Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Dir. Edgar Wright. Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield

(The following review is about an extremely funny movie that made me laugh a great deal. Since so much relies upon Simon Pegg’s surprising physical humor or Nick Frost’s indelible line deliveries, I’m not going to try to do justice to those…it’s more respectful to watch them than read about them.)

Sometimes we never leave our homes in the course of the day. It happens to me on the weekends from time to time: I’ll watch movies, make dinner, play with the cat, whatever, but I don’t set foot outside my apartment. What I like about Shaun of the Dead, especially in its denouement, is that it makes the zombies sort of like a traffic jam or a bad storm: it may be a problem right now, but give it a little time and it will disappear. If they had stronger doors, one could imagine Shaun (Pegg) and Ed (Frost) waiting out the miniature apocalypse in much the same way they stumble into it; if he’d picked a flat with stronger doors, Shaun would presumably have the dead-end life he’s driving further into at the start of the movie. There are a pair of basically identical tracking shots in Shaun of the Dead in which Shaun leaves his flat, goes to the corner store, and returns with some treat. In the first, it’s before “Z Day.” In the second, it’s very much after. Shaun gives one man a little change earlier in the film; that same man is a zombie the second time out, and Shaun tells him he couldn’t even pay the full price for what he’d bought at the store. The world outside one’s apartment is always mostly the same, except when something catastrophic has happened, and even then it takes everyone a minute to figure it out. Once it is figured out, the alternatives within the timeline where Shaun has a stronger door become clear. There would be no peace between him and Philip (Bill Nighy), no reconciliation between him and Liz (Ashfield), no understanding between him and his mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton). It’s the people forced out and on the move who must have these little moments of epiphany—one imagines Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson) had a rather similar weekend—which make Shaun of the Dead into that most unusual type of parody: one with people. Airplane! may yet be the most perfect parody ever made, but Ted and Elaine are composites of stereotypes. And even if not all of the movie’s characters feel like full-fledged people—Liz, for example—others fill the screen with something like verisimilitude.

The connection between Shaun and Ed seesaws the movie into its shambolic motion, and one of the things I admire about the connection is that it is very much sawed off for much of the film’s third act. Shaun of the Dead is primarily the story of how Shaun becomes a human being instead of an ambulatory used Kleenex, and to do so Shaun has to separate himself from the guy who is dragging him into their couch. Ed has chosen a life without stakes. He has no job, does little more than play video games and drink, and seems to have no real human connection to anyone but Shaun, who has known him for years and somehow never lost contact. His primary concern when Shaun makes his plan to pick up his mother and Liz is who gets to drive Pete’s car; when he spies Philip’s Jaguar in the driveway, he promptly totals Pete’s car so they don’t have any other choice. And when Philip dies after a surprisingly poignant speech—I was completely unprepared for how genuine that scene felt—Shaun’s request for Ed to pull over leads to him spinning the car around entirely. It’s a scene which emphasizes the stark difference between Ed and Shaun. For Ed, this zombie apocalypse is a lark; he has no investment in the world outside him or, really, in anyone besides Shaun. It’s provided an opportunity to whack humanoid stumblers with blunt objects, spend uninterrupted time with a buddy no longer encumbered with a girlfriend, and drive other people’s cars like a maniac. In other words, Ed’s life has no stakes to it. Shaun’s, for about twelve hours, hangs in the same limbo, but in the end confronting a world which appears to be falling apart at speed means that he’s invested in finding what matters to him. It turns out that his mother actually matters to him; upon hearing that Philip has been bitten, he is determined to rescue her from a danger she is quite clueless about. And while we could have always surmised that Liz was important to Shaun, it takes the apocalypse (whether or not Downing Street wants to get drawn into a religious debate) for him to do something to prove that he isn’t a worthless layabout.

Liz is sort of a weak character in Shaun of the Dead, which is really sort of a shame. Compared to the other women characters in the film, the only she stands out in comparison to is Yvonne, who gets about two minutes of screen time. And although she does her level best in dodging zombies and fighting them, it’s clear that she’s there primarily as a goal and not as a person. Her perspective is yoked to Shaun’s in a way which limits how much we can care about her while simultaneously holding back our desire for Shaun and Liz to get together. (Even at the end it wasn’t really a conclusion I was rooting for. Simon Pegg creates Shaun like a guy who needs to step back and learn how to manage his own life now that he’s at the edge of thirty. One gets the sense that it would be a happier ending if Shaun did not, in essence, revert back to his old way of life in the film’s epilogue.) I found myself more invested in Dianne’s growth as a character than I did in Liz’s slightly-open-mouthed baby steps in that direction. As the zombies proliferate and it gets later in the day, Dianne (Lucy Davis) is less the sidekick to a sidekick than she is a full-voiced member of this little party, and one who is awfully clearheaded. She sees right through her boyfriend David (Dylan Moran), whose self-importance makes him one of those tremendously obnoxious “I’m the right guy for her, but she doesn’t understand that, the stupid bitch” guys whom one typically finds in Incel crowds. (One might point out the striking comparisons in thoughtfulness, reasoning, empathy, etc. between zombies and Incels, but I suppose that would be mean-spirited.) He has been in love with Liz for ages, has constantly undermined Shaun, and in so doing has made Dianne’s life a sham. When she points it out, David has no real answer for her perception, and a person we thought at the beginning might have been notable only for a terrible taste in hats turns out to be the best version of Ed. Ed’s life is lived without stakes and he revels in the irresponsibility. Dianne, upon realizing that the stocks she held were toxic, quickly disposed of them and went on to a better buy.

The reanimated corpses participating in London’s most comprehensive Fun Run (Shaun does not much care for the “zed-word”) meet what seems to me a very realistic fate. Within a day of their spawning, the majority of them are gunned down by the military. The survivors are rounded up and are turned into economically viable assets. Some of them return to service-level jobs which don’t require much brainpower. Others turn into fodder for entertainment. There’s at least one game show that has made zombies into contestants trying to reach enormous slabs of meat as commentators cackle in the background. Ed, who is bitten in the final zombie confrontation, ends up living in the shed, playing video games with Shaun for who knows how much longer before his body finally becomes jelly. There may not have been a man in England who could have transitioned to being a zombie better than Ed, and thus he is a prime example of the film’s depiction of zombies’ predilection for doing what they did in their past lives. In the quest to create a world which has been utterly ravaged by zombies, stories which are by nature open-ended and speculative, we miss out on the closure that Shaun of the Dead provides. It makes sense that even if it took some time for the army to mobilize effectively, it would still be able to quash any zombie uprising. And then after the fact, it only makes sense that capitalism would do the rest. In imagining a future in which even the potential scourge of mankind can be monetized, Wright makes capitalism a force much stronger than death or redeath.

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