Horror and comedy have crossed paths in the movies many times over the years. Most of them fall into well-deserved obscurity. Two stand out in my mind as masterpieces: Dr. Strangelove and Evil Dead 2.
It’s time to add another title to that list; Shaun of the Dead.
Bigger Fish To Fry
R for gore, violence, language
- Shaun of the Dead Boys: Filmmakers discuss comedy, remakes, and the subtext of zombie films
- Resident Evil
- 28 Days Later
- Dawn of the Dead
- Land of the Dead
- 28 Weeks Later
Wright, Pegg, and Frost
As you can guess from the title, the film is a zombie movie that pays homage to George Romero’s wonderful “walking dead” trilogy. It opens in suburban London on Shaun (Simon Pegg) having a heart-to-heart with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). Their relationship is hanging by a thread. Liz complains that Simon is too selfish, that he’s always hanging around with his friends instead of her, and he never takes the time to treat her right.
Simon has a day to prove her wrong, and he blows it. He forgets to make reservations, and then he tries to smooth things over by pretending the flowers he bought for his mother are actually for Liz. The card gives him away, and Liz kicks him out.
So instead, Shaun ends up getting drunk and commiserating with his roommate Ed (Nick Frost) at their favorite pub, oblivious to the blaring news reports and military vehicles and sirens streaming past outside.
One of the hallmarks of a good horror film — including Romero’s originals — is that it reveals humanity’s reaction to horror. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was a biting (pun intended) satirical look at the growing materialism and mall culture of the 1970s.
Shaun of the Dead says that this generation can’t be bothered with current events; it’s somebody else’s problem, and besides, my girl just dumped me. It’s not so much that Shaun’s generation is selfish or shallow (although there’s probably some of that too), rather it’s that they assume they can’t change the world. News is what happens to other people, important people. Clerks and the unemployed just don’t feel empowered enough to be a part of the world.
Shaun also makes the point that many of the lower-paid workers in Western cities are practically zombies anyway. Demeaning, unimportant jobs leave them numb, and all some employers want is a body without a soul or a brain to get in the way of work, work, work.
True To Its Roots
Eventually, current events become too real to ignore, and Shaun and Ed realize they’re living in a zombie movie. They know that sounds ridiculous, but it isn’t funny. Their third roommate was bitten and nearly killed Shaun. The two zombies that wandered into their yard wouldn’t relent until Simon and Ed used a shovel and a cricket bat to kill them. It’s kind of thrilling, like their video game, but it’s also kind of sickening.
Concerned now for his friends’ safety, Shaun calls to check on his mother and learns that his stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) was bitten. Shaun formulates a plan: drive to his parents’ house, kill his stepfather (whom he never liked anyway), gather his mother, then get Liz and her roommates, and hide out at the pub.
Once outside, the zombie threat becomes less thrilling, and more terrifying. And killing his stepfather turns out to be much harder than he’d hoped. In fact, he doesn’t have the guts for it, throwing the movie from comedic territory into dramatic horror.
While it remains funny throughout, Shaun of the Dead stays true to its dramatic and horror roots. The horror genre is honored by not allowing all the good guys to survive, and by not making light of the death of loved ones. It also stays true to its dramatic roots — in a way, Shaun of the Dead is a traditional hero’s journey. The protagonist begins the journey as a child, and by the end he has become a man. In bad movies, the growth comes too easily, or all at once. In Shaun of the Dead, it comes at a great price; the movie makes its protagonist earn his spiritual growth.
Hyperbole is a sure way to inspire backlash, so don’t get me wrong. Shaun of the Dead is not the funniest movie ever, nor is it the scariest. It may not appeal to everyone. If you’ve never seen a zombie movie, you may not understand the conventions of the genre, and maybe you won’t like it.
But within the multiple boundaries of a “rom zom com” (romantic zombie comedy), Shaun of the Dead is flawless.