Hey - remember zombies, everyone? Whatever happened to them, eh? To paraphrase Trigger’s description of Gandhi in Only Fools and Horses, they made one good film then you never heard from them again. It’s about time someone put them back on the big screen where they belonged. You could even put some kind of pun on the word ‘dead’ in the title. That’d shake people up a bit.
There was a time when zombies didn’t rule the world, of course, but it’s seems distant and baffling now we’re in a culture where Pride And Prejudice And Zombies can become a long-standing regular on the New York Times best seller list, and the US government-operated Center of Disease Control can release a video detailing how to survive a zombie apocalypse and no-one bats an eyelid.
With their unprecedented all-conquering mainstream popularity it’s easy to forget that zombies aren’t in fact U2, but actually terrifying harbingers of doom designed to unflinchingly confront people with their own mortality (insert own joke here).
They’re everyone’s greatest fear personified – the looming spectre of death itself, trapped in an appositely decaying body, shuffling inexorably and unthinkingly towards you like the steady march of time itself before, literally, consuming you. Brrr.
On the other hand, zombies are fucking idiots. Laughable, drooling morons going “durrrr” as they stumble blindly into whatever crude trap will systematically pop their gawking heads like so many ketchup filled condoms. Zombies are silly.
It’s no wonder therefore that zombies have found a nice home in comedy horror, as they precariously straddle the line between scary and laughable like no other on-screen horror antagonists. Braindead, Idle Hands, the Evil Dead trilogy, and many other films realised this way before the arrival of the definitive zom-com (or rom-zom-com), Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Shaun Of The Dead.
What sets Shaun apart from its horror-comedy peers is its commitment to the Romero zombie framework – Braindead and Evil Dead 2 are magnificent, innovative comedies, but they forgo the more horrific aspects of zombie lore that are so well-articulated in the Romero films in favour of turning them into gloopy, slapstick cannon fodder.
The reason that Shaun and An American Werewolf In London are perhaps the two best examples of ‘comedy horror’ is that equal attention is paid to both disciplines throughout. Yes, Shaun might not feel particularly scary, but strip away the jokes and you’d still have a great, apocalyptic zombie film that completely honours the spirit of Romero’s nihilistic classics, in the same way that American Werewolf ultimately has the beating heart of a classic Universal horror movie. Likewise, strip away the zombies and you’d still be left with a sweet, intelligent comedy about a mid-twenties-life-crisis.
The way Shaun brilliantly manages to keep both plates spinning is by anchoring them both firmly in mundane inanity of modern life, a febrile area for both comedy and horror. It’s a theme brilliantly established in the opening title sequence, where we see pre-zombification Londoners acting nearly identically to the way they do when they eventually do show up as zombies. And, this being a Wright/Pegg film, they all show up later as zombies, often in pointedly ironic circumstances.
Supermarkets cashiers scan goods, travellers check their watches, a little boy metronomically does kick-ups – all synchronized, unthinking and unfeeling. Besides anything else, Shaun Of The Dead is a great London film, packed with in-jokes for residents (“I’m sorry, I just don’t see the point of owning a car in London”,) and some well chosen London locations. But most importantly, it is a fine representation of how disconnected you can feel when living in London (or in any big city, for that matter), especially if you’re an insignificant clock-puncher like Shaun.
The genius of Shaun’s opening third is that it’s at once hilarious and totally believable that Shaun would encounter all the terrifying signs of the apocalypse that he does and largely totally ignore them. If you don’t believe me, walk around any part of London for a few hours and see if you don’t eventually encounter a tramp trying to eat a pigeon.
Similarly, Shaun and Ed’s first encounter with a zombie is beautifully written and performed, from the initial, bored, matter-of-fact announcement of “There’s a girl in the garden” to Ed’s instinctive winding back of his instant camera once she messily impales herself on an opportunely placed clothesline pole.
Then, in Shaun’s best scene, and one of the best scenes in any zombie movie, there's his solipsistic walk to the shop the night after the night of the living dead. We’ve already seen his routine trip to the corner shop - now there, surely, is something we all can identify with - and been introduced to the characters that populate the journey, so there’s great pleasure in noting the carnage that has befallen them while Shaun blithely staggers through them, hungover and completely oblivious to the fact that the world around him is in ruins.
It encapsulates everything that’s brilliant about the film and zombies in general in one beautifully funny shot. The opening scenes as a whole do such a good job of grounding both the humour and horror of Shaun’s situation in relatable situations that it means it can easily pull off the huge swings in tone that come later in the film without it feeling jarring or incoherent.
Using zombies as a metaphorical device to satirise the emptiness of contemporary culture (and, in turn, our disconnection from it) was nothing new, of course – it’s a key aspect of Romero’s films, particularly in the mall-wandering zombies of Dawn Of The Dead. But while Romero’s ambitions grew ever loftier as the series continued, Shaun focuses, appropriately enough, solely on one character, and as a result feels the most personal and keenly felt of all the zombie films.
In many ways, doing a horror film after Spaced was a logical move. While Wright, Pegg and Stevenson’s geeky sitcom was a very specific and joyful exploration of being in your mid twenties, living in London, subsisting off a steady diet of comics, TV, movies and computer games while your only significant problem is coming up with each month’s rent, Shaun Of The Dead pushes the pop culture references more to the periphery (although they’re still there in abundance - more on that later). Instead, it focuses on a continuation of these same characters, only grown up, and stuck in a rut.
Friendships are fracturing between those who are ready to enter the word of long term commitment, both to jobs and in relationships (such as Liz, Shaun’s girlfriend), and those who are happy to still sit around smoking weed and playing Timesplitters 2 (Nick Frost’s Ed). Shaun’s on the fence - he realises he needs to grow up, as he hates his crappy retail job, and the prospect of a life spent going to the Winchester every weekend seems to secretly horrify him. But while he realizes that Ed’s probably a bad influence, he’s still his best friend, and still makes him happier than just about everything else in his life, ill-timed farts and all. He also still can’t bring himself to forgive his step-dad for perceived childhood slights, and while he loves Liz, the idea of fully committing to a relationship is terrifying.
So Shaun commits to nothing, and as a result is directionless; the loser that his more successful and serious housemate Pete describes him as. That’s a horror that we can all relate to – the idea that your life is going nowhere, that you’re not equipped to make the next breakthrough in maturity that society demands of you.
Just as well then, that a zombie apocalypse is around the corner to shake Shaun and Ed out of their funk and allow them to re-invent themselves as leaders against the undead revolution. The film’s a weird kind of wish-fulfillment for all repressed nerds, and it’s for exactly this reason that Shaun will be revisited and re-discovered by new fans for years and years to come, as opposed to something like, say, Zombieland – a fun film in its own right, but ultimately disposable.
It’s this superbly crafted characterisation that is the main reason why Shaun will hold up to the test of time, but there are other factors that don’t hurt. In fact probably the primary reason Shaun is so eminently re-watchable is how absurdly packed with in-jokes and Easter eggs it is.
While the pop culture references aren’t quite as explicit as they were in Spaced, they’re still here in abundance, with a plethora of stuff to enjoy for horror nerds or just for people who enjoy paying close attention. There’s the Italian restaurant that Shaun fails to book for his anniversary (Fulci’s), Ed’s Night Of The Living Dead aping “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” and Shaun’s Evil Dead 2-alike entrance to the workshed.
There’s also some brilliant use of Arrested Development-style foreshadowing that’s remarkable in its intricacy. At one point early on, Pete tells Ed that if he “wants to live like an animal, go and live in the shed”, a line that bears greater significance on repeat viewings. Similarly, Ed’s pitch to Shaun for their day out to get over Liz (“a bloody Mary first thing, a bite at the King’s Head…back at the bar for shots”) almost exactly describes their subsequent encounters with the zombies.
It’s also worth noting that Shaun was made during a great period for British comedy, with a wealth of talent flushing out the cast – there are wonderful supporting performances from Dylan Moran, Peter Serafinowicz, and Lucy Davis. Kate Ashfield and Penelope Wilton are excellent in largely straight roles, and Wilton in particular nails her tricky emotional scenes. Bill Nighy is on typical scene-stealing form, and Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson) has a lovely cameo, with her presence (and unspoken bond she shares with Shaun) adding even more weight to the theory that Shaun is a story of, effectively, the post-Spaced years. Her scene with her leading a bizarro version of Shaun’s team is one of the funniest in the film, and another formidable showcase for British comedy talent, with Martin Freeman, Reece Shearsmith, Tamsin Greig, Julia Deakin, and Matt Lucas showing up for just a few seconds of screen time.
As good as all of those actors are, however, the main legacy of Shaun (besides contributing to the widespread zombie uprising in horror and pop culture that would continue over the next decade) was to introduce the movie world properly to the Wright-Pegg-Frost triumvirate. Since Shaun’s release, Pegg and Frost have established themselves as one of the funniest on-screen double acts around; Pegg as a Hollywood A-lister and Will Wheaton’s only rival for Earth Nerd Ambassador, should we ever be invaded by aliens; and Wright as a director and screenwriter of prodigious talent with Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
After Hot Fuzz, the fantastic Michael Bay-does-Giallo-in-Somerset cop comedy, Wright, Pegg and Frost look to complete their ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ trilogy with The World’s End next year, their take on the post-apocalyptic genre. An early synopsis of the film describes the plot as five childhood friends re-uniting around an epic pub crawl (finishing, appropriately enough, at The World’s End), at the insistence of Gary King, a man reluctant to let go of his youth. Their nostalgic reminiscing is cut short, however, when the real-life apocalypse raises its ugly head, and they are face with a fight for survival.
Whether it sparks a renaissance in post-apocalyptic movies in the way that Shaun did with zombies will remain to be seen, but overall it sounds like the another extension of themes that Wright, Pegg and Frost have been exploring for years: responsibility, maturity, and above all, friendship.
When you get past the gore, gags and movie references, that’s why Shaun and Hot Fuzz are so eminently loveable and good-natured at their cores: these are movies about friendship that are actually forged out of real friendships. Watching the chemistry of the participants on screen – from Pegg and Frost’s bro-mantic double act, to Wright and Pegg’s, energetic, fit-to-bursting screenplays – will always be an infectiously joyful experience. And Shaun deserves a special place in the hearts of all of those who appreciate their work as the one that started it all.
Simon Pegg will next be seen on screen in A Fantastic Fear Of Everything, released in the UK on Friday 8th June.
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As an avid horror fan, I found the prospect of last week's five-night TV zombie spectacular rather exciting. Admittedly, the trailer for E4's Dead Set made me somewhat uneasy. The sight of newsreader Krishnan Guru-Murthy warning the populace of an impending zombie apocalypse induced a sickening sense of indignation. Only five years previously, Edgar Wright and I had hired Krishnan to do the very same thing in our own zombie opus, Shaun of the Dead. It was a bit like seeing an ex-lover walking down the street pushing a pram. Of course, this was a knee-jerk reaction. It's not as if Edgar and I hadn't already pushed someone else's baby up the cultural high street - but that, to some extent, was the point. In Shaun of the Dead, we lifted the mythology established by George A Romero in his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead and offset it against the conventions of a romantic comedy.
Still, I had to acknowledge Dead Set's impressive credentials. The concept was clever in its simplicity: a full-scale zombie outbreak coincides with a Big Brother eviction night, leaving the Big Brother house as the last refuge for the survivors. Scripted by Charlie Brooker, a writer whose scalpel-sharp incisiveness I have long been a fan of, and featuring talented actors such as Jaime Winstone and the outstanding Kevin Eldon, the show heralded the arrival of genuine homegrown horror, scratching at the fringes of network television. My expectations were high, and I sat down to watch a show that proved smart, inventive and enjoyable, but for one key detail: ZOMBIES DON'T RUN!
I know it is absurd to debate the rules of a reality that does not exist, but this genuinely irks me. You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can't fly; zombies do not run. It's a misconception, a bastardisation that diminishes a classic movie monster. The best phantasmagoria uses reality to render the inconceivable conceivable. The speedy zombie seems implausible to me, even within the fantastic realm it inhabits. A biological agent, I'll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower. It's hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.
More significantly, the fast zombie is bereft of poetic subtlety. As monsters from the id, zombies win out over vampires and werewolves when it comes to the title of Most Potent Metaphorical Monster. Where their pointy-toothed cousins are all about sex and bestial savagery, the zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.
However (and herein lies the sublime artfulness of the slow zombie), their ineptitude actually makes them avoidable, at least for a while. If you're careful, if you keep your wits about you, you can stave them off, even outstrip them - much as we strive to outstrip death. Drink less, cut out red meat, exercise, practice safe sex; these are our shotguns, our cricket bats, our farmhouses, our shopping malls. However, none of these things fully insulates us from the creeping dread that something so witless, so elemental may yet catch us unawares - the drunk driver, the cancer sleeping in the double helix, the legless ghoul dragging itself through the darkness towards our ankles.
Another thing: speed simplifies the zombie, clarifying the threat and reducing any response to an emotional reflex. It's the difference between someone shouting "Boo!" and hearing the sound of the floorboards creaking in an upstairs room: a quick thrill at the expense of a more profound sense of dread. The absence of rage or aggression in slow zombies makes them oddly sympathetic, a detail that enabled Romero to project depth on to their blankness, to create tragic anti-heroes; his were figures to be pitied, empathised with, even rooted for. The moment they appear angry or petulant, the second they emit furious velociraptor screeches (as opposed to the correct mournful moans of longing), they cease to possess any ambiguity. They are simply mean.
So how did this break with convention come about? The process has unfolded with all the infuriating dramatic irony of an episode of Fawlty Towers. To begin at the beginning, Haitian folklore tells of voodoo shamans, or bokors, who would use digitalis, derived from the foxglove plant, to induce somnambulant trances in individuals who would subsequently appear dead. Weeks later, relatives of the supposedly deceased would witness their lost loved ones in a soporific malaise, working in the fields of wealthy landowners, and assume them to be nzambi (a west African word for "spirit of the dead"). From the combination of nzambi and somnambulist ("sleepwalker") we get the word zombie.
The legend was appropriated by the film industry, and for 20 or 30 years a steady flow of voodoo-based cinema emerged from the Hollywood horror factory. Then a young filmmaker from Pittsburgh by the name of George A Romero changed everything. Romero's fascination with Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, the story of a lone survivor struggling in a world overrun by vampires, led him to fixate on an aspect of the story leapfrogged by the author: namely, the process by which humanity is subjugated by the aggressive new species. Romero adopted the Haitian zombie and combined it with notions of cannibalism, as well as the viral communicability characterised by the vampire and werewolf myths, and so created the modern zombie.
After three films spanning three decades, and much imitation from film-makers such as Lucio Fulci and Dan O'Bannon, the credibility of the zombie was dealt a cruel blow by the king of pop. Michael Jackson's Thriller video, directed by John Landis, was entertaining but made it rather difficult for us to take zombies seriously, having witnessed them body-popping. The blushing dead went quiet for a while, until the Japanese video game company Capcom developed the game Resident Evil, which brilliantly captured the spirit of Romero's shambling antagonists (Romero even directed a trailer for the second installment). Slow and steady, the zombie commenced its stumble back into our collective subconscious.
Inspired by the game and a shared love of Romero, Edgar Wright and I decided to create our own black comedy. Meanwhile, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland were developing their own end-of-the-world fable, 28 Days Later, an excellent film misconstrued by the media as a zombie flick. Boyle and Garland never set out to make a zombie film per se. They drew instead on John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, as well as Matheson and Romero's work, to fashion a new strain of survival horror, featuring a London beset by rabid propagators of a virus known as "rage".
The success of the movie, particularly in the US, was undoubtedly a factor in the loose remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead in 2004. Zack Snyder's effective but pointless reboot parlayed Boyle's "infected" into the upgraded zombie 2.0, likely at the behest of some cigar-chomping, focus-group-happy movie exec desperate to satisfy the MTV generation's demand for quicker everything - quicker food, quicker downloads, quicker dead people. The zombie was ushered on to the mainstream stage, on the proviso that it sprinted up to the mic. The genre was diminished, and I think it's a shame.
Despite my purist griping, I liked Dead Set a lot. It had solid performances, imaginative direction, good gore and the kind of inventive writing and verbal playfulness we've come to expect from the always brilliant Brooker. As a satire, it took pleasing chunks out of media bumptiousness and, more significantly, the aggressive collectivism demonstrated by the lost souls who waste their Friday nights standing outside the Big Brother house, baying for the blood of those inside. Like Romero, Brooker simply nudges the metaphor to its literal conclusion, and spatters his point across our screens in blood and brains and bits of skull. If he had only eschewed the zeitgeist and embraced the docile, creeping weirdness that has served to embed the zombie so deeply in our grey matter, Dead Set might have been my favourite piece of television ever. As it was, I had to settle for it merely being bloody good.