Shaun of the Dead

Today is the U.S. release of The World’s End, the third in the Cornetto Trilogy by director Edgar Wright. To celebrate, we thought that we would have a look at the first movie in the trilogy, Shaun of the Dead. And don’t forget to check out Wright’s Shaun of the Dead interactive screenplay. The following is an excerpt from Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More by John Kenneth Muir (Applause Books), which will be in stores in two weeks.

If the latter Evil Dead films found comedy in horror through the art of exaggeration and gory overkill, the 2004 film from director Edgar Wright, Shaun of the Dead, locates another route to genuine laughter. In particular, the film carefully observes life for a series of young, aimless, directionless characters both before and during the zombie apocalypse. Through this careful observation, the film concludes that the more things change, the more they stay the same. At least at first.

In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is upset when his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), breaks up with him on their three-year anniversary because he has no plans for his life. Although Shaun’s best buddy, Ed (Nick Frost), assures Shaun that losing Liz is no big deal, Shaun feels he’s got to make things right. Unfortunately, a zombie apocalypse occurs on the very day he chooses to make that happen, and he must save not only Liz, but his mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), from hordes of flesh-eating ghouls. In the increasingly tense and difficult battle for survival, Shaun ultimately finds his voice and his spine, and reunites with Liz.

The opening sequence in Shaun of the Dead showcases average people quietly getting up to go work, but in emotionally and mentally checked-out terms. Hardly anyone makes eye contact with anyone else. And Shaun’s long yawn of boredom could easily be mistaken for a zombie’s grimace.

After the zombie apocalypse commences, Wright restages the film’s inaugural tracking shot—this time featuring actual zombies, not just bored, checked-out humans—and Shaun doesn’t even notice the difference. In the Romero living-dead films, the sometimes not-too-subtle point is that the zombies are “us.” In Shaun of the Dead, the point is that many humans live their daily lives as if already zombies.

Accordingly, the film’s running verbal gag—“you’ve got red on you”—expresses the idea that things tend to stay the same, no matter what changes in Shaun’s life. At first, he’s got red ink on his white shirt. Later, it’s spilled blood. The zombie apocalypse has changed less about his life than one might suspect.

Beyond the observational humor, horror fans will find Shaun of the Dead amusing because it continually references other horror films in funny yet situation-appropriate ways. For instance, when tasked with rescuing Shaun’s Mum, Ed notes, “We’re coming to get you, Barbara,” a recitation (and reparsing) of Johnny’s famous line in the 1968 Night of the Living Dead (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”). At another point, a character implores another to “Join us,” adopting the refrain of the Deadites in the Evil Dead cycle.

Before the film is done, it also features verbal name checks of Ken Foree (a lead actor in Dawn of the Dead) and Ash (the lead character of The Evil Dead). These moments may qualify as throwaway ones, but they affirm to horror fans that Shaun of the Dead’s makers know their stuff, even while subverting their genre material to comic ends.

There’s also a very funny “self-recognition” factor in Shaun of the Dead. Shaun allows his mom and stepfather and his obnoxious friend Ed to dictate his life and future. He lives in a world of petty grievances, fart jokes, junk food, constant video games, and unending movie references. This is indeed the life of modern geekdom for many. But by navigating Z-Day (the Zombie Day), Shaun finally establishes his independence from parents and juvenile best buddy. He has put Ed, now a zombie, in an appropriate compartment of his life (in the shed, to be precise) rather than let that aspect of his life dominate his grown-up relationship with Liz.

Shaun of the Dead is utterly brilliant in execution. Whether choreographing a battle with the zombies to a song from Queen, or making half-noticed asides about zombies being perfect employees in the service industry, the film impresses with its sense of pace and nimble humor. The important thing, however, is that no matter how hard one laughs with the film’s joke, the filmmakers also get right the scary, gory sequences. The horror scenes, with zombies invading the Winchester Pub, for instance, are still chilling, and in the end, there are life-and-death consequences for Shaun and his friends. The laughs, while ubiquitous, manage not to undercut the sense of danger to Ed, Barbara, Shaun, Liz, and the others, and that’s what makes the film a horror-comedy instead of a comedy-horror film.

Horror Films FAQ explores a century of ghoulish and grand horror cinema, gazing at the different characters, situations, settings, and themes featured in the horror film, from final girls, monstrous bogeymen, giant monsters and vampires to the recent torture porn and found footage formats. The book remembers the J-Horror remake trend of the 2000s, and examines the oft-repeated slasher format popularized by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).

Visit the author’s blog.



Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, the trade book division of Hal Leonard Corporations, publishes books on the performing arts under the imprints Hal Leonard Books, Backbeat Books, Amadeus Press, and Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.

Posted on August 23, 2013, in Film & TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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