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Miller, Cynthia J. and A. Bowdoin Van Riper, editors. The Laughing Dead: The Horror-Comedy Film from Bride of Frankenstein to Zombieland.

Miller, Cynthia J. and A. Bowdoin Van Riper, editors. The Laughing Dead: The Horror-Comedy Film from Bride of Frankenstein to Zombieland. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. 272 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-4422-6832-6. $85.00.

Holding Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper's gorgeous book in one's hands already is a tasty treat. It is hefty, there is no doubt about that--and its hardcover binding gives it even more significant weight--but it is alluring. The title The Laughing Dead is as quirky as it is catchy and contemporary, and the brilliant palette of blue-violet juxtaposed with red-orange accents on its fleshly backdrop colorfully establishes the book's core argument to follow: that two polar opposites on any wheel or spectrum, when brought together, become complementary and dynamic. For Miller and Van Riper, of course, the wheel is film genre, and the contraries are horror and comedy. An important alchemical hybridity happens, this book argues, when elements of horror and elements of comedy coalesce and, as Miller and Van Riper tease in opening their Introduction, "The undead are unfunny. Or at least, they're supposed to be" (xiii).

The sixteen essays of The Laughing Dead are organized into three Parts: "Part I: Playing with Genre" has five essays that deal with a variety of ways in which the genre of comedy upsets (for better and for worse) the genre of undead horror stories from World War II to our contemporary; "Part II: Horror, in Theory" has six essays that engage with this tradition of comedy- meeting-undead-horror to investigate how either seemingly opposite element challenges and augments the other for a dynamic hybrid; and "Part III: There Goes the Neighborhood" has five essays that explore undead horror films that comically situate the undead in somewhat surprising locales, from the city to suburbia to DIY science labs. A tight Introduction also opens the edited collection.

All five of the essays in "Part I: Playing with Genre" are thoughtful pieces that start the conversation of comedy and horror coming together, but there are two stand-out contributions here: Christina M. Knopf's "Zany Zombies, Grinning Ghosts, Silly Scientists, and Nasty Nazis: Comedy-Horror at the Threshold of World War II" and Eric Cesar Morales's "Beyond Fear in The Book of Life: Discussions on Children, Death, and Latinidad." Knopf's central thesis posits that while the cinematic door may at first appear mundane, its tropic potential as a comedic prop for slapstick antics in tandem with its fixedness as a synecdoche for the haunted house in horror makes it a worthy entry point for examining horror-comedy. "Th[i]s in-between-ness," she argues, "is what gives the movies their spooky humor and what may have given audiences an acceptable outlet to laugh at death, the most disturbing reality of war" (35). Brilliantly, the threshold/door metaphor is not just Knopf's thesis but is an actual framework for her essay--she uses her essay's very subtitles to tell a sustained knock-knock joke about Death!

Morales's chapter is likewise strong, and it looks at the "difficult pairings" that "[c]hildren's films and death form" (71). Morales makes many important insights in his deep readings of death in children's films via pedagogy, the Bildungsroman, and Joseph Campbell's hero monomyth. For example, following a discussion of death in children's films where he points out (with Disney examples such as Bambi, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo) that "[w]hen the protagonist is a child ... adults who represent 'home' are often eliminated" (73), Morales states that The Book of Life's "constant revisiting of death and the motifs associated with it, as well as its presentation of death as seemingly random, are what separate it from the majority of children's cinema, [and] move it into the realm of horror" (73). This situating of death in children's films is crucial for anyone studying or interested in children's film studies and visual culture, whether they are interested in monsters and horror and Latinidad or otherwise.

"Part II: Horror, in Theory" continues the central discussions of The Laughing Dead with more emphatic focus on the dynamic hybridity of horror and comedy, and three chapters in this part augment the "in Theory" component of the section's title. Martin F. Norden's "'We're Not All Dead Yet': Humor amid the Horror in James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein" is an informative, carefully nuanced analysis that examines Bride of Frankenstein's wide range of comedic elements--including ones "revealed in scenes that Whale filmed but decided to cut and [in] scenes described in the screenplay that were never filmed" (103)--to argue robustly that "the filmmakers took the ingredients that make up the Christ and Frankenstein stories and tossed them into a blender to see what comically sacrilegious material would result" (113). In addition to this graphic thesis, Norden's film history discussions of Bride of Frankenstein is worth reading through his organizational breakdown into sections of "Origins," "Views from 1935," and "Modern Assessments."

The chapters that each open and close Part II, then, engage with audience theory and are apt bookends for this theoretical section. Murray Leeder takes ideas of laughing at old/dated films as a point of entry to interrogate what he sees as the blurring of diegetic and non-diegetic spaces (89) for participatory viewing/audience interaction in his opening essay, "The Humor of William Castle's Gimmick Films," and Chris Yogerst's closing essay, "Rules for Surviving a Horror Comedy: Satiric Genre Transformation from Scream to Zombieland," hits notes of nostalgia through historical situations of media development with viewership for critical readings, comparisons, and extended discussion of Scream and of Zombieland for "genre-savvy" viewers (175). Yogerst's core argument declares, "If Scream represents the beginning of the trend toward self-reflexive horror-comedy films that began in the last years of the twentieth century, then Zombieland represents that trend in its fully mature form" (170). Scholars, historians, and fans alike with interests in audience participation, cult followings, and self-reflexivity will find these two chapters key readings, and each of these chapters' strong focus on cultural criticism and paracinematic supporting evidence make them ideal framing texts for this second part of Miller and Van Riper's collection.

The five essays of "Part III: There Goes the Neighborhood" abound with "incongruous juxtapositions," as Miller and Van Riper remark of them in their Introduction (xxii), and we see this with the numerous family-oriented (if not family-friendly) films up for analysis. Van Riper's own essay, "'Who You Gonna Call?' The Supernatural and the Service Economy in the Ghostbuster Films," investigates both micro- and macroscales of intimacy in the original Ghostbusters duology that he argues could have been "straightforward apocalyptic horror film[s]--Godzilla, with ghosts" (211), but that now have an almost eternal and "touchingly real" (213) sense of familiality and global patriotism to them today in our post-9/11 contemporary moment. The two key essays in this section, however, are Michael C. Reiffs "Better Living through Zombies: Assessing the Allegory of Consumerism and Empowerment in Andrew Currie's Fido" and Leila Estes and Katherine Kelp-Stebbins' "Undead in Suburbia: Teaching Children to Love Thy Neighbor, Fangs and All." Reiffs chapter is pure joy to read, both critically and prosaically. He tackles "the candy-colored corporate haze" (198) of consumerist culture via the commodification of zombies that occurs in the film Fido (2006) through an unexpected (yet hauntingly potent) historical framework of "the dehumanization, and the reintegration, of the Japanese that took place during and after World War II in the U.S. media" (192). Ultimately, Reiff argues that, "if we consider the zombie as a product, and not simply a monster, an even more disturbing dystopian visions emerges" (199). And Estes and Kelp-Stebbins' critical analyses of the family films ParaNorman (2012), The Little Vampire (2000), The Addams Family (1991), and Beetlejuice (1988) is important reading in the age of Trump. "Undead characters like zombies, ghosts, and vampires," Estes and Kelp-Stebbins argue, "create the possibility for diversity and also serve as ironic reflections of staid suburbanites," and Estes and Kelp-Stebbins specifically outline how "[t]hese movies show young viewers that fear of difference and inability to accept change is its own form of living death" (227). Estes and Kelp-Stebbins conclude their essay on "the didactic potential of the films in this chapter" with the profound idea that these films "invite children to laugh at, and sympathize with, the monsters that they have been trained to fear" (241).

Miller and Van Riper's edited collection The Laughing Dead: The Horror-Comedy Film from Bride of Frankenstein to Zombieland is a smart and significant addition to scholarship on film studies, visual culture, and the umbrella of sci-fi/fantasy media. It is accessible to non-specialists in these fields as well as to those outside of academic culture. The gems in this book make it worth owning (rather than perpetually renewing from the library), and the more hidden moments of political, historical, literary, and cultural wisdom make it worth savoring.
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Author:Mayberry, Tommy
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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