The true-life romance between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon was captured wonderfully in The Big Sick. This biographical rom-com became one of 2017’s biggest hits, beloved by critics and audiences alike. It’s easily one of my favorite movies of the year and one of the best date movies to come around in a really, really long time. It’s also probably one of the last movies anyone would expect to see written about here at Bloody Disgusting, but I assure you there is a place for it somewhere in our black, horror-loving hearts.
Horror is only mentioned a few times in the film and every time it’s fairly brief, but I do think it plays a relatively big role. The film is mostly told from Kumail’s perspective and the horror elements revolve around him. Prior to watching The Big Sick I didn’t know a ton about Kumail. I haven’t seen a single episode of Silicon Valley but I’ve seen him pop up on other shows and movies and he’s a frequent guest on a number of podcasts I listen to regularly. I always like whenever he shows up, especially on Comedy Bang Bang, because he’s always hilarious. The only horror related talk I’ve heard with regards to him is his love for the X-Files, which is featured pretty heavily in The Big Sick. The other horror references caught me off guard — a quick search through his Twitter feed since watching the movie tells me his horror love isn’t much of a secret.
Kumail and Emily first meet at an open mic where Kumail is performing. She heckles him by giving a hearty “woo” in the middle of his set and he sarcastically confronts her about it afterward. The two instantly hit it off and before you know it they’re back at his place getting comfy on an inflatable mattress planted on the floor of his messy bedroom. They decide to watch a movie, so Kumail pops the George Romero classic Night of the Living Dead into the DVD player (or PS3 or XBox, I can’t remember but that hardly matters).
Kumail starts to give a little backstory on the film but within seconds the two begin making out which quickly leads to sex. Needless to say, they don’t actually watch the movie but that doesn’t make it any less important. And the choice of Night of the Living Dead as the movie is significant.
My guess is that NOTLD isn’t actually the first movie Kumail and Emily watched together. It’s possible but I don’t think it’s likely. For this particular scene in the movie, it doesn’t matter either way. If it is the first movie the two “watched” together then that’s just an added bonus. Using NOTLD at this juncture, fifteen minutes or so into the movie, foreshadows the conflict to come later.
Obviously, The Big Sick isn’t about zombies but then NOTLD is about much more than just zombies. When you begin to dissect the Romero classic there are a lot of themes at play — the Cold War, the disillusionment of the government and maybe most notably domestic racism. The film was a commentary on the issues plaguing society at the time, many of which are still prevalent today. The film’s protagonist, a black man played by Duane Jones, survives the gruesome zombie attack only to be gunned down by a group of white men the next day. Jones’ death can be attributed to the fear of the unknown and ignorance to those that are different.
No one is shot and killed in The Big Sick but race certainly plays a factor in the story. Kumail’s family, particularly his mother, expect him to marry a young Pakistani woman and as such, they are constantly introducing him to available woman. This is all they know and to even consider anything different is completely out of the question. For Kumail’s part he’s just as afraid of telling his family he’s dating a white girl as they are about him marrying outside their race. It’s important to note that Kumail isn’t against marrying a Pakistani woman nor is he ashamed of where he comes from or anything like that. Kumail is very proud of his culture and his family but he wants to decide for himself. He wants to be in control of his own life. At the same time, he does fear the consequences that come with making his own choices, so much so that he keeps his relationship with Emily a secret from his parents.
The Big Sick and Night of the Living Dead both use race in very different ways but I think there are some parallels to be seen. Race plays a factor in nearly every aspect of life, both positively and negatively. The only way to get around those negative scenarios is to face it head-on. Whether or not Night of the Living Dead was chosen to be featured early on in The Big Sick with this logic in mind I don’t actually know. It could be that it was chosen just because it’s a kick-ass movie that everyone knows and it happens to be free because it’s public domain. Accidental or not, Night of the Living Dead does provide a subtle hint of foreshadowing.
The next horror flick to get play in The Big Sick is 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes. This classic from AIP features Vincent Price as a famous concert organist seeking revenge on the doctors he feels botched his wife’s surgery, and it’s featured a bit more prominently in the film than NOTLD. At this point in the film, Kumail and Emily have been dating for a while and things are getting pretty serious with Kumail ready to take the next step. The next step, as all good horror fans know, is to share a piece of genre cinema that is near and dear to your heart and wait for a reaction. This reaction may very well determine if this person is the one or just another fish ready to be tossed back into the sea.
As Kumail sets up the movie he’s giddy with anticipation. Watching an old horror movie may not seem like that big of a deal but it’s important to Kumail. Before he hits play Emily asks if he always shows B-movies to girls he’s dating. Kumail cooly responds with, “It’s not a B-movie.” And he’s right. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an A-movie and the ‘A’ stands for awesome!
Once the movie begins Kumail has no actual interest in watching it — he’s likely seen it a hundred times before — and instead plans on watching Emily watch it. He settles into the couch, a huge smile plastered across his face, and focuses in on Emily. He wants to see her reaction. And just like that, The Big Sick is instantly relatable and one of my favorite movies of 2017. Kumail may be a Pakistani standup comedian living in Chicago (movie Kumail) and I may be a failed white writer from Phoenix but during this brief moment, we are the same. I’ve been in that same situation before as I’m sure most horror fans have, and as I watched the whole thing play out I couldn’t help but smile.
If I had to guess I’d say Dr. Phibes is the first movie Kumail and Emily watched together or at the very least it was the first movie that Kumail shared with Emily. A movie like The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a much better movie to share with someone than Night of the Living Dead because it’s more special. Not saying it’s better or more important or anything like that, it’s just more special. Everyone knows Night of the Living Dead. Everyone. It created a brand-new subgenre of horror and even if you haven’t seen it you’re familiar with it. You don’t even have to be a fan of horror to get a NOTLD reference. Dr. Phibes, to those outside the horror community, would be something obscure, something new. To share a movie like this with someone would be to introduce them to a new experience. Last October on Twitter Kumail listed The Abominable Dr. Phibes as one of his top five horror movies, so he clearly considers it to be a big deal. Sharing a movie like this means something and that’s why I find a scene of the two leads in a rom-com watching a 70’s horror movie to be so significant.
Maybe to others none of this is significant. Maybe Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr. Phibes are just two random horror movies worked into The Big Sick because Kumail is a fan of horror and thought it would be fun to mention that somehow but there was no meaning beyond that. There might not be anything more than what we see on the surface. And that’s absolutely okay if there is. But that’s the beauty of movies — they mean different things to different people. The intent of what a filmmaker is trying to say isn’t always as important as what the viewer takes away. The Big Sick is obviously a very personal movie to Kumail and Emily, it is their life, but I’d wager that it becomes very important and personal to others for different reasons. And for someone like me these scenes and with these movies are important.
The funny thing is that I’ve been in a long-term interracial relationship for a while now and this film deals with the complications that come with that. Different races but the basic concepts are very similar. And yet it was the use of two horror films that made me feel truly connected to the story. It’s not that other scenes in the film didn’t speak to me either because they did, but the horror stuff made me feel right at home. Maybe that just means I’m a giant horror nerd and if so that’s ok. Whatever the case may be, I think it’s pretty cool.
The Big Sick is now available on Blu-ray from Lionsgate.