by Thom Yee
As much as our popular conceptions of zombies come from 1968 and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the zombie has existed in one form or another since the Bronze Age of man. These days, people talk about zombies like they’re some sort of fad, a phenomenon that can most easily be traced back to late 2010 when The Walking Dead (the TV show) started gaining attention on an international level, but I don’t feel like zombies are ever going to go away like the vampire fad. The thing that separates them from their horror contemporaries in popular media is that zombies never really had to sell out. There’s an inherent strength in the concept that transcends the need for short-sighted, ruinous contemporizing like sparkling in sunlight or… I don’t actually know anything else about Twilight.
The essential power of the zombie isn’t the terror of being chased (because they’re usually pretty slow), the shock of decomposing flesh (which is more off-putting than alarming), or the horror of being eaten (some of us are even into that kind of thing). It’s the threat of uncontrollable change. Becoming something else — something horrible — against our will, knowing there’s nothing we can do about it. Losing ourselves and becoming a part of the mob that’s been gathering outside our shuttered windows and barricaded doors. But when you think about it, that’s what’s happening all the time. We grow up. We move out. We choose a school (often based on nothing more than what program we can get into), we choose a career (probably several, often against our will), choose a family, and we hope that family will take care of us as we slowly decompose into dependence, into homes, and into death, all the while romanticizing roads not travelled and eventually realizing the reason we didn’t go the other way was because we never really had a choice. That’s life. That’s what’s terrifying.
Shaun of the Dead is none of those things. It’s not scary, not in the slightest; it has nothing profound to say, teaches us no important lessons, and presents its heroes with the right choices as if they were only natural and not difficult. That’s what makes it a good movie — it’s not like life at all.
If you’re the kind of person that pays attention to things worth paying attention to (which is something I would recommend being), the names Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost probably mean something to you. Having first worked together on Spaced, the trio would go on to produce the renowned “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” in between bouts of varying Hollywood success. Edgar Wright directed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, wrote The Adventures of Tintin, and is on tap for Marvel’s Ant-Man in 2015; Simon Pegg has credits in a variety of movies, including work with Tom Cruise in the two most recent Mission: Impossible films and with J.J. Abrams as Scotty in Paramount’s Star Trek revival; and Nick Frost… still works with Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg quite often (just kidding Nick Frost — you’re a remarkable specimen of humanity who’s achieved more than most people, [especially] including me).
So in Shaun of the Dead, the first of The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (cornettos being an ice cream treat we don’t technically have in North America but look to be roughly the exact same as these), Simon Pegg plays Shaun, a nothing-special-about-him type whose life lacks direction. He’s in his late 20s, is ridiculed by his workmates as the oldest salesman in the store he works at, his housemate hates his jobless slacker friend Ed (Nick Frost) always sleeping on their couch, he hates his stepfather, his girlfriend Liz has just dumped him, and like that. About the only thing Shaun has going for him is the Winchester, the bar that he and Ed always end up at. If this sounds like a familiar story, IT SHOULDN’T because WE ARE ALL MASTERS OF OUR OWN DESTINY and have NO EXCUSE whatsoever in not becoming everything we want to be and can be in this life.
Basically, Shaun’s life is going nowhere, so it’s really actually lucky that people start turning into flesh-hungry zombies, giving Shaun everything he needs to sort out his roommate, reconcile with his parents, win back his girl, and find more time to spend with Ed, all through one day of killing zombies and then hiding out at the Winchester.
It’s with Shaun of the Dead that director Wright and lead actors Pegg and Frost really established themselves on an international basis, and though the film has been described as “side-splitting”, “uproarious”, and “hilarious” by critics whose zeal outstripped their judgment (i.e., they were being overzealous), I feel comfortable in making the following unmistakably bold statement:
Shaun of the Dead isn’t that funny.
I don’t think I laughed out loud once during the entire film. Now I’ll admit that I’m an expert at not smiling or laughing at appropriate times because I fundamentally don’t know how to relate to the world around me, but I just didn’t find anything so wickedly, wryly funny in Shaun of the Dead that it would elicit anything more than a measured smirk or mild chortle. It’s just there, flaccidly laying about as it relays an amusing story to us like a moderately drunk uncle who’s just gotten to the “being verbally offensive” part of the evening’s festivities.
And that’s what makes it so great.
I like to think of Shaun of the Dead as how the British would react to a zombie epidemic and The Walking Dead the way Americans would. In Britain, zombies would just start showing up and at first people would barely notice. Then, as it became more and more apparent, the Brits would put on a stiff upper lip (not really, but they’d pretend to) and use the whole thing to somehow put their lives in order. And life would go on. In America, the Yanks would freak out right away, turn their backs on each other and the glorious civilization they continue insisting they once had, pretend they knew what they were doing as they lost their sanity, and do stupid things like send the one guy in the group with medical expertise into a zombie fight even though someone else in the group is about to give birth or act in certain specific ways because that’s what the plot demands.
Shaun of the Dead is a movie that knows exactly what it is and what it hopes to be. It’s not going to change the world, it’s just there, frolicking in the filth of the movies that made its existence possible, knowing full well that it could try harder, but that wouldn’t make it better. There’s a key ingredient common in all of the things I’ve reviewed and really liked over this past summer, and that’s an honest desire to make something good. It’s a pretty obvious element of anything worth doing that’s sadly missing in a lot of the crap people watch. I saw it in Pacific Rim, I saw it in Hawkeye, and I saw it in Shaun of the Dead. Though each brought different content and levels of craft to bear in their attempts to tell their stories, each of these pieces shows you how great something can be when creators who care about what they’re doing are allowed to do those things in a way they would care about.
To be honest, I don’t really have a lot to say about Shaun of the Dead. It’s a zombie movie that never really scares, but succeeds in giving its characters the room to be who they’re supposed to be, whether it’s frittering over which records to throw at the zombified girl wandering around the garden (Ed: Dire Straits? Shaun: Throw it. / Ed: Stone Roses? Shaun: No. / Ed: Second Coming? Shaun: I like it. / Ed: Ah! Sade. Shaun: That’s Liz’s. Ed: Yeah, but she did dump you. [Throws it]), failing miserably at finding makeshift zombie-smashing weapons, or trying to jump over fences that were going to fall over anyway. I like that the stakes are low, I like that nobody’s too torn up when somebody close to them dies, and I like that in the end the world’s largely the same, only zombies are now being used for things like manual labour and game show attractions.
The best thing I can say about Shaun of the Dead is that it’s comfortable. It’s like slipping into a warm bath or putting on an old pair of well-worn slippers after a long day of smashing glass ceilings or climbing corporate ladders or whatever other physical activity metaphors we use to describe what we’re doing at work when we’re really just goofing off at our computers and lying (either to our bosses or to ourselves) that we’re doing something worthwhile. You can put it on when you just feel like lying on the couch for two hours doing nothing, you can put it on when you’re working on that term assignment and you want to be kept awake but not distracted, you can put it on when you’re feeling lonely or isolated because you haven’t left your flat in three days and can’t remember what it was like to look someone in the eye… or you can put it on when you feel like watching a movie. It’s there for you, it’s not changing, and it’s not going away. It’s just nice to have around.
Shaun of the Dead final score: 8.5
On the Edge
-Remember when the PlayStation 2 came out and you still had to plug your controllers into it? That sucked. Non-wireless things suck!
-Is it weird that Shaun of the Dead featured records so prominently but came out so long before today’s “LP’s are the only way to listen to music” shenanigans?
-It’s funny seeing Lucy Davis and being compelled to call her “the British Pam Beesley” rather than calling Jenna Fischer “the American Dawn Tinsley”. The second is inarguably more proper.
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