Program Notes: Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Not that mixing laughs and the lurching dead is all that new a concept. The original modern zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), while aimed primarily at terrifying (or at least grossing out) audiences, also exhibited a slyly subversive sense of humor.
At one point in George Romero’s zombie epic, a posse of good ol’ boy hunters and deputies lead by a rural police chief have spread out to blast away at the zombies wandering about the countryside.
A TV reporter sticks his microphone in the cop’s face:
REPORTER: “Chief, if I were surrounded by six or eight of these things, would I stand a chance with them?”
CHIEF: “No problem. If you have a gun, shoot ‘em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill them. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ‘em or burn ‘em. They go up pretty easy.”
REPORTER: “Are they slow moving, Chief?”
CHIEF: “Yeah, they’re (pause) dead. They’re all messed up.”
In the ‘80s and ‘90s numerous zombie films (most of them pretty wretched) have mixed horror with hoots, but none came even close to the sublime silliness of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead.
Writer/director Edgar Wright and writer/actor Simon Pegg came up with a delicious idea...they speculated that should Merrie Olde England be infested with zombies, everyone would be slow to pick up on it because your average Englishman is already pretty zombie-like.
There’s a scene early on in which our hapless, hungover hero, Shaun (Pegg), leaves his squalid bachelor pad to pick up some breakfast items at the corner grocery. He’s so intent on his mission that he doesn’t notice that his neighborhood is filled with shuffling figures and signs of violent struggles. He manages to look past the bloody handprint on the glass doors of the store’s coolers.
It’s not until he and his oafish roomie Ed (longtime comedy collaborator Nick Frost) are practically eaten by one of these ghouls that it dawns on Shaun that something has seriously changed.
It often has been pointed out that zombies aren’t very interesting characters. But Shaun of the Dead is packed with interesting, funny characters who try desperately to get on with their lives (they obsess about relationships, careers, ambition, alcohol, video games)...when they’re not outrunning or doing battle with the zombies.
They treat the zombies more as an inconvenience than anything else.
The filmmakers have a lovely time lampooning the British bourgeoisie. Shaun’s stepfather (played by the great Bill Nighy), exhibits his countrymen’s penchant for stiff-upper-lip optimism when, after he’s bitten by a zombie (a virtual death sentence...at least until he’s resurrected), he reassures his companions: “I ran it under the tap.”
Oh, well. Okay, then.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.