Shaun of the Dead

Edgar Wright knows how to operate human machinery. When his characters walk to work or put milk back in the fridge they do it not with the spontaneity of actors but the simplistic unmanned boredom of human zombies. The title may not just be a play on Romero: instead of “Shaun vs. the Dead,” Shaun is “of” the dead without becoming a literal zombie, just by walking through life with his head down (a running gag reminds us that “dogs can’t look up,” and notice how often the people in this film fail to do so). Clues to the apocalypse creep into our view with alarming redundancy before Shaun notices the world above his shoes. And what does he see, as zombies grope at him with open hands and slack mouths? He sees a beggar, no different for being undead, a bunch of drunks in aprons and neckties. They are the lurching mediocrity, the human horde.

There may be movie directors among them: in his industry, Wright moves with an unhinged humanity that’s all his own, like he’s fighting off deadness in his own brain, sparking it back to life with swift cuts and misdirection. Shaun (Simon Pegg) yawns just like a zombie when he staggers into his living room, looking at his life and wondering what happened, as his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) tells it. He brushes his teeth in five camera cuts within three seconds, a succession of choices for a human starting his day. By contrast, Shaun’s walk to work is a long shot that shuffles past a lot of silly things that people think are very important, so long as they don’t think about them too much. (And the shot is composed for a beautiful film: its beauty becomes funny because of what it's telling us about how we view the world. Wright thinks we live like human dolly shots.) Bloody handprints on the beer cooler are funny because he’s too daft, they'd say, to notice them. But was a zombie trying to get a beer? He must have remembered something about being a man for a second, like Romero’s dead-eyed roamers in Dawn of the Dead recongregating at the shopping mall. “They don’t know why,” someone said, “They just remember.”

Wright doesn’t have the same kind of affection for horror movies that many of his contemporaries do, who make them devotedly, in a series of motions, as a zombie goes shopping. Shaun of the Dead includes a well-worn checklist of tropes but Wright doesn’t sleepwalk through the recreation: he has affection enough to be a critic, and those always make the funniest comedians. He knows what we’re thinking, and takes delight in abusing the knowledge. Late in the film, they finally find a working gun. We’ve established that lay-about roommate Ed (Nick Frost) is proficient at video game shooters, and Shaun keeps giving him the gun to reload, and we know that he’ll use the remaining bullets in a shower of geeky rage and perfect headshots (Shaun can’t hit the broad side of a broad). But he never does. A principal character is being ripped apart, Wright giving in to the genre’s gutsy oeuvre in a final sigh of release after an entire film of mostly off-screen atrocities, and Ed keeps reloading that gun. He doesn’t kill the zombies just in time; the economy of the shots just makes us believe he will, cutting between the poor guy’s imminent death and Ed’s hands in what we assume are working in a time elongated for drama but just short enough to save the day. Nope. He dies horribly.

Wright does have affection for humans. He just doesn’t think everyone counts as one. The discerning element seems to be the willingness to act. By toting around his waifish mom (Penelope Wilton), proving his love to his girlfriend and outgrowing his college roomies, Shaun uses the zombie apocalypse as a way to come of age. He is inexplicably proficient at cracking skulls with a cricket bat (remember Barry Egan’s prodigious crow-bar assault in Punch-Drunk Love?). But I suspect that he barely cares in a moral sense that they’re zombies. These are just the people who never looked at him quite right, or asked him for change every day, getting what they’ve got coming. He’s a grownup now. Time to save the day.

Of course, no one is better off for his intentions. Unlike the cross-eyed idiocy of decision-making in one of those movies of bad choices that plays out like a domino effect of being dumb (any Chevy Chase movie, for instance), Shaun is always making the right calls, or at least making them with surety, and Wright just won’t cut him a break. Everyone probably would have been better remaining in their houses, as the newscaster predictably says, instead of gallivanting through infested streets on Shaun’s word of a safe-haven behind the beer taps. As in Scream, Shaun seems to have seen other horror movies before, and knows that swift action and a confident tone of voice will make him a hero. But Wright punks the satire: knowing the tropes doesn’t give Shaun command over them. He ends up in a horror movie anyway, losing people he loves, because he thought he knew what he was doing. We end up laughing for the same reason; as when Ed never manages to trump the genre with his video game prowess, with all of Wright’s plot we know what’s going to happen because the movie is telling us it won’t. And then it doesn’t.

The movie never really focuses on the zombies. The British sitcom regulars posing as the cast of a horror comedy seem put out by the fact that they’re in one, quibbling over dating issues while the undead shuffle closer and closer to their delicious necks. Everyone in the film would rather be watching the telly than dealing with all this nonsense. In fact, if the zombie virus produced harmless living dead, they’d probably never notice the difference.

Eventually, all zombie movies make it around to shunting our corporate villainy, that particularly human ignorance of ignoring things that you can’t buy or that don’t give you leisure. Liz wants to leave Shaun for spending too much time drinking (not for drinking too much, mind you) and for being content in his entry-level sales job. Why isn’t he a real go-getter? Within this medium, Liz is the zombie, to define her worth by the job other people give her, to satisfy her hunger for success with painful hours and nagging about other people failing to meet her expectations. When the time comes, only Shaun has the courage to face the hordes of commercialized undead, which he already did when he chose the pub and his best mate over a meaningful relationship and a life fighting up a corporate ladder. Wright had to face them too, to write a zombie film about sluggish people surviving themselves in a world of zombies that we rarely see. Shaun of the Dead is how he comes of age. Now whenever he makes a movie, it still feels like he’s saving the day.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Edgar Wright

Edgar Wright

Simon Pegg

Shaun Simon Pegg
Ed Nick Frost
Liz Kate Ashfield
Dianne Lucy Davis
David Dylan Moran
Barbara Penelope Wilton
Philip Bill Nighy

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