In 2004 I wrote an epic 2,642 word essay explaining why Shaun of the Dead was one of the best films of that year. Because it’s 6 years later and I still believe this to be true, here is that essay in it’s entirety (for anyone who has some time on their hands).
FRIED GOLD: IN DEFENSE OF SHAUN OF THE DEAD
A quick history of horror.
How did this happen? How did a so-called “zombie spoof” from a first-time director end up being one of the best films of 2004? As the genre’s reputation alone can tell you, it was no small feat. Anyone who watches horror movies knows that the good ones can be few and far between. It seems to get harder and harder to carve out an original story or even make something that puts a new spin on familiar elements. In recent years, even some of the genre’s best films like The Ring or 28 Days Later were remakes and composites of Romero’s films (respectively). The genre has long suffered from the reputation of little plot, no imagination, and stale ideas plugged into the same tired formula. But as any horror fan knows, that’s not the truth.
The 1970s had a renaissance of horror as respected directors such as William Friedkin, Ridley Scott, and Roman Polanski lent their credibility to a slew of great films, ushering in the modern age of horror. This in turn led to a band of young upstarts like Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and David Cronenberg, who brought in their radical new ideas. This continued on through the 1980s but began to fade. Unfortunately, due to a plague of brainless slasher films kicked off by Halloween and Friday the 13th, great horror films started to appear less and less. For too long, writers and directors just starting out would take a crack at a horror movie, whether they had any interest in them or not (and they often didn’t) and move on with their career. It was a cheap way to make a film with a guaranteed audience. As the 1990s brought forth very few new ideas, horror’s reputation has only worsened. There is no doubt that laziness has set in, and we are due for another renaissance. And though it’s hard to take notice through the sea of remakes and sequels, today there are glimmers of hope. So if complacency is the disease that’s stricken the horror genre, Shaun of the Dead is the cure.
A romantic comedy. With zombies.
Smart. Scary. Hilarious. Disgusting. Heartfelt. It wouldn’t seem possible for these accolades to describe the same movie, but that is the film’s massive undertaking. This is what the filmmakers have called a Zom Rom Com (“zombie romantic comedy”), almost certainty the first of its kind. Although most of the best horror films usually do have black comedy in them, if only to give the audience a break in the tension, a horror/comedy is a genre all its own. Striking just the right balance between humor and horror is notoriously difficult, which is why when someone gets it right the result can be something to celebrate. And Shaun of the Dead ranks up there with some of the best—American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead II, and Dead Alive (Brain Dead). But how did this happen? How did a horror comedy become one of the year’s best films in the first place? Economy. It may be an unflattering answer, but it’s true. The script is so brilliant and tightly constructed that not a line of dialogue is wasted. Just about every sentence uttered onscreen serves as a running joke, a double entendre, a nod to another film, or just something really funny.
Although it may seem simple, the film understands that without an emphasis on story and characters, neither the comedy nor horror will work properly. Even some of the best horror movies lack believable and likable characters, but without them the film would just be another slasher romp counting down until each character expires. Shaun is a slacker but an everyman, and Simon Pegg plays him so perfectly that he becomes more than just an archetype. Nick Frost is likewise perfect as Ed, Shaun’s best friend and flat mate who wants nothing more than to drink and play video games. Ed serves as a reflection of Shaun’s youth and bad influence as Shaun tries to sort his life out before his girlfriend Liz dumps him. It is this dynamic between the 3 principal characters that is so relatable and helps to ground the movie in a believable reality before all hell breaks loose. The more you can relate to the characters, the more you’re invested in what happens to them. The film takes nearly 30 minutes before even introducing the zombies (which has got to be some kind of a record), and when characters actually start to die, the emotional punch is unexpected. The action doesn’t kick in immediately but in a slow and creeping way that finally explodes in the From Dusk Till Dawn-esque climax at the Winchester Pub.
One of the most remarkable things about Shaun of the Dead is that despite its comic function, the film takes a realistic look at how most of us would actually respond to a zombie invasion. Although the film covers many of the usual zombie trademarks, it has moved the action to the suburbs to create a hung-over Sunday morning zombie film. While the film is not based in a completely authentic world, it’s one not that far removed from our own. The film takes place in a universe where zombie films exist, and not in some vacuum where you’re supposed to believe it’s really 2004, but nobody has heard of a zombie before. (I’m talking to you, Dawn of the Dead remake.) The characters are aware of zombies as fictional creations and when first confronted with them are in denial, initially believing them to be “drunk.” But thankfully the film doesn’t go the postmodern Scream route either, spending its time being too clever for itself.
It’s also unlikely that many of us would respond to a zombie attacking us by instantly combating them like an action hero. What’s more likely is the initial shock and disbelief. Shaun and Ed’s initial response is to call 911, which is busy, so then they plop down on the couch to turn on the news. When they finally decide to combat the intruders in the garden, they look for any available weaponry, which is scarce. They end up with a shovel and a cricket bat. During the zombie attack, you can see the characters run through a myriad of emotions, which would be completely natural in such an extreme situation. After the initial shock and horror the characters experience dispatching the undead, they return to the couch to watch the news still covered in blood splatters. Shaun is in a state of shock whereas Ed, more comfortable with his trigger impulse from hours of videogaming, adjusts more quickly. The scene following, where Shaun and Ed try to decide what to do now, is even more brilliant. They run through a series of ideas in a way that is ridiculous and spoofy, and you can later see the contrast as the stakes are far more serious and there are many casualties. Even the character of Phillip, Shaun’s step dad, who is killed of in fantasy so easily, when it comes time for him to turn it is much more difficult. As you see Shaun connect with him, the scene is played for emotion rather than comedy, thus taking the film in another unexpected direction. The small glimpses you get into the relationships between Shaun and Phillip or Shaun and Liz or David and Diane gives you an impression of a bigger history, and thanks to the cast they pull it off.
Satire—a way of criticizing people or ideas in a humorous way.
OR… Commentary—it’s not just for DVDs anymore!
In a year when films like The Passion of the Christ, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Dogville felt they had to ram their message down your throat to be heard, it’s a joy to see a film that understands the power of subtlety. Like The Incredibles (probably the other best film of 2004), which used animation and superheroes to tell a story about middle age, Shaun of the Dead has chosen two less respected genres—comedy and horror—to make a film about something.
Just as Romero’s original trilogy of zombie films made a commentary on political and social issues from racism to consumerism, Shaun of the Dead also functions as a satire of our zombie culture. Many of the characters’ lives are virtually indistinguishable from the undead.
In a world as mundane as Shaun’s, would you even notice a zombie invasion? Are we already the walking dead? The opening credits crawl across the many bit players in the film goes to illustrate how mindlessly we can go through our days. We already seem like zombies. This aspect is played out hilariously as Shaun makes his trip to the Mini-mart, encountering all the usual faces, but doesn’t notice that they are now deceased. Ed’s final reveal in the shed really hammers home the impression that he is hardly worse off than he was at the beginning of the film. Another bit of biting satire are the glimpses of TV shows seen after Z-Day. It’s humorous, but it doesn’t seem too far removed from the reality programming we have today. Even how quickly life returns to normal after an event so devastating is a sharp observation of today’s culture. For the most part, the satire here is subtle enough that many people just looking for a “zombie spoof” wont even notice it. But even though it doesn’t scream it as loudly as a film like the original Dawn of the Dead, it is quite clearly there and hard to ignore for anyone paying attention. Like South Park, it has managed to combine highbrow wit and lowbrow humor with a biting commentary.
I can see more thought and creativity in films like this and The Incredibles than most films released. The love and admiration they have for the genre and the hunger they have to make the best possible film bleed across the screen for the duration. Every frame is filled with such care and attention to detail that there are probably thousands of references and homages to other films, zombie and otherwise. Fulci’s, the restaurant where Shaun tries to make reservations, is named after Italian horror master Lucio Fulci, who made several zombie films. Foree Electronics, where Shaun works, is named after the star of the original Dawn of the Dead, Ken Foree. “We’re coming to get you, Barbara,” the line uttered so inconspicuously that even George Romero didn’t notice it, is one of the most famous from Night of the Living Dead. The newscasts are taken verbatim from the original Night of the Living Dead. Even most of the music in the film (“Ghost Town,” “Panic,” “Blue Wraith”) are related to the plot in some way.
There’s also a Clockwork Orange-esque attack with pool cues set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Evil Dead-inspired quick zooms are juxtaposed with mundane activities like brushing your teeth. There’s even a Reservoir Dogs-inspired “Don’t point that gun at my mum!” Mexican standoff. It is amazingly clever, but it never draws attention to its cleverness. It’s a film where those who pay attention are rewarded with small joyful details. The more you know about the history of zombie films, the more small gems there are to appreciate. But if you’ve never seen one, the films still functions as more than an homage or spoof. The movie knows its source material, and that may be why all those filmmakers who were being paid homage to in this film became some of its biggest fans. George Romero, Sam Raimi, Quentin Tarantino, and Peter Jackson were all among the films supporters.
Like a Trojan horse, Shaun of the Dead and The Incredibles have used unexpected forms of entertainment to get their ideas across. The filmmakers behind those films understand that most people don’t want an idea shoved down their throats and sometimes it’s better to wrap that idea around something and let the audience decide. Like Dr. Strangelove, Network, and all the best satires, Shaun of the Dead uses comic exaggeration to made a greater point without being preachy. Is it ironic that like The Incredibles, the message ends up resonating with me more than those who spoke it more loudly? Of course, it doesn’t matter what the message is if the movie isn’t any good. Thankfully Shaun of the Dead was also the funniest movie of the year.
Once and for all—it’s NOT a spoof!
The filmmakers never had any intention of making a spoof or a parody. By never turning to the zombies for the easy joke and by adhering to the rules of the genre, they have managed to make a film that is both funny and scary. Because of that, to many viewers’ surprise, the film takes its horror seriously. They took the idea of a zombie invasion and applied it to their movie about a couple of slackers. And it works brilliantly. The deaths are gory, the zombies are dangerous, and the threat is real. That’s not to completely dismiss the effort involved in making a good spoof, because there have been great ones—Airplane, Young Frankenstein, and The Naked Gun come to mind. But when you’re turning every serious situation into a joke, what’s more likely is that you’ll get something with more mixed results like Scary Movie, Fatal Instinct, Mafia!, or Spy Hard. But the filmmakers behind Shaun of the Dead aren’t lampooning the zombie genre to show us how ridiculous these movies are. It’s clear that they love zombie movies and take them seriously.
The most important element is the sense of dread. Zombies are not fast. They are slow and stupid, but their strength is in their numbers. The more of them there are, the less things you can do to stop them. Where do you go? How do you fight them off? The film understands this crucial element, and they do find themselves sealed off in a bar that is eventually invaded. The film also doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to gore—it becomes quite violent. One of the standout scenes features a leading character being pulled apart and eaten alive. The filmmakers understand that the dread must be continuously present for the film to work. You also have to end up dispatching with the bulk of the film’s cast by the end—and because of how I felt about most of them, it was somewhat unexpected.
Certainly a complex scene like the Mexican standoff would not work if the tone of the film had not been handled as carefully. One scene parodies the overused Mexican standoff by enlisting a gun, a corkscrew, and two broken bottles. It also reveals Shaun’s emotional frailty and denial when he wants to save his doomed mother, plus Diane’s forward realization that David is in love with Liz. And the scene still finds a place for humor. This is not easy stuff, and if all the film aspired to be was a one-gag spoof or parody, it would not have had such lofty goals. It does such a good job in setting up the characters and situations that by the time an emotional scene like this comes, although it hits you from out of nowhere, you are drawn into it. That’s what makes this film so rare—its ability to effortlessly combine the humorous with the heartfelt and the smart with the scary.
It’s a horror film. It’s a romantic comedy. It’s a buddy film. It’s a social commentary. It has some incredibly subtle humor. It actually manages to make a fart joke funny. It’s so smart that it goes over most viewers’ heads, but so accessible that they don’t realize it. Shaun of the Dead is brilliant because it manages to have it both ways—it has its brains and eats them too.
Originally published here.