Girl Meets Context: We’ve declared December Zombie Month in reaction to the Christmas season and its concomitant resurrecting god-figure. We wrap things up with Edgar Wright’s satirical zombie/romantic comedy hybrid. The film concerns slacker electronics salesman Shaun (Simon Pegg), who is in the midst of minor crisis. His relationship with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is on the rocks because of his lack of ambition and maturity. He spends far too much time at a divey local pub, the Winchester, with his slacker best friend Ed (Nick Frost). He works a dead-end job at an electronics shop. His housemate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) is fed up with him. His relationship with his stepfather (Bill Nighy) is strained. But when a zombie apocalypse happens, Shaun and Ed suddenly find themselves trying to be heroes by implementing a plan to safeguard Liz and Shaun’s mum through the zombie hordes to the Winchester in order to wait out the crisis. But Liz’s annoying flatmates (Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran) tag along and things don’t go exactly as planned. Will Shaun be able to rise to the occasion and keep his loved ones safe? Shaun of the Dead is the first film in Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, followed by 2007′s Hot Fuzz and 2013′s The World’s End. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the film. If you haven’t seen Shaun of the Dead, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: After a long hiatus, let’s wrap up Zombie Month.
Sean: Do you feel that Shaun of the Dead ends things in a pleasant manner?
Kristine: Yes! It was thoroughly enjoyable. I liked it a lot, especially after the tediousness of Day of the Dead, which you know I found unpleasant.
Sean: I thought that was interesting to watch this after the metaphysics of Day of the Dead, since this is so much more grounded in the world of matter, rather than the world of ideas. One thing I noticed about Shaun of the Dead, especially in contrast to the zombie movies we’ve watched for the blog, is that it starts off with the proposition that we’re all ready “zombies.” That modern life has made us braindead automatons even before the literal zombies appear. That’s not something we’ve seen before.
Kristine: Yes, this was the first zombie flick we have watched together where the protagonists don’t notice the apocalypse/infestation/crisis right away, because their actions and behaviors (and those of everyone around them) are already so zombified. I really liked that part. The routine that you do in your sleep, the people you have only cursory and robotic interactions with, and (perhaps most enjoyable of all for me) how everyone on public transit looks like the undead. Shout out to Jacob’s Ladder for also depicting this truism.
Kristine: I totally related to Shaun in the first 20 minutes of the film, where he’s so deadened by his routine that he’s pretty oblivious to what’s actually going on around him. Here in DFW, I go straight from house to car for my commute. I totally wouldn’t notice a zombie apocalypse until at least an hour into my day. Including if there were massive pile-ups on the highway and corpses by the side of the road and sirens and alarms going off like mad. All that is standard fare. I see and ignore all that every morning. Plus I live and work near soup kitchens/social services/on-and-off ramps for highways – so there are always tons of vagrants and people lurching around with shopping carts and less than four limbs. I could go days without noticing anything was amiss.
Sean: Ha! And in the movie, the zombie apocalypse is – at first – barely distinguishable from what’s considered a “normal” routine. That’s also how the movie ends, with the zombie just being integrated back into society, which it turns out is uniquely suited to accommodate zombies because the bedrocks of modern life – television talk shows, minimum-wage jobs, etc. – are all ready built to perpetuate “zombification.” I thought that was a novel and clever approach, because one of the main issues facing (co-writer and star) Simon Pegg and (co-writer and director) Edgar Wright was how to make the material feel fresh after decades of zombie movies, with accompanying tropes and re-imaginings. Movies like Re-Animator, The Return of the Living Dead, Dead Alive and Night of the Creeps had all ready twisted and re-interpreted the zombie story in smart and imaginative ways. Coming after all those movies, not to mention the ur-texts of Romero’s original trilogy, Shaun of the Dead was smart to stick to the basics of the zombie formula but make sly, intelligent tweaks to the context.
Kristine: I agree with all that, and found Wright and Pegg’s approach totally fresh and hilarious. I was actually surprised when I realized that none of the other movies we’ve watched have played so openly with the whole “modern society has already made us into zombies” idea, since its such an obvious piece of genre subtext from the original Dawn of the Dead onwards. Just the simple act of making that subtext into something openly textual was very funny and apt. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the zombie movies we have watched, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s actually a deep vein of classic Romanticism in them. Just in their attitude about the humanity and individual characters of some / all of the human survivors – that there’s this basic nobility to some people that redeems them, even as their peers descend into savagery (I’m thinking about the makeshift family of Selena, Jim, Frank and Hanna vs. the military rape squad in 28 Days Later, for example).
Kristine: I feel like a lot of the post-Romero zombie stuff that’s operated in the Romero vein takes on that Romantic glow, which is ironic because Romero’s actual trilogy is among the least romanticized of all the zombie stuff.
Sean: Agreed. I like that. Shaun of the Dead, in my eyes, works on two levels or is “about” two things. On the one hand, it’s a postmodern text about the zombie movie, and the presence of the zombie in pop culture since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. But it’s not just that, is not simply a metatext. Secondly, it’s a character piece that’s about a crisis of modern masculinity. So Romero’s movies (especially Dawn of the Dead) are “about” consumerism and a 20th-century American ontology, they’re a systemic critique; whereas Shaun of the Dead is about something more personal – the fate of the 21st century man in Western culture. Shaun has to “become a man” and the zombie crisis is just a dramatic flight of fancy to get him there.
Kristine: Agreed 100%.
Sean: Calum Marsh at Slant wrote a great review of The World’s End in which he summed up Wright’s approach as follows:
Wright understands that the cinema has the capacity not only to recreate lived experience, but to offer constructive and cathartic alternatives to it, working through difficult issues by engaging and then reconfiguring them. The fantasy scenarios that emerge throughout Wright’s work represent attempts to redirect and repurpose frustrations and anxieties that lack a healthy, sustainable outlet in ordinary life. He’s taking real, palpable pain and making something useful and wonderful and fun out of it: The familiar genre conventions he adopts become formal manifestations of the desire common to all of us to see the great big confusing messiness of our lives rendered clear and legible. Life, Wright concedes, is complicated and exhausting and basically just hard; the stuff we deal with every day, from relationships to familial responsibility to even just getting up for work in the morning, makes fending off zombies or cultists or straightforward baddies of any kind seem preferable.
So, using Marsh’s logic, in Shaun of the Dead, the true horror is not the zombies. The horror is being a 21st century man, not understanding how to make your partner happy, not being able to reconcile your difficult relationship with your stepfather, working a crappy mid-level white collar job with no other prospects… Those things are horrible and shot through with real existential terror. The zombies are nothing. The zombies are Shaun’s way out of the real horrors of his life. Or perhaps more accurately, the zombies are the horrors of Shaun’s life made manifest so that he can actually handle them. There are no easy answers to the real horrors in Shaun’s life, thus the zombies are infinitely preferable because dealing with them, while perilous, is relatively simple – hit them in the head. If only the real problems in our lives has such simple answers!
Kristine: I like that and I agree 100%. I haven’t seen Wright’s other movies, though I really want to see The World’s End. I would expect to be sick of the Peter Pan syndrome/arrested development/man child/pub culture thing, and I think I am when it comes to American stuff (Judd Apatow, et al.), but for whatever reason, this was still really fun and not stale.
Sean: Did you notice how the end of Shaun of the Dead recalled the end of Cemetery Man? How Shaun/Ed were a riff on the Francesco/Gnaghi relationship?
Kristine: Yes! I did notice that! It reminds me of this Seinfeld episode where George realizes that in order to perform the expected boyfriend duties, he needs Kramer and Jerry working behind the scenes 24/7. Like, men need all this support from other men who “get it” in order for them to be a whole, functioning person.
Sean: Ha! Right. But isn’t Simon Pegg just unbelievably endearing as Shaun?
Kristine: I really loved him a lot.
Sean: Did you ever watch Spaced? His tv show?
Sean: Remember Yvonne, the female friend that Shaun runs into? And later on, after the apocalypse, Yvonne’s group is made up of “bizarro” versions of Shaun’s group? That’s Jessica Stevenson, Simon Pegg’s co-star, co-creator and co-writer from Spaced.
Kristine: She’s great. Remember when Shaun runs into Yvonne at the beginning of the movie she asks him how he’s doing and he says, “Surviving.” And as their whole conversation plays out, in the background someone has a car accident and is being intubated by emergency medical services, which Yvonne and Shaun don’t notice. Again, underscoring that in this movie, the world before the zombie apocalypse is all ready dystopian survival horror, just of an existential nature.
Sean: Exactly. And remember that Yvonne tells Shaun she’s just bought a house (“A bit grown up, isn’t it?” she says), so she represents a version of Shaun who has embraced adulthood and is moving on, underscoring Shaun’s crisis. In fact, she inadvertently reminds him that he’s forgotten to make reservations for his dinner that night with Liz. When he’s around his peers who are maturing in a traditional sense, his own shortcomings and selfishness are underscored.
Sean: Did you watched the UK version of The Office?
Kristine: I watched all of the UK Office, and I was delighted to see Dawn (as Liz’s flatmate Dianne) and Tim (as the “Liz” of Yvonne’s group of friends)! I wished there had been a cameo role for Gareth.
Sean: Right? I never even realized Tim was in that alternate group until this viewing.
Kristine: I really enjoyed the whole cast of Shaun of the Dead. They’re all wonderful.
Sean: Can you guess which characters steal the movie for me?
Kristine: I am going to guess Billy Nighy? I squealed with delight when he first appeared, and he was perfect throughout. Love him.
Sean: Yes! Philip and Barbara, Shaun’s parents, absolutely make the movie for me. And when Philip dies and Shaun is devastated? I was crying during that scene again and I’ve seen this movie like 20 times.
Kristine: I’m not familiar with the actress who plays Shaun’s Mum, but she was perfect. Like, dropdead perfect. A genius.
Sean: She’s on Downton Abbey.
Kristine: Oh! Is she the head maid lady?
Sean: No! She’s Isobel, Matthew’s mother.
Kristine: Oh! That’s right! She is good in that role, too.
Sean: When Shaun is recounting all the rescue different plans that involve rescuing Mum and the movie keeps cutting to Mum, Shaun, Ed and Liz all skipping about hand-in-hand? Love that so much.
Kristine: I loved that as well. That was another feature of the movie that usually annoys me – the sudden flashbacks, flashforwards and sudden jumpcuts. I usually find that kind of stuff too gimmicky (Detention, for example) but this movie pulled all that stuff off brilliantly. I also thought that the Ed character would wear thin, but nope, he was super enjoyable. I mean, I grew weary of him, but only in the way the film wanted me to, in order to make Shaun’s story arc work.
Sean: I was going to ask if were you surprised at how dark this movie got? With things like Mum’s death and David being torn apart by zombies, etc?
Kristine: Hmm, I guess I wasn’t surprised at the darkness. I mean, it is a zombie movie. Someone we care about has to go.
Sean: Ed’s orangutan impression?
Sean: Ed is like, so much more loveable than the odious and putrid Gnaghi.
Kristine: They are two different beings that cannot be compared. I will allow that Ed, while still repugnant in many of his personal habits, is far more palatable than Gnaghi. I laughed helplessly during their whole “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” performance. Did you like Liz?
Sean: I think she’s beautiful and charming, though her role is sort of a nothing. But she’s believable as the woman you’d love enough to want to change for. You?
Kristine: Same. I wish these male directors could figure out how to create better female characters, who exist for reasons other than just to be the male’s raison d’etre. But she was not offensive.
Sean: Did you see how David’s death scene was a shoutout to Day of the Dead? The classic guts torn out, body torn to bits by the zombie mob?
Kristine: Yes! And falling backwards into the horde… Shudder. Watching his own guts being torn out? He even kind of looks like Rhodes.
Sean: I am going to have zombie nightmares now.
Kristine: Good. Yay! Nightmares! That’s fun, right? Isn’t that the fun?
Sean: I guess.
Kristine: I am pleased.
Sean: I curiously don’t have much to say about this movie, as it turns out. It’s all there on the surface, no?
Kristine: I know, right? Because it was just good and there. Not to say it’s lightweight… But I guess it kind of is lightweight. It doesn’t feel that way because it is so skillfully done, I guess.
Sean: Yeah. I mean, it’s a love letter to zombie movies. It’s a lovely parable about male identity crisis. The end.
Kristine: Okay, here is a question for you. Other than the Day of the Dead gutmunching scene, were there other iconic zombie movie shoutouts/instances of homage?
Sean: When Shaun and Ed are on the phone with his Mum, Ed yells, “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” That’s how Johnny teases Barbra at the start of Night of the Living Dead.
Kristine: Oh yeah! I didn’t think of that when I watched Shaun but as soon as you said the words, I instantly knew it was Johnny and sis from Night of the Living Dead.
Sean: Ha! I have something to ask now. In the classic romantic comedies, making the love match is the goal. The crisis is being single; being partnered is the solution to/end of the crisis. But in these bro-rom-coms (Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, the films of Judd Apatow and associates) being in the relationship is the crisis. Being single is the ideal.
Kristine: Do you think?
Sean: I mean, doesn’t the end of this movie show Shaun having his cake and eating it to? Having the girlfriend, but clinging to his old Superbad life by hiding Ed in the shed? To play video games with? I mean, wouldn’t you say that Shaun’s crisis is his relationship with Liz? That’s the relationship that is forcing him to be an adult and not a perpetual adolescent, which is rendered in these movies as the “horror.”
Kristine: I think that it’s supposed to be the compromise, not having your cake and eating it too. Like, you can have your dude-bro friend, but he needs to be separate/in a different sphere than your relationship with a woman. Ed being a zombie means Shaun has to compartmentalize him. Now he has “friend” time and “relationship” time and doesn’t confuse the two. I think the Liz relationship is the crisis, yes, the agitator forcing Shaun to change, but the movie presents it as a change that needs to happen. One of the ways it does this is showing Shaun’s work life (and I really loved all those scenes). Depicting how he has to work with these cretinous teenagers, for whom it is an age-appropriate job. Shaun tells one of them that he wants to do something with his life, too, and cretin teen is all, “Umm. When?” Shaun isn’t happy in his perpetual adolescence, per se. He is just compliant and, well… asleep. Zombie-ish, like we said before. He is repeating behavior day after day, year after year because it is what he knows and what is familiar, not because it is what he wants. Right?
Sean: Sure, yes. And the Winchester is the metaphor for that inappropriate co-mingling of his Ed life and his Liz life.
Sean: Did you relate to the movie’s depiction of dive bar ennui?
Kristine: Oh hell yes. Probably my favorite scene in the entire film is when Ed plays storyteller at the bar and invents all these fantastical lives and biographies for the various bar denizens. Because the patrons are all just your run-of-the-mill alcoholics… But you never know! And that’s the romance of the dive bar, and of going to a regular bar every night for your entire life. There’s a 97% chance it will be a night just like every other night, but there’s always a 3% chance something amazing will happen. Or at least something amusing enough to talk about for the rest of the 97% of the time when nothing is happening. I really relate to that.
Sean: Yeah. That romanticization of the drunks at the bar was pretty spot-on, I thought, but now you have confirmed it. What’s also great about that scene is that it sums up exactly why Shaun can’t shake his relationship with Ed, because Ed makes the shitty doldrums of their modern, zombified existence so much more fun.
Kristine: I love that they decide to head to the Winchester after the zombie outbreak happens because it is their home base: familiar, safe… and you can smoke!
Sean: Another part of the movie that I liked because it felt true to me: Shaun’s horrible uptight roommate, Pete.
Kristine: Yea, who is “right” by all counts, but we still root against.
Sean: And how Shaun is such a people pleaser, and he is always switching tones between Pete and Liz and Ed, trying to pacify everybody. I’ve known a lot of straight guys who suffer from that particular personality defect.
Kristine: Yes, yes, yes. Shades of his mom, right?
Kristine: I totally relate to Shaun’s obsessive avoidance of small things that might be slightly uncomfortable, like introducing Liz to his mother. And then it becomes this big, ridiculous, overblown thing because he has avoided it for so long. That is very Kristine.
Sean: Shaun of the Dead really does have well-drawn characters for such a silly movie. Did you cry when Philip died in the car while telling Shaun that he loved him?
Kristine: I kind of figured such a scene was coming, and yet I was still moved. I credit the genius of Bill Nighy. I might even forgive him for Underworld because he’s so great as Philip.
Sean: Bill Nighy is absolutely the man.
Kristine: He is so the man.
Sean: I took my mom to see him in that old person movie, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and he is like, so charming and sexy and dashing in it.
Kristine: You know that my mom loves that movie, right? I mean, she loved it and gave it an A+ gold star thumbs up rating before she even saw it. Before it was released. Before it was filmed!
Kristine: How does Shaun of the Dead compare as a buddy horror comedy to John Dies at the End? What makes this one work so much better?
Sean: Argh, dudebros! I was going to ask how much this movie would change if it was remade in the U.S. but I think you just answered that.
Sean: No, but really. John Dies at the End is fine and all, but its really just a bunch of disconnected setpieces and postmodern gags. Which is fine. But Shaun of the Dead is just so much more emotionally rich. Even though it’s also got a lot of gags in it, it’s about the human heart. And it’s a compassionate movie, whereas John Dies at the End is a bit nastier and more misanthropic.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: For example, I loved the moment when Shaun is like, “He’s not my boyfriend!” about Ed and then is like, “Thanks, babe” when Ed hands him a drink. Loved it a lot, especially how there’s no gay panic involved. The polar opposite of John Dies at the End, which is more shot through with phobic dick jokes and genuine anxiety about the queer subtext of the John/David relationship.
Kristine: I’m glad we ended Zombie Month on this movie, or I might be really sick of zombies. This movie leaves me with the feeling that I’m okay with the zombs. It’s amazing how enduring they are, isn’t it? I guess it’s fair to say I am ready for an antagonist with some motivation, other than instinctual consumption.
Sean: Let’s move on, then!
The Girl’s Rating: Pop perfection AND A good romp
The Freak’s Rating: Pop perfection AND A good romp