital and whom he ends up staying with while waiting to fly back to America. The two end up sleeping together and quickly fall for each other, and in one of the more tender moments of the film Alex (played by the legendary Jenny Agutter) is seemingly on the verge of telling David she loves him before leaving for work. It is their last moment together before David werewoofs out for the first time that night, the last good and unspoiled time they had, and that simple and sweet sentiment is left unsaid to him. Again: in a film that is known for its more comedic moments, it’s a very classically tragic scenario that doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how deeply melancholy it actually is. There is no happy ending. Beauty doesn’t soothe the beast. David, fully werewoofed out, is literally on the verge of murdering Alex before being gunned down by the London police, and the last thing we see is her sobbing and his bullet ridden corpse. There’s no taming the monster. She doesn’t get through to his humanity. She’s just meat for the beast, another warm body to be rent and ripped. He never gets to understand how deeply she feels for him, and she has to live with that.

Even his relationship with his dead friend, often seen as a source of comedy, is just under the surface extremely sad. Jack is caught in limbo, surrounded by “boring” corpses, and his only way out is to convince his best friend to take his own life. He’s clearly uncomfortable with this idea because he still cares deeply for David; at one point another one of David’s victims makes a comment about how they don’t care if his suicide is painful for him and Jack sharply rebukes him by reminding the victim that David is still his friend.

Even when visiting him in Alex’s apartment to deliver the bad news, he congratulates David on hooking up with her. There’s still a human connection between the two of them, and yet Jack is forced to encourage him to do the unthinkable for his sake and the sake of others. And worst of all, Jack’s last scene in the film isn’t him telling David goodbye, or anything so saccharine and conclusive: it’s him trying to figure out the most painless way for David to take his own life.

Shaun Of The Dead’s brand of humor is a little more digestible than AWIL, and the film as a whole is far less melancholy, but it’s still far more than just a scary movie with a few funny parts. Shaun is clearly an underachiever who is at best pitied by those around him for his lifestyle choices and at worst held in open contempt. His friends and family mostly despise his best friend and roommate, Ed, and Shaun is constantly defending not only Ed but himself for staying friends with him. Shaun’s relationship with his girlfriend Liz falls apart largely because he lacks the emotional maturity to let go of the ways of his youth; while he genuinely loves her, he is stunted emotionally by not understanding her needs. It is a very real problem and more than just a punchline. Indeed, the now-classic “go to the Winchester and wait for this to blow over” routine is as much a comment about Shaun’s monotonous lifestyle as it is about any real protocol for a zombie apocalypse.

He cannot comprehend how she doesn’t love the things that he loves as much as he does. While she is more than willing to accommodate him, he can’t see past his own selfishness to accommodate her needs. It’s not that he’s a bad guy per se, or that he doesn’t love her. He’s willing to die for her, so he’s not a wholly selfish person, and when called on his bullshit it’s clear that his love for her is very real and pure. But his immaturity and stubbornness are equally so. This concept of refusing to let go of childish desires for the good of one’s own emotional wellbeing is perhaps best exemplified by Shaun’s relationship with his actual roommate Pete. Pete is depicted as something of a tight-ass, a fun-hating wet blanket for his time in the film. That is until you realize we’re seeing him only from the point of view of Shaun and Ed. All Pete really asks is to not live in a house that’s in disarray. He genuinely likes and cares for Shaun and expresses frustration that Shaun refuses to better himself. The one moment he expresses real anger towards the duo is when they’re partying at four o’clock in the morning and he has to work in the morning. But even then, when Shaun explains that he and Liz broke up, he immediately cools off and asks them to just keep it down. And he has every right to not want an unemployed drug dealer living on his couch for the last five years. Sure, Ed is likeable enough to us as the audience, but sharing a house with him would be something akin to a waking nightmare. Pete sums it up best when he screams at Shaun about how Ed is holding him back and then tells him to “sort your fucking life out, mate.” Realizing that Pete isn’t actually that bad of a guy casts Shaun’s lifestyle in an entirely different and wholly unflattering light: Pete is just a regular working-class guy trying to live his life and make something of himself. It’s Shaun and Ed who are the fuck ups. Only at the end of the film do you realize just how mediocre and dull Shaun’s life actually was. Therein lies the tragedy of the film: his contentment with spinning his wheels in life was so immense that it took an apocalyptic event for him to rise to the occasion and actually make something of himself, even if it was only for one night. This theme is best summed up when Shaun is attempting to empathize with a younger employee and tells him he has things he wants to do with his life, to which the younger employee deadpans back to him “when?”

Themes of a dead-end life (pun intended) aside, Shaun Of The Dead also has a handful of really scary moments and some Savini-level gore. When Shaun and Ed are escaping the flat and their car is being surrounded by zombies, Shaun looks back at the house to see an undead Pete emerging from the doorway, as if to signal that no place is safe for them. When they’re driving to Liz’s, the scenes of carnage around them are brief but effective: people being chased by the undead, an abandoned ambulance containing a zipped body bag flopping around on a stretcher, fields filled with shambling ghouls, all overlaid by a news report that is almost verbatim the radio statement from Night Of The Living Dead. In that brief scene, director Edgar Wright quickly and effectively establishes that shit has hit the fan. Likewise, the scene in the Winchester when the survivors are locked up tight and flicking through the channels of the television to reveal channel after channel of dead air is bleak and chilling. For as silly as it can be, the film never forgets what it’s emulating. When the gang first arrives at the Winchester, there’s a moment when they realize they don’t have a way in. They turn around to see a horde of thousands of zombies all watching them, unmoving and silent. It’s an absolutely perfect needle-skipping moment but in the most horrific way. And let’s not forget the character David’s death. After chiding Shaun for taking too long to shoot his mother and then attempting to murder Shaun himself, David is gruesomely dismembered, disemboweled, and devoured alive by the horde outside when they break in. It’s a perfect homage to Tom Savini’s stellar FX in Dawn and Day, particularly the latter film in which celebrated racist shitbag Colonel Rhodes is drawn and quartered by a mob of ghouls.

Shaun Of The Dead, like any good zombie film, also has some genuinely touching moments in it. The first comes when Shaun’s stepfather Phillip succumbs to a zombie bite as they’re driving to the Winchester. Up until that moment, their relationship can best be described as tepid. Phillip seems to tolerate his slacker stepson only because he loves his wife, and Shaun (who is also constantly reminding people Phillip is not his actual father) has little to no qualms about the prospect of killing Phillip in the event of Phillip being bitten by zombie. However, in Phillips final moments before transitioning into ghoulhood, he and Shaun share a tender moment in which Phillip tells him that he loves him and just wanted to give him someone to look up to and to motivate him. The bittersweet cherry on top of all of this is when Shaun corrects himself from saying “he’s not to my dad” to “he was but he’s not anymore.” The second (and saddest) tearjerker in the film comes when Shaun’s mom succumbs to a zombie bite she’d been hiding from everyone. Shaun is reduced to an almost childlike state of denial, seemingly unable to understand how this could happen. His mother thanks him for a bouquet of flowers he’d gotten her, makes a comment on how “it’s been a funny sort of day”, and then slips away as Shaun breaks down into a blubbering and unlovely mess. This is followed by a comical Mexican standoff which itself is followed by an extremely touching and tender moment between Shaun and Liz. Then the grotesque inserts itself back into film when Shaun’s mum, formerly a kindhearted and loving woman, rises as a dead-eyed zombie to remind us what this movie is actually about: horror. And few things are more horrific in the film than when Shaun is forced to kill his own mother so she doesn’t kill them. It’s a blackly depressing and bleak moment in a film slyly filled with similar moments, and personally is one of my all-time favorite moments in any zombie film. The last sort of bummer moment in the film is when Shaun and Liz emerge as the sole survivors of the Winchester and run into Yvonne, an ex of Shaun’s who they’d met earlier in the movie with a group of her own friends. The first scene is largely played for laughs, as Yvonne’s crew mirrors Shaun’s exactly. There’s a moment when Yvonne and Shaun, despite being exes, share a quick hug and wish each other good luck. This time, however, it’s just Yvonne. Her boyfriend, his friends, her cousin, her mom… all dead. The two of them share a quick acknowledgement of the tragedy that’s befallen them, and then go their separate ways, and the audience is left to wonder what sort of horrors befell Yvonne, who is left with no one at all in the end.

Part of the appeal of horror-comedy films is the contrast. The gruesomeness of the horror is cut with the hilarity of the comedy and vice versa, and in that balance something new emerges. But it’s not an easy balance to strike. In order for such a film to be truly great, there has to be something else in there, a secret ingredient that makes the rest of the flavors really pop. Chocolate ice cream is good, chocolate and peanut butter ice cream is great, but chocolate peanut butter and pretzel ice cream is something akin to heaven on earth. It’s all about contrasting themes and how they’re presented. Just having jokes in a horror movie, or scary parts in a comedy are fine, but to make it something above and beyond there has to be more. There’s a scene in Shaun Of The Dead right after Shaun’s stepfather turns to a zombie and is locked inside a car with loud music blasting. Moments earlier, as he lay dying, he implored Shaun to turn down “that racket”. As Shaun and his mother are outside the car arguing over what to do, Shaun is pleading with his mother to leave her husband behind, telling her that he knows that what’s in that car looks like her husband but there’s nothing left of the man she loves. And at that exact moment, her dead husband turns the music off. The shift in tone from heartfelt and horrific and sincere to genuinely funny is somewhat jarring but truly effective. Similarly, the ending of AWIL: which starts out in a porno theatre on Piccadilly Square filled with undead victims discussing how best to take one’s own life, ratchets quickly into an almost Benny Hill style chase of a werewolf by police officers, suddenly ends with Jenny Agutter tearfully pleading her werewoofed out boyfriend not to attack her and to let her help him… at which point he does attack her and is immediately gunned down by London PD. It’s a tight rope act with no safety net but these two films pull it off flawlessly.

Justin Lore
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