Although they seem to be polar opposites on the surface, horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin. In terms of writing, they both rely on a certain kind of buildup and a certain kind of payoff. Whether it’s comedic or horrifying, that built up tension and payoff often has a similar structure in the way that it’s written and executed on screen. Whether it’s a dark comedy, mockumentary, slapstick, satire, or something else entirely, horror consistently proves to be a solid framework for setting up laughs. Not only that, but the combination of the two genres is special in the sense that it can allow the audience to view otherwise frightening events through a comedic lens, providing an experience that isn’t quite possible in a standard horror film.
In addition to the work of horror comedy legends like Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, and Sam Raimi, there are a plethora of different films within this subgenre just waiting to be discovered by more and more people. Whether they were inherently alienating, poorly advertised, or just overshadowed, the following films are some of the incredibly diverse horror comedies that most general audiences haven’t been introduced to.
1. Dead Alive (1992)
Mostly known as Braindead outside of the United States, Dead Alive is a film worth mentioning in any discussion or list of horror comedies. Anyone who hasn’t heard of the film may be surprised to find that it’s directed by Peter Jackson, the New Zealander who went on to helm the extremely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. Before this success in big budget fantasy and adventure, Jackson made a series of movies that combined horror with outrageous slapstick comedy. It’s hard not to imagine what Jackson could have done within the horror genre had he continued making them past the 90’s, but his early films like Dead Alive are certainly enough to satisfy.
Dead Alive is set in Wellington, New Zealand, where a young man named Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) lives with his overbearing and inquisitive mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody). While following Lionel and his newfound love, Paquita (Diana Peñalver), to the zoo, Vera is bitten by a “Sumatran rat-monkey” that carries a deadly disease along with it. Little by little, Vera develops a disgusting appearance and unusual animalistic behavior caused by the recent bite. It isn’t long before this amusing setup turns into a full-blown zombie film chalk full of blood and visual gags. While some of the gross-out comedy featured in Dead Alive may not be for everyone, it’s hard not to respect how outrageously gory and unique it is, even in comparison to the other great zombie films that came before it.
2. House (1977)
Have you ever thought about what a horror movie might look like if the story was created by a child? Look no further than the incredibly creative Japanese horror comedy, House. When coming up with ideas for the film, Director Nobuhiko Obayashi sought out the imagination of his young daughter, Chigumi Obayashi. She helped so much, in fact, that she was actually credited with the story of the film. The result is something so chaotic and disorienting that it was always bound to be divisive among audiences, but there’s no denying it’s memorability and audacity to do something different.
Some of the characters in House are fittingly named as if they came from the mind of a child. The main character, a young girl named Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), has just been told that she will have a new stepmom years after her real mothers death. Looking for temporary escape, Gorgeous goes to her aunt’s house along with her friends, Kung Fu, Prof, Fantasy, Mac, Sweet, and Melody. From then on, it turns into an absolute bonkers haunted house film with constant flurries of intentionally sloppy special effects. While some of the supernatural events that take place within the house would sound legitimately terrifying on paper, the tone and execution of these occurrences make them rather comedic at times.
3. Society (1989)
Body horror is typically defined by its intense and graphic content, making the combination of this horror subgenre and comedy a bit more tricky than usual. However, there are some rare films like 1989’s Society that get that combination right. Society isn’t really supposed to be laugh-out- loud funny, but the directorial debut from Brian Yuzna was able to conjure up an interesting blend of social satire and disturbing imagery. While some scenes are sure to disgust, others contain lines that may leave viewers genuinely surprised at just how funny and unforgettable they are.
Society introduces us to the privileged world of Billy Whitney (Billy Warlock), a 17 year old boy who already feels like he’s living in a nightmare where the very mention of his rich, happy family makes him uneasy. Of course, this is understandable considering how strange they really are. His sister’s body seems to bubble and morph before his eyes, while his parents participate in strange activities like staring at garden slugs in their free time. It turns out that his suspicions are completely valid when he hears a recording of his family seemingly participating in acts that, at the very least, sound less than appropriate. As Billy begins to question what’s going on around him, more and more dark humor and outrageous body horror ensues.
4. Cemetery Man (1994)
Neither the first nor the last zombie movie on this list is Cemetery Man. This wonderful 90’s gem is directed by Michele Soavi, a man with an interesting history in the horror genre. In the early 80’s, Soavi gained experience working as an actor in films, some of which were made by italian horror director Lucio Fulci. He also got to work as an assistant director on several films directed by Dario Argento, a master of the giallo horror genre. In Cemetery Man, the influence of Fulci and Argento is definitely there, but Soavi also manages to create a surreal atmosphere that is entirely unique in itself. Of course, this atmosphere has its fair share of unusual humor, but it also contains some beautiful and thought-provoking scenes that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
Cemetery Man revolves around Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everette), a cemetery groundskeeper who resides in a small italian town. Francesco is a bit strange and always appears on edge, but he’s got a good reason: people in the cemetery are rising from their graves, constantly forcing him and his assistant, Gnaghi, to comically kill them once again. This becomes even more complicated when an unnamed love interest of Francesco (Anne Falchi) is suddenly bitten in the cemetery. As he kills more and more of the”returners,” the line begins to blur between what is dead and what is truly living, creating a strange and satisfying mix of dark comedy and dreamlike sequences.
5. Body Bags (1993)
When you reflect on horror legends John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, which films of theirs come to mind first? The most likely answers to that question will include classics like The Thing, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Poltergeist. While these films are endlessly rewatchable and certainly the most impressive, their frightening atmosphere is very different from the comedic tone displayed in Body Bags, a film directed by both Carpenter and Hooper, as well as Larry Sulkis. Body Bags is an anthology consisting of three segments, one for each director. In between each segment is a bookend by Carpenter himself, who plays a coroner that finds joy in the different stories of those lying in the body bags before him. Carpenter is perfect for this role, and it only adds to the playful mood experienced through the rest of the film.
The first segment, directed by Sulkis, is entirely set at a gas station where Anne (Alex Datcher) begins her first night shift. Throughout the night, she meets several characters ranging from creepy to humorous and everything in between. These encounters include cameos from Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and David Naughton, making it a fun, referential time for horror fans. The second segment, directed by Carpenter, follows a middle-aged man named Richard (Stacy Keach) who faces a common problem: hair loss. Richard is hilariously self-conscious about it, and he goes to very excessive lengths to get his hair and confidence back. The third segment, directed by Hooper, delivers another surprising acting appearance with Mark Hamill as Brent, a baseball player who loses his eye in a car accident. After jumping at the opportunity to receive the world’s first eye transplant, Brent begins to experience strange visions and memories that could only be explained by the recent operation.