Reversing Traditional Gender Representations in Contemporary Zom-Coms

Following the success of The Evil Dead series in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the popularity of zombie horror-comedies, or “Zom-Coms,” has steadily increased throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s. This popularity solidified a new conformity in certain narrative components of the subgenre, particularly in its gender roles and relations. While the comedy in The Evil Dead films mostly derives from the over-the-top violence and zany one-liners, its spiritual successors, such as Braindead (1992), Shaun of the Dead (2003), and Doghouse (2012), among others, emphasize the emasculated male hero attempting to deal with the undead as the source of humor. The women serve as the source of this emasculation and the first link in the causal chain that forces the men toward the threat (zombies) that they are ill equipped to handle. Thus, in contemporary zombie horror-comedies, the male protagonist is emasculated at the hands of the oppressive female, and this emasculation renders the protagonist incapable of repelling the zombie hordes, which serves as both a source of intensified horror and comedy.

First, it is important to note how these films function as horror-comedies. In Noël Carroll’s essay, “Horror and Humor,” Carroll argues that many genres can be identified and distinguished by certain character types that inhabit their narrative worlds (Carroll 147). In the horror film, the most central character type is the monster. By Carroll’s definition, a monster must meet three criteria: the monster cannot be explained by contemporary science, the monster must be threatening, and the monster must be impure, with this impurity arising from a violation or contradiction of cultural categories (Carroll 150). As the reanimated dead, zombies are certainly inexplicable by modern science. They are also threatening in that they attempt to kill and eat living people, and they are impure because they occupy the contradictory categories of being both living and dead.

However, the presence of a monster is not sufficient for a comprehensive definition of horror. Monsters can exist in films without producing what Carroll refers to as the emotion of “art-horror” (Carroll 149). Horror films, whether they are successful in producing art-horror or not, are “generally designed to guide audience response” (Carroll 149). Therefore, the second necessary condition of a horror film is the intention of the filmmaker to produce art-horror in the audience, with the object of that emotion being the monster. This can be read in a horror film through the reactions that characters have toward the monster, with the implication that the audience should reciprocate those reactions (Carroll 150).

While all three of the aforementioned films meet these requirements, with the zombies constituting monsters and being the object of art-horror, they also have the intention of producing comic amusement in the audience. The emotions of art-horror and comic amusement may seem incompatible at first glance, but Carroll argues that they actually work well together because they share the attribute of being “necessarily linked to the problematization, violation, or transgression of standing categories, norms, and concepts” (Carroll 152). In comedy, what is referred to as the incongruity theory involves “the bringing together of disparate or contrasting ideas or concepts” (Carroll 153). Thus, what causes a sense of impurity in the monster of a horror film can also create comic amusement in certain contexts. For the genre of horror-comedy, this most often requires the subtraction of the second attribute of a monster (that it must be threatening). Once the frightening elements of a monster are removed, and it no longer poses a threat to the characters in the film, then it is reduced to a scientifically inexplicable contradiction of categories, and is therefore capable to produce comic amusement for the audience (Carroll 153).

However, while the comedy in a horror-comedy film can be achieved by removing the threatening attribute of a monster, it is not a necessary requirement of the genre. In Braindead, Shaun of the Dead, and Doghouse, the threat posed by the zombies remains throughout the films, and yet the films are still comedic. This is accomplished through the characterization of the male hero and his female counterparts. In Katherine Low’s essay on gender representation and biblical allegory in post-apocalyptic films, she argues that it is the learned expectation of audiences that the male hero will require certain traits to take on whatever threatens humanity (Low 12). In a film that presents an end-of-times scenario in which a male protagonist is pitted against an all-pervasive threat or force of evil, the audience is trained to have the “active expectation of masculine behavior” (Low 5) which is further perpetuated, particularly for Western audiences, by the “popular American fascination with the lone sacrificial male hero who prevails in the end through his strength” (Low 12). This characterization is further exemplified in the film that originated the tropes of the modern zombie genre, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). In this film, the central male character, Ben, becomes the traditional male hero that audiences anticipate when he takes action to try to save the group of survivors and becomes increasingly violent to fight off the zombies (Bishop 204). In post-apocalyptic horror films, a singular, strong male is expected by audiences of the genre to fight and defeat the monstrous threat.

In contrast to this conception of the male hero is the secondary female character. Within the established audience expectations of the genre, this character functions either as a sexual prize for the male hero, or a sexualized barrier that distracts the hero from his goals (Low 15). In either case, the females are only defined in relation to the male hero and do not “command primary action in the film” (Low 16). Instead, the male hero holds power over both the action of the narrative and the female body, whereas the female’s only purpose is the sexual fulfillment of the male. In short, audiences have come to expect “a sexualized femininity…[and] an active and violent masculinity” from the female counterpart and the male hero, respectively (Low 16).

While the characters of Braindead, Shaun of the Dead, and Doghouse all exist in post-apocalyptic scenarios, in which some kind of virus or biological disaster is causing a threat to all of humanity, the gender representations do not align with audience expectations, and by extension cultural norms. In fact, the gender representations and relations directly contradict the cultural norms that have been established for such a post-apocalyptic setting. In these contemporary zom-coms, the male protagonists exist in a “state of enigmatic stasis where goals are unreachable” (Pagano 81). The male “hero” is stripped of his productive, action-guiding nature and emasculated by the oppressive female, rendering him ineffectual against the zombie hordes.

In Peter Jackson’s Braindead (released as Dead Alive in North America), the protagonist, Lionel, is a shy, self-effacing man who is psychologically abused by his overbearing mother, Vera. When Lionel becomes attracted to another woman, Paquita, Vera becomes jealous. While secretly pursuing Lionel and Paquita on their date at the zoo, the mother is bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey and falls ill. She eventually turns into a zombie and starts killing people, creating more zombies. Lionel tries unsuccessfully to hide his mother in the basement and contain the outbreak, but she escapes and creates even more zombies. During the final confrontation between Lionel and the zombies, Lionel finally stands up to his mother, who has now mutated into a giant, zombie-rat hybrid creature. Once Lionel embraces his masculinity to defeat his mother, he is able to live happily with Paquita.

Similarly to Braindead, the male hero in Shaun of the Dead is inadequate when trying to defeat the zombies. The film establishes the title character, Shaun, as lazy and unmotivated. He lives with his best friend, Ed, who is equally lazy and unmotivated. The tension between Shaun and his girlfriend, Liz, is established early and quickly leads to Shaun getting dumped. Following a night of drinking to lament his dead relationship, Shaun wakes up to find that the dead have risen from their graves all across London. With Ed’s help, he decides to find Liz and his mother and save them all from the epidemic. However, the majority of their group ends up turning into zombies (including Ed and Shaun’s mother), due mostly to a series of poor decisions made by Shaun. However, in the end, Shaun and Liz survive and live happily together, with Ed as their pet zombie.

In Doghouse, a group of seven male friends go on a “boy’s weekend” to escape the respective women in there lives and to help the central member of their group, Vince, get over his recent divorce. While each member of the group feels trapped and emasculated by their girlfriends and wives, they attempt to free themselves and flaunt their masculinity, only to be faced with a horde of zombified, man-hating women at their destination. After the zombie women kill four of their friends, Vince and three other members of the group eventually make it out alive. As they drive away, the remaining survivors laugh about their ruined vacation.

In all three films, the male hero, and occasionally his male compatriots, are emasculated, with this emasculation functioning as the source of intensified horror and comedy for the spectator. While the zombies in all three films serve as the central object of art-horror, the art-horror is intensified by the inadequate nature of the male hero. By Katherine Low’s analysis, in a post-apocalyptic scenario, audiences come to expect a singular male hero to be aggressively masculine and capable of handling a powerful threat (Low 5). However, Lionel, Shaun, and Vince contradict this expectation. They are weak, relatively unintelligent, and unprepared to fight or even cope with the existence of the zombie threat. By making these characters ineffectual, the tension is heightened in the film. Having an unmotivated or timid protagonist of this sort decreases the likelihood that the characters will make it out alive, thus amplifying the threat that the zombies pose and intensifying the emotion of art-horror for the spectator.

However, the shift from hero to ineffectual coward also functions as the source of comedy in these films. As Carroll argues, horror and comedy share the trait of being necessarily involved in the application of contradictory or problematic categories. Much like with the impurity of horrific monsters, incongruity comedy involves the “inappropriate transgressions of norms or commonplace expectations” (Carroll 154). In these zom-coms, the comedy arises from the denial of our expectations regarding gender representation. The spectator expects to see a strong, masculine hero, but instead the male protagonists are nothing of the sort.

For example, in Braindead, Lionel is repeatedly associated with maternity and objects of the home life, which, in Western society, are stereotypically associated with femininity. In one such instance, a group of zombies pursue Lionel into the laundry room, where he drops a pile of linens on them to allow for his escape. Shortly after this, Lionel breaks through a wall using a laundry iron. During an earlier scene, Lionel, attempting to care for the zombified baby of a deceased friend, wheels the child around the park in a stroller. Even this proves too much for him, as he loses control of the stroller and must chase after it before someone discovers the child’s condition. Lionel even tries to diffuse the situation and appear “normal” by imitating a nearby woman who is playing with her child. In this way, Lionel functions as a contradiction and regressive version of the traditional male hero. The film functions as an “inversion of the hero’s journey, proceeding through the inner spaces of the home and the maternal body” (Badley 44). In all of these examples, it is Lionel’s contradiction of common expectations that becomes comedic. He is feminine rather than masculine, and in turn ineffectual rather than effective against the zombie horde.

In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun is frequently identified as being underachieving and undeserving of a relationship with Liz. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert notes that Liz is “smart and ambitious and wants to get ahead in the world” whereas Shaun and Ed are slackers who “maintain their slothful gormlessness in the face of urgent danger” (Ebert 7). Rather than associating Shaun with objects of femininity to render him ineffectual, the film simply portrays Shaun as lacking a strong, masculine drive. If the male hero drives the action of the narrative, and Shaun is markedly lazy and unmotivated, then he lacks a key feature of what it is to be a man in the traditional sense, and is therefore inadequate as the male hero.

In Doghouse, the male characters, particularly Vince, are presented as ineffectual through a physical inferiority to the female zombies. When the men arrive at their destination, the female zombies are stronger and much more physically aggressive than the men. In the end, their only hope for survival is to run away. The men are simply incapable of defeating the female monsters due to physical difference. In this way, the expectation of a strong, masculine hero is undermined by the even stronger female.

However, in all three films it is only when the protagonists rediscover their masculinity that they are able to defeat, or at the very least evade the zombies. Lionel must confront his mother about her terrible treatment of him and ultimately kill her, while Shaun must rescue Liz and kill the zombified version of his mother as well. While the men of all three films must come to similar revelations to overcome the threat, the conclusions drawn in Doghouse are more overtly misogynistic than Braindead and Shaun of the Dead. This is most evidence when Vince “realizes, having fought tooth and nail with one hell-bent [woman] after another…no woman is worth the bother” (Wigley 60). In all three films, the male hero can only reaffirm his masculine qualities and defeat the monstrous threat when he frees himself of the oppressive female.

It has already been established that all three films utilize a male antihero to amplify the emotion of art-horror and produce comic amusement in the audience, but it is also necessary to address the narrative cause of the male’s ineffectuality. Whereas the traditional expectation of the female is as a powerless secondary character whose only function is to fulfill the male hero’s sexual needs, the females of the contemporary zom-com operate in a very different way. The females of these films work to contradict our expectations in a way that justifies and intensifies the male protagonist’s shortcomings. Rather than merely being sexualized objects of male desire, the women function as oppressive, powerful characters that cause the initial emasculation of the protagonist. In this context, the female is defined through her ability to metaphorically “remove the phallus” and, to a degree, become a threat to the male as a “castrating woman,” resulting in a feminized male (Patterson 106). While the narrative is still driven by the male characters (albeit through their bad decisions), it is the females that function as the source of emasculation and the force that pushes the men toward the zombie threat.

In Braindead, the mother, Vera, is domineering and works to make Lionel believe that he is incapable of existing without her. When Lionel falls for Paquita, it is only Vera’s overbearing nature that leads to her own infection. Without his controlling mother or the intrusion of Paquita in their lives, Lionel would not be the emasculated hero. In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun is initially emasculated when Liz dumps him. This confirms that he is a lackluster boyfriend and bruises his ego. He is also emasculated by his mother, who frequently berates Shaun like a child for not respecting his stepfather. And similarly in Doghouse, the entire narrative depends upon the initial emasculation that the female, and any form of intimate relations with a female, impose on the male. Vince and his friends try to free themselves of females, only to find that this is impossible. The females initially force them towards the threat, and this threat also happens to be female. Once the female zombies have physically emasculated them, Vince and the remaining survivors must shamefully return to the women they disdain.

It is important to note that this trend is not isolated to these three films. The emasculated male/oppressive female relationship is prevalent in many other contemporary zombie-comedies, such as the relationship between Francesco and the unnamed widow in Dellamorte Dellamore (1994), Columbus and Wichita in Zombieland (2009), and “R” and Julie in Warm Bodies (2013). In all of these films, the intensified horror and humor derives from a contradiction in our expectations, and by extension our conception of cultural norms. The strong male hero who embodies traditional notions of masculinity is replaced with a weaker, ineffectual hero, whose inadequacy is the result of an oppressive female. By being weaker, the men are made completely inept against the monstrous threat, which serves to increase the tension caused by the threat and simultaneously allow for comic amusement. Ultimately, these elements have shifted the zombie-comedy subgenre into a more reactionary state. While the monsters are not always defeated (in Doghouse they are simply left to become someone else’s problem), they are still represented as entities that should be defeated. More importantly, at the end of each of these films, the male characters are only able to defeat or escape the zombies when they rediscover their lost masculinity. While the films start with non-traditional character types (weak male/strong female), the narratives end up reinforcing traditional gender roles and institutions, namely that of a strong male in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship with a weaker female. Ultimately, the films reinforce the very contradictions that initially work to produce art-horror and comic amusement for the audience.

Badley, Linda. “Zombie Splatter Comedy from Dawn to Shaun: Cannibal Carnivalesque.”

Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008. 35-54. Print.

Bishop, Kyle. “Raising the Dead.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33.4 (2006): 196-205. Print.

Carroll, Noël. “Horror and Humor.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 57.2 (1999): 145-60. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Shaun of the Dead.” Rev. of Shaun of the Dead. Chicago Sun-Times [Chicago] 24 Sept. 2004. 7. Print.

Low, Katherine. “Satan’s Seductress and the Apocalyptic Hero: The Body in American Apocalyptic Films at the Turn of the Century.” Journal of Religion & Film 13.2 (2009): 1-16. Print.

Pagano, David. “The Space of Apocalypse in Zombie Cinema.” Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008. 71-86. Print.

Patterson, Natasha. “Cannibalizing Gender and Genre: A Feminist Re-Vision of George Romero’s Zombie Films.” Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008. 103-15. Print.

Wigley, Samuel. “Doghouse.” Rev. of Doghouse. Sight & Sound Aug. 2009: 58-60. Print.


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