In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, something amazing started to happen. The teenage-themed horror movies of the ‘50s were basically getting remade, rebranded as teen comedies. It’s not something that, on paper, sounds like it should have worked at all. This began, of course, with the release of Teen Wolf. Thanks to its monumental success, we have everything that followed. In the ‘50s, when movies geared toward teens were relatively new, adolescent problems were treated as horror stories. When these types of films were dusted off in the ‘80s, those metaphors didn’t go away, but they were tied into new themes of wish fulfillment that they’re predecessors had certainly never showcased.
It’s fun to be a werewolf. It’s fun to be a vampire. And even though it’s not remotely fun to be a zombie, wish fulfillment is right at the center of My Boyfriend’s Back. It defines the character’s entire journey and, therefore, the whole plot. The beauty of this movie is that it starts off like any other ‘90s teen comedy. Johnny Dingle has been in love with this girl his whole life. He doesn’t know if she feels the same way, because he dies during an ill-advised attempt to ask her out.
One of the best things about the movie, though, is that Johnny’s return from the grave isn’t met with a ton of shock. It’s met with some shock, but not too much. There’s an amazing deadpan sense of humor hanging over the entire film, which is no surprise, considering that this comes from the director of Parents. And yet, it’s done in a completely different way. This is a fun, upbeat, often 1950s, Leave it to Beaver-esque comedy where Johnny just wants to take this nice girl to the prom but, aw shucks, he’s dead now and, gee whiz, he’s probably gonna have to start eating people.
The story of Chuck is one that existed only in this fantastic actor’s head, but that surely makes sense for the character. Chuck does not consider himself a lackey. Chuck is the star of his own movie in his own mind, everyone else be damned. And to see Hoffman deliver a performance of that kind of bizarre intensity so early in his career really helps remind us what a truly terrific performer he was.
While the movie has a very clear and straightforward plot (Johnny has to keep himself from decomposing long enough to take Missy to the prom) it has a tendency to wander in a way that I don’t really mind. All of these moments, little jokes and asides that take over entire scenes, simply add to the overall deadpan absurdity that makes My Boyfriend’s Back special.
These scenes make sense when you take the origin of the project into account. My Boyfriend’s Back began life as a much darker—but still comedic—script by Dean Lorey called Johnny Zombie. In its original incarnation, it was meant to be a series of loosely connected skits, similar to a Monty Python film. There are several moments in the film that clearly showcase those roots.
Most of the major comedic bits take over whole scenes, end with a wink and a nod and then we’re just off and racing to the next thing. One of the best skit moments in My Boyfriend’s Back comes when Johnny comes home to his mom telling him she picked up “a little something” for him at the store, only to walk into the kitchen to discover a child she kidnapped from the supermarket. Even though there’s definite character growth, most of the major players are acting on a consistent level throughout. Johnny is always in semi-disbelief of his situation and losing his mind over everything happening around him. His mom’s always being a mom tending to her son, smiling pleasantly even as she tries to get him to eat a living human child.
There are moments like this peppered throughout My Boyfriend’s Back. It’s a humor played so sweetly that you can barely even call it morbid. All of this might appear to set up some pretty low stakes, but the ultimate success of the movie is that it’s completely genuine. It’s unabashedly heartfelt in a way I’m not sure anyone would expect going into it. The metaphor is silly and it embraces that silliness on every level. And it works.
That’s not to say that the movie is without its flaws. It has plenty, but that’s not really the point. My Boyfriend’s Back is the perfect example of the good-natured zombie comedy it set out to be. It achieved exactly what it set out to do and, given that what it set out to do is something so bizarrely specific, the fact that it succeeds at all is nothing short of a miracle.
This is not a film that’s going to change your life, but it’s something hard not to have fun with. Not every joke lands, but the ones that do are more than worth the price of admission—or the price of the Blu-ray, whatever. Sure, it pokes fun and it plays on zombie tropes and that’s all well and good, but it’s also genuinely romantic and sweet. It really balances both of those things. This is a childhood favorite of mine and, I’ll admit, I was nervous about digging it up again as an adult. Luckily, I found it to be pretty well-preserved.
The great qualities I remembered are still there, and it works as a horror send-up and genuine teen rom-com in almost equal measure. Just like Johnny’s corpse, it shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t be this charming, but I’m delighted that it is.