By 2004, we were just at the beginning of what would be a decade-long period of intense cinematic interest in zombies. Danny Boyle’s revolutionary 28 Days Later hit the scene in 2002, and two years later, so did Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead. Both of those movies featured fast zombies, an innovation that wasn’t exactly new, but did seem to split zombie movies into two camps: slow zombies and fast zombies. Fast zombie movies are a bit scarier if what creeps you out are the zombies themselves. When undead cannibals all move at sprint speed and don’t know what it means to be tired, you get a much keener idea of how likely you are to not survive such a situation. Slow zombie movies are a bit scarier if you’re not bothered by monsters you could outwalk, but rather, by the fellow humans you must share an apocalyptic world with. With slow zombies, if they catch you, it’s your own fault somehow. And nowhere do we see this theme explored more effectively, or more hilariously, than in Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s “rom-com-zom” (a romantic comedy, with zombies): Shaun of the Dead.
Shaun is a slacker who holds down a dead-end sales job with minimal responsibility so he can retreat to his flat, which he shares with his friends Ed and Pete. Pete is easily the most high-functioning of the trio; the guy who grew up on time, has a decent career going, and is clearly sharing a flat out of financial prudence. Ed is a man-child whose days are filled with video games and selling wed. Shaun is somewhere in the middle, shuffling off to his job, barely holding down his relationship with his long-time (and long-suffering) girlfriend Liz, and spending more time goofing off with Ed than a guy his age really ought to be spending.
Every night, Shaun and Ed hang out at the local pub, the Winchester, and after defaulting to it one time too many, Liz breaks up with him…right as a zombie apocalypse is starting to take over the city. Shaun and Ed drink away their worries and are too blotto to notice the world going to hell. The next morning, when a hung-over Shaun is nearly eaten by some re-animated neighbors, he realizes he needs to check up on Liz as well as his own mother. They say in every disaster situation people get a chance to reinvent themselves. For Shaun, doing right by Liz amid a zombie outbreak is his big chance to show that, yes, he really can be a grown-up when it really matters. And so, he and Ed go fetch Liz and a few more friends, fetch Shaun’s mom and his estranged stepfather, and after ultimately go back to the one place Shaun knows best: the Winchester. There, they must endure the zombie hordes and as the situation grows ever more dire, transitioning from comedy to genuine horror, Shaun learns what it really means to take your responsibilities seriously. The longer Shaun and Liz and the rest endure the zombie invasion, the more you realize that growing up isn’t about the job you have or the house you own. It’s about being dependable for others who might need you. Once Shaun gets that through his head, you get the feeling that maybe he’ll figure out this grown-up thing after all. If he manages to survive the night, that is.
This is an extremely fun movie that clearly draws from the same creative territory that Pegg and Wright worked so well in Spaced, a brilliant UK television show that featured a bunch of slackers not doing such a hot job of transitioning between university and adult life. Shaun of the Dead isn’t exactly Spaced: The Zombie Movie, but it feels like it comes from the same narrative universe, where pop culture references fly fast and furious, where people just never quite seem to understand each other, where the most lovable people tend to be a day late and a dollar short, and where even the most well-intentioned gestures have a way of going sideways.
The movie’s moment of truth is what gives you a sense of just how much of an uphill climb Shaun’s day is going to be. The morning after Liz dumps him, a hung-over Shaun heads out of his flat and pops across the street to the corner shop for an early-morning soda. As he does, we see the zombies all around him; they’re just too slow to catch him, and he’s too slow to notice. He does not question why the corner store is deserted, or why there is a bloody handprint on the cooler glass, or what mysterious liquid he slips and nearly falls on. He just gets his soda, drops some cash on the counter and shuffles out, somehow still none the wiser that he’s in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and he’s still paying for soda. In any other zombie movie, Shaun would be the first guy to get eaten. But in this one, he’s going to be the last, surviving on sheer likeability and plans that swing between “this-is-so-crazy-it-just-might-work” and “these-guys are-so-dumb-they-don’t-realize-how-dumb-they-are.” Somehow, Shaun’s immaturity gives him the edge he needs to survive when other, more responsible adults meet any number of gruesome fates. In the end, Shaun seems to understand better than anyone that it’s only the end of the world if you don’t have somebody to share it with, whether it’s your girlfriend, or your bestie with whom you’d still play video games with, even as a zombie.
As in Spaced, there is a certain sympathy for the losers and nitwits that we follow, a kind of understanding that yeah, maybe Shaun does need to grow up, but when you take a close look at the grown-ups around him, what exactly are they doing that’s so worthwhile, anyway? Most of them are shuffling through their lives with as little fulfillment as Shaun, and as little deep thinking as the undead that they all become. One of the best jokes in the film comes in its epilogue when life returns to normal (kind of) and we see that all those zombies simply took over all of the mindless jobs they had before, or occupied equally moronic slots in TV entertainment. It turns out, a noticeable portion of everyday life is brain-dead after all. Now we don’t have to pretend that it’s not. That’s not so bad, really. Now, fancy a pop over to the Winchester?