2004’s Shaun of the Dead, the superior British horror-comedy that broke stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in America, is clearly proud to take its cues from George Romero’s hugely influential zombie films. (Its title is an obvious pun on Romero’s 1978 horror touchstone Dawn of the Dead.) Zombies are fast-moving and ferocious in several recent movies, but Wright and Pegg (who also co-wrote Shaun‘s screenplay) choose to mine Romero’s traditionally slow-moving, moaning flesh-eaters for scares and laughs. More importantly, they know that what makes Romero’s zombies timeless is that they are never just zombies; Romero uses his monsters as vehicles for social critique, whether covertly satirizing mindless consumerism (in the original Dawn of the Dead) or class injustice (in the recent Land of the Dead). The same may be said of the shambling undead who populate Shaun, though the concerns of its filmmakers are more intimate than they are sweeping. Pegg has described Shaun as a film about turning thirty; it offers a particularly apocalyptic vision of the end of a prolonged adolescence.
When the movie begins, Shaun is twenty-nine years old; he reluctantly peels himself away from his game of Timesplitters 2 to endure another thankless day at his entry-level electronics store job, and he spends his nights at the local pub with his still-more-immature best friend, Ed. (One of the film’s greatest joys is watching real-life best friends Pegg and Frost interact as Shaun and Ed.) The opening scenes of the film are rife with comic foreboding about the coming zombie onslaught, and signs that Shaun’s life can’t go on this way. “We’re not students anymore,” Shaun’s flatmate Pete angrily reminds him at the film’s outset, fed up with Shaun’s arrested development and Ed’s constant presence in the flat. Similarly, when Shaun tells a seventeen-year-old coworker that he plans to do something more than work in an electronics store, the flippant teenager offers a pointed, “When?”
It takes a break up with his frustrated girlfriend to make Shaun start to realize he should make some changes, and a full-scale zombie assault on London to finish the job. One of the implicit jokes of the film is that Shaun is already something of a zombie at the beginning of the film. When the undead attack, he has to either stand up and fight or become a zombie for real. In his review of the film, Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris writes, “you prefer [Shaun] when he’s fighting for his life as opposed to wasting it.” Yet while Shaun’s transformation may be a narrative necessity, it isn’t pretty. As the film progresses and the situation of the protagonists grows increasingly dire, Shaun is faced not only with growing up and taking responsibility, but also with making some painful, permanent good-byes. One of the criticisms leveled against Shaun is that it loses comic momentum toward the close of the film; things get bleak for the hapless, zombie-battling heroes, and some of them meet terrible ends.
I would argue that humor is present until the credits roll; these characters are very funny–even when they most assuredly aren’t having any fun. Even on repeat viewings, I get choked up over the fates of some of the film’s characters. This is not to suggest that Wright and Pegg should have done things differently. The creative team behind Shaun has insisted again and again that their film is not a “spoof” but a comedy that happens to be a real zombie movie as well. Because they draw their flawed but eminently likeable characters from reality instead of opting for the roughly sketched caricatures populating most comedy and horror films, it’s bound to hurt when we see these characters devoured by zombies. Shaun‘s unexpected melancholic undercurrent, and Pegg’s disarmingly affecting performance in the title role, lends the film a surprising but very real emotional resonance. Our hero doesn’t gain a thing without giving up a hell of a lot.
I’m reminded of director John Landis’ remarks about his landmark horror film An American Werewolf in London: “This is not a happy story! This is a horror film!” Shaun shares something of a tonal affinity with Landis’ American Werewolf (Wright neatly references Landis by paying homage to his film’s monster-in-the-mirror reveal), a film that, like Shaun, kept audiences and critics on edge by going for laughs and gore, and by daring to lose sympathetic characters to the larger horrors at work. If viewers feel a bit bruised by the time that Shaun ends, it’s a tribute to its filmmakers. No one said that growing up (or facing a zombie apocalypse) was going to be easy.