Welcome to A Very Spooky… Twice a month, I will look at and review a classic TV series that is not known for horror but would, on occasion, dip its toes into the waters of terror.
COMMUNITY is true horror in many ways. As time went on, it lost more and more cast members, it was dead only to come back to life (and die again) and it was created by a mad genius, only to almost destroy him. It is also, in my opinion, one of the greatest sitcoms ever created. Light hearted, funny, and often touching. Dan Harmon’s group of seven community college students just trying to make it to graduation never found a large audience, but it certainly had a vocal one.
One of the reasons the show had such dedicated fans was how the show, which started off pretty much set in reality, was willing to get real crazy sometimes. Season one, for example, ended in a school wide paintball match that lasted days. Still, no episode got as full on strange as season two episode six, EPIDEMIOLOGY.
The episode takes place on Halloween, and each character is dressed exactly to their personality. Jeff, who only wears Halloween costumes that show off how good looking he is, arrives as David Beckham. Britta, always looking to go against the system, shows up in a cute dinosaur costume that is far from functional (she can’t hold a cup) but also far from the usual “sexy” costume women wear in Halloween episodes of TV shows. Annie, ever innocent but sexual, is Little Red Riding Hood. Troy and Abed, best friends and full of imagination, come as a Ripley and a Xenomorph from ALIENS. Shirley, the character who is least defined of the main cast is definitely not Miss Piggy. Pierce, old and out of touch, is the William Shatner version of Captain Kirk.
Outside of the main cast, you have Chang dressed as Peggy Flemming as he calls out racists who think he is Michelle Kwan, and Dean Pelton shows up as Lady Gaga. Star Burns is a pirate, Doctor Rich is a banana. Leonard is a pumpkin. Halloween costumes galore!
When it becomes clear that women think his Ripley costume is lame, Troy gets bummed out. Jeff explains that women aren’t attracted to guys who look like they should be at comic-con. Troy, always looking up to Jeff, switches from Ripley to Sexy Dracula, a costume made up of .some toilet paper and those protective paper sheets you put over the toilet seat at a public bathroom.
As you may have guessed, Greendale Community College doesn’t have much money, and in an attempt to save some cash, Dean Pelton buys military surplus taco meat from an Army Navy Store. It all seems to work out – everyone loves the taco bar! The Dean succeeds! Well, until people start feeling sick. Real sick. While Jeff first wonders if it is the Dean’s choice of music that is causing the problem – all ABBA all night – it seems that the taco meat may be bad. Real bad.
As more and more people get ill, Dean calls the store he purchased the meat at and reads the box to them. He is instantly connected to… someone and is told to quarantine everyone inside until authorities arrive. At the same time, Pierce bites Star Burns, and the zombie infection goes full out. Within seconds, almost the entire school is zombified, save for our major cast members. As they make a break for the outside world, they see Dean Pelton locking them inside the building.
Jeff, Britta, Annie, and the gang hole up in the study room (where most of the series takes place) where Jeff asks the most important question – did anyone turn off the Dean’s playlist? Sadly, no one did, and ABBA continues to be the soundtrack of the episode.Doctor Rich, the evil (good) Jeff breaks it down for everyone. People are becoming “zombies” a fever is cooking their brains and making them super aggressive. If you are bit by one, you will get infected. But there is a cure! If they can reach the thermostat and lower the temperature in the building, it will break the fever. Everyone in the room swears they haven’t been bit, which means at least one person has been.
It quickly becomes clear that Doctor Rich has been bit, but he thought he may be immune since he lives a good, clean life. Britta was also bit, and she figured she may be immune because she thinks she’s special. Neither are, and they become zombies. In the fracas, the study room gets invaded. Jeff, Abed and Troy make it to the basement as Shirley and Chang get stuck in a bathroom. Annie is taken by the zombies.
In the basement, Jeff, Troy and Abed are forced to deal with an insane cat that won’t stop leaping out from corners and shelves as Jeff tries to convince Abed that they can’t save everyone else and they need to escape. Abed wants to lower the building temperature, Jeff wants to get out as fast as possible, and Troy is stuck in the middle, wanting to support his best friend, but also looking for the approval of the man he looks up to. As troy wavers, the zombies get into the basement and Jeff gets bit. Abed gives his life for Troy to survive (“Make me proud. Be the first black man to make it to the end”).
Troy escapes, but decides that he must save the others, and goes back into the building to lower the thermostat. To help keep him safe, Troy puts on his original Ripley costume. Turns out paper mache doesn’t really do much, and while Troy is able to reach the thermostat and lower the temperature, he does get bit by zombie Abed and turns into a zombie himself.
As with their costumes, each character’s personality stands out when in zombie form. Zombie Jeff stands around poking his phone. Zombie Annie sits at a table and studies. Zombie Troy and Abed pull off a zombified version of their best friends handshake.
The military shows up and is about to kill everyone when they see that the lowered temperature of the building is breaking the fever and curing the infected. Instead of killing everyone, they use a spray to make them all forget the events of the night.
Oh, and Shirley and Chang totally boned in the bathroom.
COMMUNITY did many homages to various genres over the years. The paintball episode from season one is likely the best known of the homages (action in that case), but the times they dipped into horror (here and two other episodes that will show up here sooner or later!) are some of my favorite. Harmon and his crew (this episode was written by the super talented Karey Dornetto with Dino Stamatopoulos as a consulting writer, and directed by Anthony Hemingway) pay serious attention to details. The setup for the episode, with the secret military meat, is clearly a play on RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and there’s a quick, and when this episode first aired timely, reference to HUMAN CENTIPEDE, but aside from that there are no real straight up callbacks to existing zombie movies. As usual, COMMUNITY works best when not paying direct homage to anything, but by playing in the house of a genre.
There’s no real scars in the episode – the zombies are played for laughs and are never made to look too freaky, but the comedy of the show more than makes up for it. Unlike most sitcoms, COMMUNITY takes the time to match the lighting and set decor to give the episode the look of a horror movie – everything is dark and the cinematography captures a claustrophobic feel as the episode progresses. The zombie hoard seems to grow with each scene, reaching an amount of people that I feel pretty sure weren’t at the school party at the start of the episode. You get the sense that the danger is constantly growing.
The ABBA music is maybe the scariest part. You’ll never hear Fernando the same way again.
While the episode itself is very important to the overall story of the series, I think it also works well as a standalone. It is currently streaming on Hulu and you’d be doing yourself a real solid to check it out.