Shaun of the Dead (2004)

“Days and Nights of the Near-living”



            The comic, romantic, zombie movie Shaun of the Dead is a refreshing take on the hard-to-modify horror genre.  Since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the amazing cheapie horror flick of the 60s that scared the b’jeezus out of me and my friends (“God, they chomped on human flesh!”), I haven’t exactly been dieing for comic remakes in the 21st century.  However, Shaun was good Halloween fun, a break from the latter-day election blues.


            I had no real interest in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s revisitation Dawn of the Dead (2004) did not attract me for another helping of fresh (porno)graphic cannibalism. I did view 28 Days Later (2002) for comparison with Shaun from a friend’s advice; I was told it attained high credibility in the setting and events of apocalyptic possibility and gave intelligence and dignity to the main characters.  It was serious and the horror was an antidote to the har-har of Shaun.  Comedy though it is, Shaun does not disappoint in dispensing horror:  we do have a momentary gag-gasp or two at bizarre killings (Yipes! he had to shoot her!) and torso rendings (“Jeez, they gut people open and chomp on human entrails like it’s a spaghetti feed!”).   Some nasty hard-core bits will delight the horror fans.  In its way a British slacker film with a satirical subtext on the normalcy of dead-beat culture, Shaun of the Dead has a more pressing theme than any of the dystopian zombie films pretending to warn against pandemic biological diseases or toxic pollution.   


            Shaun and Ed of Shaun of the Dead, played by writer Simon Pegg and actor Nick Frost respectively, are a pair of elbow-bending dead heads, and I don’t mean ilk of the Grateful Dead.  Ed is much more Gratefully Dead: he’s a part-time dope distributor, when he’s got the energy to push a bit, and full-time beer-bum, hanging out night after night with his Winchester Pub mates, especially with Shaun, his best friend since boyhood and his connection with the decent world.  The connection is one of co-dependency, because if it weren’t for Shaun, Ed would have been kicked out of their common friend’s flat in which they lodge as an uneasy threesome.  The friend, Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), like Shaun, holds down a job, and as the owner of the flat would like a bit of civility in these dangerous times--like locking the front door when the Winchester pair come home at all hours, since anyone might come in to rifle, i.e. burgle, the place in this end of London.  (The foreshadowing of who just might saunter/stagger into the flat were the front door left undone is barely recognizable at this point.)  Pete does not take a clear stand on his principles; he just has a regular daily fit, which may be his only therapeutic purge in the pathetic life he and his pals lead.  Pete’s on the right side of reason; he’s lost faith in both Shaun and Ed--such wankers!, but he does not act on his convictions.     


            Shaun and Ed might as well be precursors of the zombie dead.  Each of them and their friends are moribund in different ways.  Even nice-as-you-please Mum (Penelope Wilton) and noble Step-Dad, (the BBC-regal Bill Nighy), a quite loveable pair, are requiescent in their somnolent suburb of London.  They’d have loved to straighten Shaun out--but, oh forget it!  He’s grown up now and beyond repair.  Their grudges set from past misbehavior and quarrels, they have mostly given up on expressing their tender feelings towards one another as family.  Even the sensible have settled into routine.   


            Shaun yawns his way through the day as an appliance-shop manager, supervising an incorrigible, unambitious crew.  First thing in the morning, before his mind’s awake, he staggers to the local convenience shop for a Zippy pop, same routine every morning.  Wending his way down the middle of the street cluttered with parked autos, he robotically smacks a handful of change into the palm of a young panhandler being dragged along by his dog.  Thoughtless as the gesture is, this guy Shaun’s a giver not a taker.  Daily life is unmotivated; actions are performed mechanically. 


            From his laid-back habits, Shaun might have been gratefully dead, if it weren’t for the need to pay attention from time to time to his steady, Liz (Kate Ashfield), a plain, sensible gal, who seems to like Shaun for his decent--I don’t know--Shaunness.  How  Liz  has put up with the nightly Winchester Pub booze-till-you-snooze for as long as she has is a mystery, but her announcement that the ‘romance’ is just about over is all that it takes to scare her boyfriend out of beer-dreams and into near-awareness of responsive friendship.  Unfortunately, Mother’s Day flowers are also on the calendar of to-do’s and two daily devotions in a row to the women in his life make for serious multi-tasking for our lad.  What a moral dilemma!  Shaun’s fuzzy hop-head gives evidence of severe memory loss in spite of the crisis at hand.  That Liz wants a dinner-date as a test of their mate-worthiness really sets her visionary horizon at a rather low level.  Still,  who’s to tell what blissful materialist doldrums their married life might become?   The introduction of characters and setting of premises prepare the viewer for the serious shake-up needed to alter this state of deadly ennui.


            It is surprising how emotionally well-developed the secondary characters are who join Shaun’s knights of the Winchester community .  However, no sense of genuine excitement exists in the lives of any of the characters in this film.  Shaun of the Dead is a wake-up call to near-dead society.  It satirizes the ritualized life of pub indolence and dopey sameness, the torpor of desensitized, non-engaged existence, the insanity of surfing the TV for a visual thrill-stopper and thereby missing the vital information of the day when it is broadcast.  These people are somnabulists surfing through their days.  Ed’s fart seems to be one major stimulant of life.  What has life come to when the dawning whiff of horrific fart-stench is taken as a moment of supreme humor?  That’s Beavis n’ Butthead funny.  There’s a dose of manic adolescence in this writing and the overall effect of the film is that of a Thames TV sitcom blown up to movie-length.   What better way to get the potatoes off the couches and into the cinemas?


            In Shaun of the Dead, the infected zombies are everywhere and how they got that way is not really important to Pegg and fellow writer, Edgar Wright. Somebody started the biting--that’s about it.   Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 28 Days Later does explain the origin of the zombie rage infection in Cambridge’s animal experiment labs.  The zombies of Shaun appear to emerge as almost untransformed locals who have eaten themselves sick on strawberry-jam-slathered doughnuts and forgotten to wash their faces before hitting the streets.  The traditionally lethargic gait of the infected is such that any half-conscious twit with an ounce of energy could outrun, elbow aside, or, if energy need be expended, kick the creepers’ heads in. 28 Days presents wildly apoplectic vomiting zombies who are bound to spray their target with blood or cop a bite if anyone gets close enough to tussle. Because more athletic heroes are needed to dispatch the infected,  the gazing doe-eyed hero (Cillian Murphy) of 28 Days finds an American baseball bat (How that?) and hits many a home run; Seleen (Naomie Harris) uses a machete (not a typical English tool) to chop’em to bits.  Shaun and his friends find weapons of domesticity--vinyl LPs--and sports equipment true to the culture--cricket bat (How’z’at!), field hockey stick, golf driver, etc. because a good sixer whack on the side of the head is all one needs to take a zombie out.


            Both movies end with soldiers more or less saving the day.  This  traditional resolution of of countless monster movies is a little disappointing.  In 28 Days the final refuge is a country estate Alamo, manned by a rag-tag squad of macho commandos; the Alamo of Shaun’s gang is the Winchester Pub, defended against the ravening hordes with the still-functioning Winchester rifle from above the bar and a handful of shells. 


            Personally, Shaun of the Dead stimulated a few memories of life in working-class England, such that I cannot doubt that an underlying theme to stir imaginations was far from the satirists’ minds in deriving this film.   In 1960 I returned to my hometown in the English Midlands for a few weeks’ vacation after having experienced two years of rocky acculturation since emigrating to the States, where my folks settled in a sleepy farm town in Box Elder County in northern Utah (pop. 17,000).  On the Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth I voyage across the Atlantic, I had my 16th birthday.  Going “home,” I dreamed of a return to the old gang of friends, with whom I’d go bike-riding through green countryside, kicking a ball about in the park, walking the bridle footpaths for a spot of birdwatching, fishing for gudgeon and roach with incredibly simple tackle in the local rivers and reservoirs--essentially hankering for a return to juvenile Arcadia.  Also, I had been informed my grandmother’s garden would need a good working over.   


            What I found were my friends grown up into adolescent pseudo-Teddy Boys and already at 16, having left school (What’s the bloody use!), working in factories or apprenticed in trades, though still living at home, and handing most of their paypackets to their mums for room and board.  After a couple of nights of hitting the local pubs with them, smoking non-stop Senior Services, and playing darts with near dead-eye shots, I asked about getting out on bikes for a weekend jaunt.  Bikes? They hadn’t oiled a chain or biked about town in two years.  They thought their bikes may still be in the back shed unless their moms had taken ’em for salvage to the ironmongers.  Hikes? Fishing gear? Footer and cricket? You gotta be kidding!  They no longer ambled through the fields, lay idle on river banks, pumped up a ball to have a three-a-side on the glebe.  Exercise?--they wanted none of it.  The rituals had become beer, smoking, darts, and--on the wild side-- rock n’ roll dances for the odd bop and mostly to hit on some birds for the chance of making out slobbery-drunk in the hedgerows or the miracle of a strange shag.  The longest walk I took with my pals was on Saturdays to confession at the chapel for their weekly catharsis.   


                Therefore, when I saw Shaun, Ed and their friends coaxed or chased into the back yards to unlock the utility sheds for zombie-clobbering implements--spades, cricket bats, hockey sticks, golf clubs--I realized what this film was aiming for: a return to physical exercise and lively domestic activities in the streets, backyards and gardens.  These people needed a total change of habits and creaming local zombies helped them to warm-up their muscles for a more invigorated existence in the days after the zombie plague has passed.  


            In general, the theme that comes to light in such dystopic worlds of zombies is the need for the healthy to come to consciousness, to find interest in one’s life and in one anothers’ lives.  Shaun and Ed have a good bit of Steinbecks’ George and Lenny in them; their gang of friends, the band who choose the common dream--cleave together, help out, never give up.  One’s company of friends become the community who must struggle together to survive; nobody’s in this hellish world  alone.  The pub used to be the hub of British life--a great, good place where friends and neighbors used to meet for merriment, music and a sing-along, for conversation, news of the town and political debate.  The modern watering-hole, the Winchester, is a far cry from the community center of old.  A change is needed for something of greater social importance than the boozers’ hang-out.  Maybe I’m daft to elaborate on such a theme in a --what’d they call it?--a rollicking zom, rom, com? 

I gave this movie a rating of 3; maybe 4 for subtext.

David Gilmour