Zombies are terrifying, shambling appetites, a remorseless infected plague spreading death and nightmare.
And, in addition, zombies are funny.
The latest zombie comedy is Netflix's Santa Clarita Diet, now shooting for its third season. The show stars Drew Barrymore as Sheila Hammond, a suburban mom and realtor who suddenly starts projectile vomiting all over the carpet of a home she's trying to sell, and shortly thereafter develops a taste for human flesh.
But humor has long been part of the zombie genre's rotting DNA. In George Romero's seminal 1978 Dawn of the Dead, the zombies wander haplessly around a suburban mall, longing vaguely for a capitalist bounty they can no longer use and then tipping over into the mall fountain. And in 2004's horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead, the life of sad retail middle-manager Shaun is so aimless and pointless he barely even notices when those around him start turning into shambling monstrosities. When your buddy just sits there playing video games his entire life, how can you tell whether he's undead or alive anyway?
As Shaun of the Dead shows, zombies are queasily funny because they are so human. Uncoordinated, brainless monstrosities headed for the grave — who doesn't feel like that first thing in the morning?
Santa Clarita Diet sinks its teeth into the humanness of zombies and shambles away with it to a less cynical, more heartwarming place. Showrunner and creator Victor Fresco's background is in comedy, not in horror; previous credits include the television series Better Off Ted and Andy Richter Controls the Universe. As a result, he says, he was focused less on zombie terror, and more on figuring out how to make you feel affection for an undead protagonist.
Most zombies quickly feast on their loved ones, but Sheila retains her higher brain functions — which means that she needs to figure out how to keep her job and her marriage to her initially horrified but overall supportive husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) while satisfying her new cravings.
In Santa Clarita Diet, becoming undead is a wicked mid-life crisis.
"I like this idea that these two love each other unconditionally, but after 25 years, one person changes — that other person either has to adapt or the marriage has to end," Fresco told SYFY WIRE. "And this was a good way of testing a marriage. Rather than Sheila deciding, 'Oh, I want to take an art class,' she's undead, which is a slightly bigger deal."
When Sheila turns, she becomes much more assertive and much more in touch with her desires. Her libido spikes, she stops taking shit from her boss, and she inspires her friends to pursue their dreams, whether that means taking up painting or following a John Legend tour. Zombies, Fresco says, "are a great metaphor for consumerism and consumption society. The undead want what they want whenever they want it and they never put limits on themselves." Which causes some problems when what someone wants is to devour another person's liver. It's hard to effectively reprimand your teenage daughter for hitting some jerk with a lunch tray right after you've dismembered someone in the kitchen.
The humor of Santa Clarita Diet comes in part from the contrast between undead horror and suburban idyll. But the real comedy is in the way that severed talking heads and murdered zombies in the fridge seem right at home in a sitcom. Joel confronts another dead body in the house with the resigned exasperation of a man staring into a flooded basement. And Sheila's undead, all too mortal flesh is gross in the mundane, hyperbolic way that getting old is gross. Her toe falls off; she accidentally bites off her finger; she vomits up a disgusting red ball. Most middle-aged people will not have had those exact things happen. But still — having your body start to fall apart in embarrassing and unpleasant ways is something that most of us can identify with.
The low-key approach to zombie grossness is intentional, Fresco says. "The gore is well down the list of things we're trying to get to. It's not in every episode. Sometimes it's a surprise and then sometimes more planned. But you know we don't want to shy away from it, because it is in this world. If you're going to tell a story about a carnivore you would have to show them eating meat at some point."
Humans are (mostly) carnivores too, and they all have unpleasant habits and bodily fluids that you have to deal with at some point. Zombies are funny because they're like us — all appetites and rotting flesh and clumsy groaning. Most zombie narratives past have looked at those human zombies and recoiled, sometimes in horror, sometimes in humorous mockery. Santa Clarita Diet's particular genius is to laugh at its zombies, and its humans, with affection.
"We wanted to make sympathetic monsters," Fresco says. The undead are ridiculous, Santa Clarita Diet acknowledges, but so are we. We can relate.