Two young men arrive in their hotel room after a long-haul flight to the Virgin Islands. The bellhop helps them drag a heavy suitcase inside. While one of the men goes into his room to unpack, the other goes straight to the small fridge. He strips it completely, throwing fruit, bottles of water, even the fridge’s shelves over his shoulder. He opens a bag of crisps and returns his attention to the heavy, overstuffed suitcase. He unzips it. Inside, there’s a dead body, contorted grotesquely to fit inside the confines of the suitcase. He has to stagger back because the smell of rot is so strong.
The film you’re watching is, of course, Weekend at Bernie’s II.
The first Weekend at Bernie’s looms large in the cultural imagination as a single, indelible image: Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman propping up Bernie’s lifeless body between them, instantly recognizable even if you’ve never seen the film. Because of this comical image, a lot of people forget—or never knew—how dark Weekend at Bernie’s was. Richard (Silverman) and Larry (McCarthy) are low-level corporate workers invited to spend the weekend at their boss Bernie’s beach house. They think they’re getting rewarded, when really, Bernie wants to have them killed because they’ve discovered his embezzling. But Bernie ends up dead, instead.
I assumed, before I watched it, that Bernie would turn out to be alive in the end, partly because that’s how every Weekend at Bernie’s-inspired TV episode goes, and partly because I knew of the existence of Weekend at Bernie’s II.
But Bernie stays dead. It’s not some wacky misunderstanding. It’s not even, as many reviews (and the film’s trailer) imply, that Richard and Larry are desperately trying to avoid an assassination attempt; they don’t even find out about the assassination plot until well into the third act. No, they drag around Bernie’s corpse, operating its arms with a pulley system while it begins to rot, so that their fun weekend at the beach house isn’t interrupted by a pesky murder investigation.
Weekend at Bernie’s is basically a horror film. That’s not to say that it’s a comedic failure, or that its humor ends up grotesque and disturbing; it’s very funny. Like so many great horror comedies, its horror and humor work in tandem. It takes the archetype of the 1980s American young adult—that scrappy, aspirational yuppie—and pushes our identification with him beyond the limit, exposing the sickness at its heart. Richard and Larry so desperately want to climb the corporate ladder, to get ahead, to spend even a weekend in luxurious wealth, that they’ll desecrate a human body. They’ll lug it around with all the care you’d give a sack of potatoes. They’ll hit a guy over the head with a glass bottle, tie him up, and lock him in a utilities room to be forgotten, all to maintain the facade of Bernie being alive, and with it, the facade that they belong here.
When Richard’s love interest finally sees Larry dragging the body down a flight of stairs, her eyes widen in terror. Larry yanks the corpse’s head up by the hair and says, exasperated, “It’s just Bernie!”
Richard is quick to reassure her: “Do we look like the kind of people who could kill someone?”
The answer, of course, is yes.
The horror in the first Weekend at Bernie’s is a profoundly moral horror, using the image of a decaying corpse to expose the ultimate emptiness of wealth and critique society’s valorization of its at-all-costs pursuit. In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he said that the problem with Bernie’s (and dead body films in general) is that “in order for them not to notice [that Bernie is dead], they must be incredibly dense.” But the reason the guests at Bernie’s party don’t notice he’s dead isn’t because they’re dumb. It’s because they’re completely self-absorbed. This is, in fact, the joke: a collection of upper-class archetypes wander into a beachside mansion—academics, businessmen, frat boys and sorority girls—and fail to notice that their host is dead. They talk at his body, and wouldn’t listen even if he could reply.
“My film school was an abattoir,” Bernie’s director, Ted Kotcheff (Wake in Fright, First Blood) once said in an interview. “I sometimes see a film and think, ‘This guy has no idea how real people live.’ It was a tremendous boon for me, working at a Canadian slaughterhouse, and at Goodyear Tire & Rubber. When I went to work in film, I knew about human beings’ real lives, both working and middle class.” Weekend at Bernie’s is, in no small part, about the disconnect between how wealthy filmmakers imagine working- or lower-middle-class people to be—a gulf made all the wider by the explosion in economic inequality that marked the Reagan and Bush Sr. years.
One of the first scenes in the film is of Richard and Larry going to work on the weekend. The heat is sweltering and the air conditioning is turned off.
“We are going to be here our whole lives,” Larry says.
“Yeah, I am afraid so,” Richard agrees, hard at work on the papers in front of him.
Larry and Richard are far from blue-collar, but in 1980s America, even middle-class yuppies must work every hour God sends and be grateful for the opportunity. Whereas many ‘80s comedies present this as normal or even good, as evidence of their protagonist’s work ethic, Bernie’s refuses. Larry’s apartment is, by his own description, small, dark, and hot, in a high-crime area infested with cockroaches. He balks at Bernie renting a parking space in the city, saying that would cost more than his rent. “I mean, it’s only fair. His car is a bit bigger than your apartment,” Richard quips. He lives with his parents, trying to save up enough to move out. Richard believes in the American Dream—that if you work hard enough, you will ascend to the top of the corporate ladder. But Larry knows better.
“All of this could be yours, if you set your goals and work hard,” Richard tells Larry when they arrive at Bernie’s mansion.
“My old man worked hard,” Larry says, “All they did was give him more work.”
Larry knows that the system isn’t fair, that to get ahead you need to cheat and scheme and screw people over. And he intends to do so.
Weekend at Bernie’s II is far less interested in politics and the plight of the working man. And it’s nowhere near as good as its predecessor, although it’s not as awful as you might expect. It drifts away from Richard and Larry too often, even though the chemistry between Silverman and McCarthy, and McCarthy’s performance—reminiscent of Griffin Dunne in An American Werewolf in London—are the very best parts. In the grand tradition of unnecessary horror sequels, it adds supernatural elements out of nowhere. It also has one of the longest opening credit sequences I’ve ever seen, in a pretty transparent effort to reach 97 minutes. There’s a lot of extraneous stuff thrown in, but the most interesting thing about Weekend at Bernie’s II is its body horror.
The film opens with Bernie finally at the morgue, where Larry pretends to be his nephew to claim Bernie’s possessions, including a credit card which Larry immediately takes to a fancy restaurant, and a key to a safety deposit box in the Virgin Islands where Bernie kept his embezzled millions. Larry, of course, wants to go steal the money. And, as usual, his attempts to convince Richard to go with him are really just pushing an open door.
While Larry is convincing Richard, two servants of a voodoo queen, hired by mobsters to find Bernie’s fortune, steal the corpse from the morgue. Thus begins the film’s more off-the-wall section, as the servants attempt to reanimate Bernie’s body with a voodoo ceremony. Through a series of misadventures involving a chicken in a porn theater, they mess up the ceremony, and Bernie’s body only becomes reanimated when he “hears” music. Music plays, he dances; the music stops, he drops to the ground.
Eventually, the servants lose Bernie’s body on the subway, leaving him behind like a shopping bag. Off-screen, somebody does the decent thing and has him returned to the morgue.
And from there, Larry and Richard steal the body again. They know they’ll need Bernie to “sign” for his safety deposit box, so they stuff him in a suitcase, contorted and crushed in ways human bodies shouldn’t be, and haul him off to the Virgin Islands. Bernie died on Friday, and by the time they get to the hotel, it’s got to be, by my estimation, at least Tuesday. The smell of rot makes them gag, so Larry sprays him liberally with deodorant. They stuff him in a small fridge, Larry holding an open crisp packet between his teeth, Richard fiddling with his sunglasses.
The way the boys treat Bernie’s body in the first film is horrific, but there’s something entirely more grotesque in Weekend at Bernie’s II. In the original Weekend at Bernie’s, a freshly-dead man who we met and knew is manipulated into a crude imitation of life, propped up between Larry and Richard. But in the sequel, Bernie becomes steadily less human: he’s a corpse, rotted enough to make you gag at the smell, reanimated to dance mindlessly and without joy, flopping to the ground when the music cuts out but not flinching when he’s shot in the head. He has no will, no emotion, and no reason—but even worse, he less and less resembles someone who once did. “Neither dead nor alive” is the most common trope for horror monsters, from vampires to zombies to ghosts. But those creatures are typically neither dead nor alive from the moment we meet them, often clinging to life at any cost, even their very soul. Bernie isn’t that kind of monster. He’s horrifying because of what has been done to him, dragged into the space between dead and alive. While Richard and Larry are off opening his safety deposit box, Bernie bursts out of the fridge, smoothing out his limbs to join a conga line.
Body horror is difficult to write about because it is, even more so than other forms of horror, visceral. It bypasses the rational part of your brain entirely, so that even describing what you feel can be slippery. But essentially, it comes down to seeing a human as they should not be. Julia Kristeva wrote about the abject as that which you cast off from your conception of yourself because it disturbs identity, system, order. Horror lives in the abject: we are disturbed by the dead because they remind us that we will die, that order and identity will give way to chaos and void. Body horror is visceral, it makes you squirm in your seat, because even at its most absurd, it’s so damn personal. All of us have a body, a body that is both inside and outside of our control, that gets sick, ages and dies. The summer Jaws came out, nobody wanted to go in the water. But you can’t escape your own body.
Body horror is also closely related to slapstick. Slapstick, like body horror, presents the human body in exaggerated and extreme ways, whether it be Chevy Chase’s prat falls on Saturday Night Live or Jeff Goldblum shedding fingernails and teeth in The Fly. The comparison becomes clearest in bad slapstick, as in the Farrelly brothers’ Three Stooges reboot, where the eye pokes and nose tweaks don’t land quite right, making you wince and recoil. Horror and humor are always connected; after mounting tension, screams and laughter serve complementary evolutionary purposes. Screaming signals that there is danger; laughter signals that, actually, there isn’t. We laugh when we see someone fall in part to release the fear that they might be hurt. Body horror engages with our inescapable body by showing it in all its grotesque vulnerability; slapstick plays on the same fears in the opposite direction: a fantasy of invulnerability, of a body that can fall a thousand times in the most spectacular fashion and never be harmed.
There’s a certain kind of horror-comedy that delights in blurring those lines. Evil Dead is the obvious example: director Sam Raimi is a massive Three Stooges fan, and paid tribute to their short A Plumbing We Will Go in the scene where a lightbulb fills up with blood. But it’s not just in references; the first two Evil Dead movies, especially Evil Dead 2, don’t just combine horror and comedy in the same film. They combine horror and comedy in individual moments and individual elements, like when an eye pops out of a deadite’s head, flies straight through the air, and lands in a girl’s open, screaming mouth. It’s incredibly gross, and very, very funny. Reanimator similarly blurs the line between slapstick and body horror, as the villain’s reanimated body carries around his own severed head. And of course, there’s Peter Jackson’s early splatter films like Braindead, which might technically be the most violent film I’ve ever seen, but still fills me with the same uncomplicated joy as watching Harpo Marx bump into a guy over and over, pausing only for Chico to kick him in the bum.
And that is, as weird as it might sound, the tradition in which I’d place Weekend at Bernie’s II. It gleefully blurs the line between slapstick and body horror: Bernie ends up parasailing and bitten by a shark, and it’s really funny, like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. But unlike Looney Tunes, or the Marx Brothers, or Chaplin, or Keaton, or Lloyd, we don’t get that on-screen apparent invulnerability. The protagonist in our slapstick scenes is a corpse, and so even relatively innocuous stuff like parasailing takes on shades of the abject: Bernie is dead, so everything he does means seeing a human body the way it should not be. Later, he gets shot through the skull with a harpoon—and I can’t describe how fucked up it seemed, how I squirmed in my seat while I laughed. Films like Evil Dead 2 turn body horror into slapstick, but Weekend at Bernie’s II does something much stranger: it turns slapstick into body horror, tapping into undercurrents of slapstick that are rarely brought to the fore. Bernie becomes the perfect slapstick comedian: he is malleable, invulnerable to pain, and does not shield himself from a fall.