Your Mother Ate My Dog! Peter Jackson and Gore-Comedy
The idea of a “gore-comedy” sub-genre came to me after viewing Peter Jackson’s first three films, Bad Taste (1988), Meet the Feebles (1989) and Braindead [1992 [released as Dead Alive in North America] over the course of a few days at the (now defunct) 1992 Montreal Festival International Cinéma Fantastique.* The initiation into Jackson’s madcap arena was a wildly unique cinema-viewing experience. Horror and comedy, no strange bedfellows, had never interacted at such a sustained level of giddiness. Near-packed audiences of men and women laughed hysterically at horrific, gross imagery. Violence, dismemberment and other gore-effects, usually the province of the slasher film, was so undercut by humor that the audience was being “entertained” rather than reviled.
By fusing horror with comedy, specifically silent comedy techniques, Jackson had solidified a new sub-genre of the horror film: gore-comedy. With some critical distance, the gore-comedy sub-genre can be seen as a cycle which began in the early eighties, peaked by the end of the decade, and continued to linger into the 1990’s. The cycle includes directors whom Jackson admires, such as Sam Raimi (Evil Dead (1983), Evil Dead 2 (1987), Army of Darkness (1993) and Stuart Gordon (Re-animator 1985), as well as Brian Yuzna (Society 1989, Bride of the Re-animator 1990), Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case 1982, Brain Damage 1988, Basket Case 2 1990, Frankenhooker 1990), Jackie Kong (Blood Diner 1987) and other (mainly) independent filmmakers. To best understand Jackson’s work and gore-comedy in general we must look first to recent developments in the horror genre.
SLASHER TO GORE-COMEDY
From the late 1970’s to mid-1980’s the horror genre was dominated by the slasher film, triggered in large part by the mega-successes of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). The early-1980’s saw a welcome shift away from the tired and simplistic emotional responses, narrative conventions and repetitive camera strategies of the slasher film. Philip Brophy in his perceptive 1983 essay “Horrality -the Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films” discusses a cycle of films instrumental in signalling this shift away from the slasher film: the “body-horror” film.  To define this film he coined the term “horrality,” meant to encompass “horror, textuality, morality, and hilarity.” According to Brophy these films are marked by an increased viscerality and pleasure in defilement of the human body, with the body gruesomely deformed on-camera without the aid of editing, such as the stomach bursting scene in Alien (1979), the exploding head in Scanners (1981), and the bone crunching, body extending human-to-monster transformations in The Howling (1981), An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Beast Within (1982) and The Thing (1982).
Make-up artist extraordinaire Rick Baker
Occurring in real-time, the attraction of these body mutations and transformations is partly technological, with the audience wondering in gaped amazement at how the effect was achieved, much like the masses of people attending the Grand Guignol Theatre in late 1890’s Paris to marvel at the illusionary on-stage stabbings, eye-gougings, throat slittings and other variances of stylised blood-letting.  But where slasher films were violent and devoid of humor, the body-horror films moved away from this grim, realist-based knife/axe violence to a more stylised, fantastic and in some cases metaphysical, form of violence.
Gareth Sansom articulates this shift by expanding Brophy’s “horrality.” Sansom writes how in the contemporary horror film the human body undergoes a transformation from the body into flesh , with the body losing its subjectivity and its “human-ness.” Body mutilation and transformation play an important role in gore-comedy as well. For example, in the films of Henenlotter, Yuzna and Gordon, the body often undergoes a metamorphosis or fusion with itself, another human body, or an animal to produce a bizarre, unnameable species: Basket Case (a deformed Siamese twin housed in a wicker basket), Bride of The Re-Animator (a disembodied head with a pair of bat wings grafted onto it; a five fingered, one-eyed creature; and a head with a hand sprouting out of it); Society (a body so contorted that the face sticks out of the buttock, and talks!; a woman with breasts on her back). In the seminal body-horror film The Thing, a character witnessing one such surreal metamorphosis (a severed head that sprouts spider-like tentacles and crawls away) speaks for the audience when he incredulously blurts out “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!”
These examples reveal how gore-comedy has shifted the emphasis away from horror to “hilarity,” which in the hands of good filmmakers has led to philosophical speculation and/or social satire. For example, both Henenlotter and Yuzna maintain a strong sense of social conscience in their gore-comedy. Yuzna’s Society literalizes the adage “the rich feeding off the poor” into a surreal body fusing ritual called “shunting.” While Henenlotter expresses a unique and, for some, uneasy blend of social conscience and exploitation cinema in the three Basket Case films (treatment of physical deformity), Brain Damage (substance addiction) and Frankenhooker (a feminist twist on the Frankenstein story).
As the preceding paragraphs demonstrate, gore-comedy has taken full advantage of advancements in special effects technology. However, the verisimilitude allowed by recent effects/make-up technology has increased the problem of censorship (not new to the horror film). This problem is compounded by the MPAA’s (Motion Picture Association of America) double standard for assigning a rating: lenient toward violence-filled major studio releases (for example, Hannibal), especially non-horror films, and harsher toward independently produced films.Gore-comedy has for the most part been able to circumvent censorship or avoid the MPAA’s economically damaging “unrated” label (which severely hampers distribution). Peter Jackson reiterates this point when he compares his Braindead to the notorious Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Jackson notes that while Braindead, one of the goriest films ever made, was released uncut in England and Australia, two nations known for the wrath of their censors, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which has far less gore but next to no humor, encountered censorship problems in several countries. Henry proved controversial because it did not offer a moral position toward the horrible acts of violence or a psychological explanation for them (though there is some humor in Henry, it is decidely of the dark and morbid variety). The mix of comedy and horror in gore-comedy undercuts the overall profundity and intensity and therefore eliminates the need for a moral voice or psychological explanation (though satire is still possible).
GORE-COMEDY: PREDECESSORS & CLASSICS
The body-horror film can be seen as a necessary or transitional phase between the slasher film and the gore-comedy. Gore-comedy deviated from the body-horror film by exploring the comedic possibilities of the genre’s special effects/makeup technology, visual strategy and characterisation. A short list of films that have been important to the development of the gore-comedy are Dawn of the Dead (1979), The Evil Dead (1983), Re-Animator (1985), Return of the Living Dead (1985) and The Evil Dead 2: Dead Before Dawn (1987).
Romero’s Dawn of the Dead broke new ground for its mixing of viscerality with satire. Dawn of the Dead‘s zombie“ism”-as-consumerism metaphor was greatly strengthened by Tom Savini’s creative make-up and special effects work, which quickly set a new standard for zombie gore-mayhem. You could say that the form (excessive special effects/make-up) literally became the content (consumer capitalism)! The film is much darker and horrific than most gore-comedies but it does contain perhaps the first conscious gore-gag in a scene where a none-too-bright zombie steps onto a crate and has the top portion of his head sliced off by the moving blades of a landed helicopter. Romero also includes a direct reference to silent comedy with a pie-throwing scene.
The Evil Dead, a demonic possession film, pointed the way toward gore-comedy with its frenetic over-the-top camera movements and pumped-up clichés. The Evil Dead‘s two sequels cemented the lineage between body-horror and gore-comedy in 1987 and 1993. The Evil Dead was a fresh and exciting distillation of classic horror film rhetoric. Narrative time was taken to establish characters, setting, and plot and to slowly build suspense that led to an extended horrific climax (it takes thirty-five minutes before the first zombie appears). In The Evil Dead humor is a release valve for the nervous tension generated by the horror. Evil Dead 2, more a remake than sequel, sheds all pretences of plot and suspense. The first zombie appears five minutes into the film and all hell (literally) breaks loose for 80 remaining minutes of sustained hysteria. The first film to have similarly sustained moments of horrific hysteria was perhaps Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, made two years before Evil Dead 2. More so than Evil Dead, however, the twisted black humor in Return grows steadfastly from characters trapped in absurd situations rather than the kinetic style of the “Evil Dead” films.
Flying Zombie Anyone?
The use of stop motion animation in Evil Dead 2 is reflective of a change in tone from horror to self-parody, and foreshadows the cartoonish tone of Raimi’s second sequel, Army of Darkness (1993). Partly to avoid battle with the MPAA, Sam Raimi shifted completely to camp-parody with this second sequel. The result has little in common with the original and only augments the parody of
Evil Dead 2 through a broadened intertextuality (The Three Stooges, Ray Harryhausen, Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, J’Accuse, The Manster, The Day the Earth Stood Still). 
Stuart Gordon’s unrated version of Re-Animator was a ground breaking Lovecraftian-Freudian gore-comedy. Much of the film’s sordid pulp imagery is still shocking today, such as the scene of Dr. Hill carrying around his disembodied head on a platter or the perverse scene where the disembodied head slobbers over the nude heroine’s strapped body.
The impact of the British comic troupe Monty Python is especially important for understanding the nature of gore-comedy’s genre transgression. Monty Python was the first television/film comedians to use excessive bloodletting to a comic end. Witness their television parody of Sam Peckinpah, "Salad Days" (1972), in which a quaint picnic turns into a blood-spurting marathon of non-sensically falling limbs, or the gore-filled moments in The Holy Grail (1975) (a knight is severed of all his limbs into a stump, but still has the tenacity to continue fighting) and The Meaning of Life (1983) (the carnage of severed limbs, sliced corpses and a disembodied talking head in “The First Zulu War” skit; the blood-drenched interns who come calling for “live organ donors,” and everyone’s favorite exploding bourgeois, Mr. Creosote). The context for the gore in Monty Python is strictly comic and not intended to be realistic, but their bold use of gore swathed the way for the excesses of gore-comedy (and had a direct influence on Peter Jackson).
“SPLAT-STICK” AND MORE
I will now concentrate on Peter Jackson, who has taken gore-comedy further than any other filmmaker. Jackson’s appropriation of absurdism and surrealism from Monty Python and sight gag humour from the silent film tradition makes his brand of gore-comedy especially unique and genre transgressive. Whereas other gore-comedy directors rely heavily on reflexivity, parody, and camp, Jackson relies on gag structure to build a comedic sub-text to the gross-out horror. In an interview Jackson referred to his film style as “splat-stick,” a play on slapstick (physical comedy) and splatter (blood-drenched). Since most people associate slapstick only with knockabout physical comedy (The Three Stooges, Mack Sennett, Larry Semon, etc.), Jackson’s term is not entirely descriptive of his work because he also uses more sophisticated forms of visual humor. A brief discussion will clarify these distinctions in visual humor (or sight gags).
In its simplest sense a sight gag is any visually achieved comic effect, what Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik in Popular Film and Television Comedy call “non-linguistic comic action” . But the richness and diversity of silent film comedy forced a more precise definition to account for the differences in comedy construction between early (1907-1915) and later (1916-1925) silent comedy. The distinction to be made is between the simple gag, such as a pratfall or the proverbial slip on the banana peel, (which dominated the early period) and the more intricate developed gag, which necessitated more variables in cutting and mise-en-scene (and dominated the later period). For example, someone slipping on a banana peel is a simple gag; someone seeing the peel, cleverly avoiding it but in the process stepping into a waist-high puddle of mud is a developed gag. A close-up slow-burn stare into the camera, a la Oliver Hardy, adds another comic layer and completes the developed gag. Hence a simple gag is a “one-off” form of slapstick (a kick in the pants, poke in the eye, pie in the face) while a developed gag, though it may include slapstick, builds comic layers through more variables in editing and/or mise-en-scene. In this context, Jackson, who uses more developed gags than simple gags, owes more to Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd than Mack Sennett.
Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and Braindead employ gags that are dependent on violence, bloodletting and mutilation, for which I have coined the term “gore-gag.” Bad Taste is a wildly irreverent film about a group of aliens who invade earth in search of the next intergalactic fast food craze: human meat. Bad Taste contains 58 gags, of which 48 are developed gags and 38 are gore-gags (some overlap). Eighty-three percent of the gags are developed gags and 66% of the gags are gore-gags. By contrast Braindead, a zombie “love story” set in 1950’s Wellington, New Zealand, contains 87 gags, of which 75 are developed and 71 are gore-gags (again, some overlap). Braindead advances the number and percentage of developed gags from 83% to 86% and gore-gags from 66% to 82%. (The remaining gags have no gore content.)
Jackson’s films reveal recurring patterns, situations and elements used to generate gore-gags. To account for these I have come up with a gore-gag taxonomy for form (structure/technique) and content (gag types) with examples taken from Jackson’s films, but which also account for the works of other gore-comedy practitioners.
1-The “Running Gag” is a gag that is repeated with slight variation over the length of a film. For example, in Bad Taste a character named Derek miraculously survives a cliff fall but sustains a nasty cracked cranium. Periodically the film cuts back to Derek recouping fallen pieces of brain as he vainly attempts to, literally, keep his head together (first with his hand, then a hat, then his belt). In Braindead a zombie nurse has a torn head precariously connected at the back of her neck. Her “flip” head becomes a source for several gags: the force of a porcelain bird thrown at her head cause the head to flip back, producing the first of several comical upside down subjective point of view shots; the porcelain bird remains lodged in her forehead for the duration of the film and extended as a gag prop (see example from the “gore-bracelet” gag).
2-The “Gore-Topper” is the final in a gag series which adds a twist or surprise effect. In Bad Taste a protagonist finds himself amongst a group of aliens in human form as they ceremoniously share a bowl of disgusting “gruel” (alien vomit); as the bowl is passed along among the aliens the sole human moves to avoid being the next in line, but must eventually drink from the bowl to conceal his human identity. After all the apprehension he takes a sip, likes it, and does not want to give up the bowl! (See also “Disgusting Food Gag” under gag types.)
3-“Gore-Bracelet Gag”: In The Silent Clowns author Walter Kerr referred to certain Buster Keaton shorts which were held together by a string of linked gags as “charm-bracelet” films. In homage to Kerr, I’ve coined “gore-bracelet gag,” with the same principle applying to a whole scene. For example, in Braindead the zombies form a surrogate family with Lionel the unwilling caretaker: his mother Vera, her nurse Mctavish and lover Father McGruder and the rebellious teen Void. A “family” dinner scene becomes a comedy of the absurd told mainly through a series of linked gore-gags: McTavish’s food oozes out of her severed neck (running gag);
Void thrusts a spoon into his mouth and out the back of his head; Vera whisks the food off the spoon; Lionel uses the porcelain bird (running gag) as a handle to flip back McTavish’s head and spoon feed her directly into her neck; the flirtatious Father McGruder and nurse McTavish begin to kiss; Lionel pulls them apart, their lips stretching until McGruder’s lips tear clean off, leaving a gaping flesh wound around his mouth; cut to a close shot of nurse McTavish savourily chewing the torn lips (appropriately ending the dinner scene).
4-Undercranking is the in-camera effect of filming at below 24 frames per second to achieve fast motion, as was used in early silent comedy. The effect is used to make an otherwise unfunny scene funny, as with the undercranked shot of an alien getting his face pummelled in Bad Taste or to nullify a high gore or blood count, as in the undercranked shots of Uncle Les’ two-handed machete attack on a group of zombies in Braindead. Undercranking is also used in Braindead‘s hilarious cemetery fight scene to parody the martial art film.
Uncle Les admiring his machete handiwork
1-The “Severed Head Gag” is one of the most popular types of gore-gags, appearing in many films with endless variations. The aforementioned cemetery fight scene has an interesting version of the severed head gag. The kung fu fighting Father McGruder (“I kick ass for the lord!”) decapitates a zombie with a kick, sending the head airborne. Gravity prevails as the zombie’s head falls back down onto Father McGruder’s neck and, as zombies are want to do, takes a bite out of his neck (making this also a gore-topper). In Bad Taste an alien has his head and spinal cord ripped out of its body, the cord is then stepped on, torn off and the head kicked out a window as if it were a soccer ball. Other variations of the severed head gag can be found in Re-animator (1985), Street Trash (1987), Evil Dead 2 (1987), and Frankenhooker (1990).
Severed Hand Gag from Evil Dead 2
2-The “Body Part Gag” is similar structurally to the silent comedy “switch gag,” where an object is used as something not of its original design. For example, in Bad Taste a group of aliens use a zombie as a battering ram to knock down a door. In Braindead two woman are attacked by a torso-less zombie. Each grabs a leg and pulls, snapping them apart like a wishbone, then use the leg as a weapon to ward off oncoming zombies. In the Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) we see a variation of the body part gag when with a guitar that is made out of bloodied, human body parts.
Body Part Gag from Braindead
3/4-“Disgusting Food Gag” and “Exploding Body Gag”: Though separate, the antecedent of both these gags may well be the skit in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life where a hugely obese bourgeois, Mr. Creosote, explodes from overeating. The disgusting food gag is a favorite of Peter Jackson’s. Its spirit is nicely captured in the scene in Braindead where Lionel slowly pulls the remnants of a dog from his zombie-mother’s mouth, causing his incredulous girlfriend Paquita to shockingly reply, “Your mother ate my dog!” The following diptych of disgusting food gags from Braindead never fails to elicit stomach-churning groans from the audience. Lionel and his decaying zombie-mother Vera are forced to play host to a couple from the Wellington Ladies Welfare League. During dinner, blood from a wound on Vera’s arm squirts into the guests custard; unknowingly, he gleefully gobbles up the bloodied custard. The gag is topped when Vera’s ear falls into her bowl of custard and she eats it, causing one of the guests to vomit. In Bad Taste an alien is shot in the forehead and falls back against a wall. His head falls forward and a stream of blood flows perfectly into a glass held in his clenched hand. An “exploding body gag” example comes from the scene near the end of Bad Taste, where a bazooka misses its intended target and instead blows up a grazing sheep (as the sheep is one of New Zealand’s national symbols, this gag no doubt provided an added chuckle for domestic audiences).
The Grandaddy of Disgusting Food Gags
Exploding Heads from Dawn of the Dead and Braindead
These examples of gore-gag types and techniques should give the reader a good sense of the emotional tone of Peter Jackson’s films and of gore-comedy in general. Much critical work on the horror film has concentrated on the positioning of the viewer’s emotional response to the narrative: for example H.P. Lovecraft’s “cosmic awe,” Tzvetan Todorov’s “hesitation,” Freud’s “The uncanny,” Carol Clover’s “sadism-masochism” or Noel Carroll’s “art-horror” (fear-disgust) response.  The emotions that Jackson’s gore-gags elicit from the audience do not align well with classical horror film emotion. As an example, we can use Noel Carroll’s “fear-disgust” response as elaborated in The Philosophy of Horror. In gore-comedy we may feel disgust but rarely fear (and never fear and disgust at the same time) because the comedic sub-text of interlocking and running gags undercut the horrific. Hence by the criteria of emotional responses, the gore-comedy defies conventional genre categorization (too funny to be horrific, too gorey to be quaintly funny).
Perhaps the emotion that comes closest to that provoked by gore-comedy is the festive anarchy associated with Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. Indeed, the screenings of Jackson’s films I attended at the Montreal Festival International Cinéma Fantastique had a palpable festive atmosphere, caused no doubt by the collective transgression of taking great pleasure at viewing otherwise horrible, violent acts. It is tempting to situate gore-comedy within Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque because they share many traits (grotesque body, scatological humor, body transformations, excess, and inversion).  While much of gore-comedy aligns itself with the carnivalesque’s festive energy and degradation of all that is noble, it lacks the consistent satirical edge which gives the carnivalesque its political force. 
The recent emergence of gore-comedy is, like all sub-genres or cycles, a result of many interrelated factors. For example, the earlier mentioned relationship between horror films and the MPAA; technological developments in the special effects/makeup field and the aesthetic uses to which they are put; industry attempts to expand potential box-office by joining horror and comedy; and broader cultural factors such as postmodernism (genre pastiche, intertextuality).
With Braindead, Peter Jackson took gore-comedy to its (latex) apex. Indeed after seeing Braindead Sam Raimi admitted that “cannibal slapstick has seen its Intolerance.”  Knowing this, Jackson, its most brilliant director, has left gore-comedy behind for the phantasmagoric Heavenly Creatures (1995), the more character driven American debut The Frighteners (1996), his wonderful mockumentary Forgotten Silver (1997), and, soon, his Lord of the Rings adaptations. However, gore-comedy continues in recently released films such as The Ice Cream Man (1995), Funny Man (1995), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), Tales From the Crypt: Demon Night (1995), Dellamorte Dellamore (1994) [released in North America in 1996 as The Cemetery Man], From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1998), and The Convent (2000). Time will tell whether gore-comedy has run its course or if it will transmogrify. For example, Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore is one of the most original and poetic films in recent years and joins a short list of independently produced, low-budget (under five million) gore-comedy classics: Re-animator, Bad Taste, Evil Dead 2, Society, Brain Damage, and Braindead). However, the recent assimilation of gore-comedy by larger budget (and in most cases major studio) releases (Vampire in Brooklyn, Tales From the Crypt: Demon Night, From Dusk Till Dawn) is arguably a sign that gore-comedy has indeed run its course.
Peter Jackson indulges in some ‘Bad Taste’
*An early version of this paper appeared in a French translation in Séquences #176 Jan./Feb. 1995, p.22-27
1. In an unprecedented turn an academic has translated theory to practise. Philip Brophy has co-written and directed a “body-horror” film entitled Body Melt, an Australian 1994 release
2. John McCarty makes this historical linkage to the Grand Guignol in his book Splatter Movies.
3. The term “New Flesh” is actually used in Cronenberg’s seminal body-horror film Videodrome (1982).
4. Jackson experimented with a similar cartoon style in Meet the Feebles (1989), a wildly irreverent puppet parody.
5. Krutnik, Frank and Steve Neale, Popular Film and Television Comedy (London and New York: Routledge Press, 1990), 51.
6. I refer the reader to the following works: Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (New York and London: Routledge Press, 1990); Howard P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, with introduction by E.F. Bleiler. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1973) (1945); Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, with a foreword by Robert Scholes, translation from the French by Richard Howard, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1975); Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in Creativity and the Unconscious (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958); Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992).
7. For example, as Montreal critic Jean E. Guerin pointed out to me, Braindead takes the usual zombie film premise of barricading a home to stop zombies from entering and inverts it by barricading the home to stop the zombies from leaving. The Peter Jackson film which most clearly fits the carnivalesque is Meet the Feebles, with its grotesque bodies (the aging, overweight burlesque queen hippopotamus, the diseased rabbit, the heroin-addicted frog, the filthy fly, the repellent porn-producer rat, etc.), scatological humor and bawdy language.
8. There are exceptions. The satirical characterisations of Vera’s petty bourgeois aspirations give Braindead the political undertow to classify it as a carnivalesque gore-comedy. The same can be said for the earlier described Society.
9. Michael Atkinson, Film Comment, May-June 1995, p. 33
Other Works Cited
Brophy, Philip. “Horrality-the Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films,” Screen 27/2, Jan-Feb, 1986.
Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
McCarty, John. Splatter Movies, New York: FantaCo Enterprises, Inc., 1981.
Sansom, Gareth. “Fangoric Horrality: The Subject and Ontological Horror in a Contemporary Cinematic Sub-genre” Discours social/Social Discourse 11/1-2, Spring-Summer 1989.