Directed by: Edgar Wright Written by: Wright and Simon Pegg
I tried to watch George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead recently. I derived some mild pleasure out of the experience, but only because there’s something about the not-quite modern aesthetic of the 70s-90s that pleases me. For the most part I was frustratingly bored by what may be the film with the highest action to substantive content ratio I’d ever seen. I was thus thoroughly surprised that I quite enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, a film supposedly inspired by Romero’s work.
This is not to say that there is no simiilarity between the two zombie films. In addition to prominently featuring zombies the two movies can both be said to make light of killing. Dawn does this simply in that it features armed characters who show little to no hesitancy when it comes to carrying out their kill-or-be-killed mission. Shaun, by contrast makes light of killing by throwing in jokes that highlight how other zombie films make light of killing. Shaun’s characters speak like they are out of episodes of Flight of the Conchords: in an awkward banter that is neither deadpan nor fully engaged with the serious events that surround it.
The joy of Shaun of the Dead may is in fact, that it manages to be comedic without really undermining its status as a horror film. The film follows Shaun (Simon Pegg), a man who can’t get his act together, as he helps his friends and family escape the fate of being bitten by zombies. Zombie attacks turn victims into zombies themselves, meaning Shaun and his cohorts are increasingly surrounded by an ever-growing rank of enemies. This structure inevitably produces suspense, suspense that is maintained throughout the film: even in its silly moments. Shaun of the Dead’s jokes do not break the illusion of horror and suspense they simply capitalize on it. We see limbs ripped apart, and bodies torn to shreds, their innards ripped out like spaghetti. This violence produces screams from the humans: who scream not so much out of genuine fear, but as if they are in a screaming contest.
Shaun of the Dead is a film filled with action, and yet as someone who does not like action, I did not feel alienated by these moments. That’s because bits like “the screaming contest” mean that Shaun of the Dead‘s characters are “talking” even when the film is caught up in action moments. Another such moment features characters beating up their enemies while Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” plays on a juke box. This is not mere background music, as the characters’ attacks line up with it perfectly. Sure, the events depicted are a life-and-death battle, but what we see are characters moving-in-sync-with-a-rhythm: dancing their troubles away.
Shaun of the Dead also distinguishes itself from Dawn of the Dead in that, given that it’s a quick, character-dense action movie, it nonetheless manages to meaningfully differentiate and create tensions between its characters: they are not mere bodies to carry guns in the zombie war. Shaun’s mother (Penelope Wilton) and reluctant travelling companion David (Dylan Moran) stand out amongst the film’s personalities. Shaun’s story, meanwhile, is that of a loser making something of himself, and it is, nonetheless, free of a forced, phoney moral: it’s driven by jokes and character relationships instead. Shaun is a loveable loser, but he feels three-dimensional and not a mere trope, in large part because one of his key motivators is his loyalty to his even bigger loser-friend (Nick Frost). This loyalty is not unjustified: both characters are developed protagonists in the piece: the difference being that one is more aware of his shortcoming than the other.
Shaun of the Dead may not be that deep, perhaps not even as deep as the source material it references. However, it is constantly alive and constantly true to its characters. If you’re the kind of person who likes the idea of liking a lowbrow zombie movie, but can’t imagine yourself actually enjoying such a film, then surprisingly, there somehow exists a work , in Shaun of the Dead ,that can fulfill your oxymoronic needs.