“Epidemiology,” the season 2 Halloween episode of Community, is a watershed moment for the college-set series, breaking open the sitcom’s world for all the homages and darkest-timeline shenanigans that would follow. It’s a perfect treat for the spooky season – but, more than that, it’s a perfect zombie movie, too. Cribbing from classic horror flicks, both directly and indirectly, the show turns in the quintessential tale of a frightening flesh-eater uprising. And it does it all in 20 minutes.
Following in the footsteps of season 1’s action-movie pastiche “Modern Warfare,” “Epidemiology” finds Greendale Community College thrown into chaos after tainted taco meat turns the students into shambling, bloodthirsty zombies. The library, home of the school’s Halloween party, quickly becomes a haunted house of costumed cannibals. The study group finds itself in a race against the clock to save their own skins, and – if a doctor in a banana costume can be trusted – maybe the entire world, too.
Debuting on Oct. 28, 2010 – three days before The Walking Dead would reanimate horror television – “Epidemiology” draws on decades of ghoulish history without trying to reinvent the brain-eating wheel. Picking and choosing from the zombie movie pantheon, the episode grabs the greatest hits from the genre and condenses them into a single story.
There’s, obviously, the shambling horde, mindless and man-eating, contaminating others with a bite. The study group hunkers down, but is nonetheless picked off one by one. Zombies claw at windows and pull victims through doors. De facto leader Jeff (Joel McHale) preaches self-preservation, while audience surrogate Abed (Danny Pudi) argues for the greater good. Our hero, Troy (Donald Glover), is caught in the middle.
Centering the story on Troy certainly feels like a nod to the father of all modern zombie films, Night of the Living Dead. Abed even says “Make me proud, Troy. Be the first Black man to make it to the end,” referencing the untimely (and unfortunately timeless) fate of Ben (Duane Jones) in George Romero’s 1968 classic.
But, as this is Community we’re talking about, that’s not the only reference. At the end of “Epidemiology,” as unnamed Men in Black swarm the school, it’s made plain that they’d rather execute the students then drug them, mirroring the trigger-happy posse from Living Dead’s finale. The episode is similarly claustrophobic, taking place entirely in one building. And, as it was in the Romero film, the basement turns out to be the safest place of all – until it isn’t, anyway.
There are shades of Dawn of the Dead, as well, substituting a library for a mall. And, of course, the government-created, rage-inducting plague going awry calls back to 28 Days Later. The zombies being technically alive might even call back to 1932’s White Zombie and the original Haitian concept that inspired the genre.
But “Epidemiology” goes still deeper than that, borrowing not just genre hallmarks and plot points, but entire scenes and shots.
It’s hard not to see shades of the 2006 video game Dead Rising in Troy and Abed’s panicked crawl across the top of storage shelves. Jeff using a soccer ball as a weapon is also seemingly lifted straight from the game. Annie (Alison Brie) being pulled through a broken window by the grotesquely grabby horde is an almost perfect recreation of a shot from Shaun of the Dead – which was, in turn, copying a shot from 1985’s Day of the Dead. Abed’s crushing end at the hands of the zombie horde is borrowed from I Am Legend, as is the notion of zombies as victims, able, ultimately, to be cured.
If that all sounds like a lot to stuff into a single episode, don’t worry: “Epidemiology” moves. Pierce (Chevy Chase) starts to turn less than two minutes into the proceedings. He chows down on Star-Burns’ (Dino Stamatopoulos) neck before the opening credits begin. Everything else continues at that breakneck pace – but it never sacrifices suspense for speed. Instead, “Epidemiology” uses its sitcom-ness as a shortcut.
Community gives us heroes to root for without having to waste precious moments trying to make a connection with the audience. We already know them. We already care for them, and more than we would after a scant few minutes. Abed’s sacrificing himself hits that much harder because of the hours we’ve already spent with him. Seeing side characters we’ve grown to love in the nameless horde of zombies adds depth and despair.
And then there’s Troy. He faces two struggles in this episode. The first is of allegiance, of saving himself or saving everyone. The second comes with embracing his nerdiness. And while this latter storyline may seem slight, it’s certainly something large swaths of the audience had to reckon with in college. Troy was still in his football jock vs. lovable scoundrel days; he hadn’t fully embraced his connection with Abed yet. At that time of “Epidemiology,” there had only been one “Troy and Abed in the Morning” skit. Counterintuitively, the stakes being so small make Troy’s arc feel that much more personal and real.
The make-up is pretty good, too, especially for a sitcom. The zombies look believably splotchy and fevered, fitting with the taco-meat virus explanation given. The storyline – written by Community producer Karey Dornetto – is taut and fast, but not empty. In fact, “Epidemiology” is genuinely scary.
Leonard (Richard Erdman) sinking his teeth into another student’s neck is shocking. Seeing Annie pulled through a broken window is frightening. Both scenes are shot like something you’d see in the best horror movie. Director Anthony Hemingway infuses the half-hour comedy with all the drama and suspense he’d previously used on shows like The Wire and Battlestar Galactica, elevating something that could have been played for laughs into something spine-chilling.
As the diminishing returns of The Walking Dead and, yes, the Night of the Living Dead franchise itself can attest, less is certainly more with the zombie genre. Community’s “Epidemiology” is all of the flesh-hungry highs with none of the lows.
All six seasons of Community are available to stream on Netflix, Prime Video, and Hulu.