“This sandwich tastes so young and impudent. Seymour, what’s with the good grub?” – Mrs. Krabappel
“Well, perhaps I ought to let you folks in on a secret. Do you remember me telling Jimbo Jones that I’d make something of him one day?” – Principal Skinner
“Are you saying you killed Jimbo, processed his carcass, and served him for lunch? . . . Ha!” – Mrs. Krabappel
This year’s Halloween special had three segments: one about a hellish version of Springfield Elementary, one about a Kubrick movie, and one about the Simpson family co-existing with different versions of itself. Twenty years ago, the Halloween special also had three segments, one a Kubrick movie parody, one about Homer traveling between different versions of his family, and one about a hellish version of Springfield Elementary. Except for the order, they match up perfectly. Since The Simpsons always takes precedence over Zombie Simpsons, we’re going to follow the order from “Treehouse of Horror V”.
“The Shinning” vs. “A Clockwork Yellow”
Like most big name directors, Stanley Kubrick made some great movies and some crappy movies. From a parody and satire point of view, however, what made his films great was the sheer number of iconic and memorable characters, images, and lines. Whether it’s the Monolith, Jack Nicholson hacking his way through a door, or Malcolm McDowell and his gang strutting down the street in suspenders, bowler hats, and cod pieces, Kubrick movies are full of moments that stick in the audience’s mind, which makes them perfect for comedy.
The Simpsons exploited that all the time. There’s Homer at the “Dawn of Man” in Lisa’s Pony; there’s Bart reaching for the cupcakes in “Duffless”, there’s Frink with the Strangelove glasses in “Homer Defined”. “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming” not only features R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket, but even has a complete war room from Dr. Strangelove. None of those defined an entire episode, they were just quick little things put in there for fans who cared to notice them.
“The Shinning”, the first segment from “Treehouse of Horror V”, was different in that it retold an entire movie. All the major plot points and characters from the 144 minute film are condensed into just seven minutes of screentime. All by itself that’s damned impressive, but what turns it into a Simpsons masterpiece is the way that each thing they reproduce is recognizable as the original yet still creative and funny in its own way. The blood spilling out of the elevator isn’t a moment of gore soaked terror, it’s a ho-hum hotel regularity, no more interesting than fresh towels or the luggage carts in lobby. It just usually gets off at the second floor.
The hedge maze, the ghostly bartender, Homer getting locked in the fridge, the typewriter being a window into madness, even Bart’s titular “shinning” and Willie’s failed rescue attempt, these are all recognizable to anyone who has seen the film and each is given its little twist. But, and this is crucial, no one needs to have seen the movie to get any of them. It helps, sure, but you don’t need it. Homer declining his Nicholson destiny (“Can’t murder now, eating”) is funny all on its own. The references to the film augment the story and the jokes, not the other way around.
The same cannot be said for “A Clockwork Yellow”, which reads like mismatched excerpts from a Kubrick film guide. This is plenty apparent right at the beginning, where pretty much everything is a weird and senseless reenactment of A Clockwork Orange. Moe has a gang just like Malcolm McDowell did. But where McDowell’s gang turns on him for being a crappy leader; Moe’s gang turns on him just because that’s what’s supposed to happen. Not only is it reductive rather than creative, but weak references are left to stand alone.
Remember this part of that one movie? Yeah. Cool. Well, good talk.
Consider what is maybe the most famous scene from A Clockwork Orange: McDowell with his eyes propped open, forced to watch terrible things so that he won’t ever do them again. In “A Clockwork Yellow”, Moe wears a similar contraption, but he’s doing it for no discernible reason:
Moe: These eye clamps are the only way I can tolerate today’s TV.
Announcer: Tonight on FOX!
Moe: Ahh, turn it off, I’ll be good. I’ll be good!
If there is a joke in the final line (debatable), its premise is completely negated by the first. If he’s wearing it voluntarily, it makes no sense for him to beg to have the TV turned off. The sad reality is that he’s only wearing them because you can’t use A Clockwork Orange as your source material without someone getting their eyes propped open; setups, punchlines, and common sense be damned.
See, Zombie Simpsons? It’s not hard to work this in and have it make sense. It’s really not.
This complete dependency on making references is shaky enough early on, but the segment collapses completely at the end when the show just blows through references as fast as it can. There’s the guy from Full Metal Jacket, there’s a thing that – again for no discernible reason – looks briefly like the Monolith, there’s some dudes dressed like they’re in Barry Lyndon, there’s a bunch of naked people like in Eyes Wide Shut. And that’s it. There’s no coherence, no jokes, no indication whatsoever that the writers have taken something, parodied it, and made it their own. They’re just showing you stuff you’re supposed to recognize. It’s less a television segment than it is a police lineup.
“Time and Punishment” vs. “The Others”
Despite the fact that one of these is about time travel and the other is about ghosts, the basic concepts here are very similar. In each case, we see different versions of the Simpson family. Like the Kubrick mess, however, the transparent thinness of Zombie Simpsons is immediately apparent.
In “The Others”, the old ghost-Simpsons just stand around and don’t really do anything. Ghost-Marge gets the hots for Homer, and they spend basically the entire segment stretching that piece of nothing far past its breaking point. Ghost-Homer eventually gets around to killing regular Homer, but not until after he’s stood around and not done anything for a good long time. Once Homer is dead, ghost-Homer goes back to not doing anything.
Their habit of having most of the family just sort of stand there (ghost-Lisa literally doesn’t get even a single line) carries all the way through to the end when, in a desperate bid for internet attention (and how sad is that?), they create more versions of the family to stand there. For starters, this has nothing to do with the rest of the segment we just saw. The house was haunted, so older versions of the family appeared. Now a bunch of randoms show up because . . . well, just because, that’s why. If this was funny or joke filled, that’d be one thing, but it’s just more unsupported references.
They can’t stand this any longer. Somebody please pay attention to them!
“Time and Punishment” takes the idea of multiple different versions of the Simpsons seriously. We see them not only as rich and perfect (in a world Homer doesn’t know rains donuts), we see them as obedient to Flanders (the unquestioned lord and master of the world), we see them as giants and with lizard tongues. Each incarnation is very brief (much shorter than the “The Others”), yet the whole family is given things to do, lines to say (even Maggie!), and we get a glimpse of each world Homer visits in just a few seconds.
There aren’t any orphaned references, either. When the episode runs through all those versions of the Simpson home, including underwater, the Flintstone’s house, Sphinx-Bart, and a fairy tale inspired giant shoe, not only is it lightning fast, but it fits with what Homer’s doing. Because the writers bothered to show us several fleshed out parallel worlds already, the quick references to others add to that instead of being something tacked on to fill screen time (like a bunch of other Simpson families standing on the lawn for no reason).
“Nightmare Cafeteria” vs. “School Is Hell”
The main axiom of Springfield Elementary on The Simpsons is that it’s a waste of time and nobody wants to be there. The students don’t learn much (even the likes of Martin and Lisa learn and excel more out of the classroom than in) and the teachers don’t care, but everyone has to show up, so they do. In its own way, it’s already a kind of hell, so making it somehow worse for Halloween takes some imagination.
“Nightmare Cafeteria” pulled it off by taking the grim realities of normal episode Springfield Elementary and taking them to insanely logical Halloween episode extremes. It’s one of the only Treehouse of Horror segments that doesn’t involve anything supernatural and that’s part of what makes it so great. The faculty crosses over from merely being apathetic and passively hostile towards the students into murderous cannibalism . . . but they do so because of budget cuts. Authority figures devouring children because they couldn’t make decent sloppy joes any other way, it’s hard to think of a more Simpsons concept than that.
Sloppy Jimobs are pretty damned horrifying.
By contrast, Zombie Simpsons not only doesn’t do that, they actually make Springfield Elementary nicer and more pleasant than it normally is. I’m going to repeat that because it is an unusually clear example of just how witless and unmoored this show is. They made the school in Hell more fun and enjoyable than the one on Earth.
As with so many Zombie Simpson ideas, it could’ve actually been interesting if it wasn’t done in the shallowest imaginable way. But they didn’t go for “Earth is Hell” style irony, or even a particularly inventive version of Hell. They just recreated Springfield Elementary with funkier looking students and flames outside the windows. Even the Skinner-Chalmers monster is less evil than the two of them usually are. Can you imagine the real Chalmers saying this?:
Hell Chalmers: As educators, our job is to gently nurture your child’s passion.
It’s sincere, it’s genuine, and it means he actually cares about Bart! It’s antithetical to everything Chalmers is and does. Again, had they made that sort of the point (Hell Chalmers is a better educator than real Chalmers), it could’ve worked, but two layer thinking is way too deep for Zombie Simpsons. Instead, we get a montage before Homer shows up to be tortured for some reason. There are a couple of chuckles in there (Yankees class, for example), which makes it the strongest segment of an anemically weak episode, but even in Hell the bright and sunny attitude of Zombie Simpsons makes everything simple, shallow, and harmless.
Halloween will always be better served by the Skinner who condemns a kid to suffocation for a paper airplane (even before he starts eating them) than by one who wants Bart to achieve his full potential. The same goes for Simpson family members who are twisted and weird rather than still and silent. Ditto thoughtlessly repetitive Kubrick references vis-a-vis full blooded (and full bodied) satire.
Twenty years on, there are reasons “Treehouse of Horror V” often tops Halloween lists. “Treehouse of Horror XXV” will be lucky to even be remembered.