2007-10-17

Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead is, according to the DVD cover, a "Romantic Comedy, with Zombies" (OrRom Com Zom for short). And that is pretty much what it is.

Zombie flicks have, over the years, been alternatively scary, mysterious, funny and sometimes boring and predictable. They have been a staple of horror films for decades now, starting with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968. In fact the title of this film is based upon the Romero film Dawn of the Dead.

My own experience of Zombie-horror films is quite limited. Back in the 1980s I saw half of Return of the Living Dead before the friends I was with decided that watching Doctor Zhivago was a better bet (it was midnight before Zhivago finally lost Lara). I found the film hilarious, especially when the Zombies were walking around crying out for brains and, after killing and eating the occupants of a police car, grabbed the police radio and said "Send more cops".

The next film that I watched with a Zombie flavour was Army of Darkness, an absolute comedic classic about a retail employee named Ash who has removed his right hand and replaced it with a chainsaw, who is mysteriously sent back in time to battle a Zombie army in the Middle Ages, armed with his chainsaw, a shotgun, his car and some handy engineering textbooks. The film was an instant classic and made Bruce Campbell into a cult movie star, and allowed its Director, Sam Raimi, to direct bigger and better things.

On the other hand, Resident Evil, starring Mila Jovovich, is a humourless Zombie flick that nevertheless does a good job at recreating the plot of a popular computer game (better, in fact, than Tomb Raider, Doom or other comparable film). It is a tense film and contains special effects that are designed to horrify rather than make you laugh. What made this film attractive to me was the futuristic aspect of it all, as well as having Zombies being mown down by a highly-trained paramilitary unit. The sequel to this film is, unfortunately, almost unwatchable.

Another great Zombie flick is Braindead, possibly the greatest film ever made by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Put simply, the film is about a mild-mannered New Zealand man named Lionel trying to save 1950s Wellington from being over-run by Zombies.

Shaun of the Dead, therefore, comes to me out of this rather limited experience. And it works. Simon Pegg, the film's star, starred in Big Train, one of my favourite BBC comedy shows, so his comedic style is known by me. The film also stars Pegg's comedy friend Nick Frost, and a cavalcade of British comedians such as Lucy Davis (Dawn in The Office), Dylan Moran (Bernard in Black Books) as well as bit parts by Martin Freeman (The Office) and Matt Lucas (Little Britain).

Needless to say, with a cast heavy with British Comedians, Shaun of the Dead is most definitely a comedy. It is not a satire, not is it a even a parody of Zombie flicks. It is, as the DVD cover suggests, a Romantic comedy, with Zombies.

Pegg plays Shaun, a 29-year old unmotivated Englishman who spends his days in a dead-end job selling televisions and his nights either at the local pub or on the Playstation with his house-mate, the unemployed and shambolic Ed. These two live with Pete, a clean living and organised person who is nevertheless a complete jerk.

In effect, the house that Shaun lives in is a allegory of his life. He is torn between the need to be relaxed and have fun - as personified by the disgusting, lazy and irresponsible housemate Ed - and the need to be responsible and make something of his life - as personified by the successful, competent yet highly strung and humourless Pete. Neither choice fills Shaun with hope. On the one hand, he knows that Ed's influence on his life is holding him back. But, on the other hand, he cannot bear to change into the ugly, soulless being that Pete has become.

Normally this would not bother him. Shaun's girlfriend, Liz, however is sick of him. She is sick of Shaun's inability to progress in life and his exceptionally small dreams. Moreover, Shaun's social life consists almost entirely of going to the Winchester, a local pub. When he forgets to book a table at a fancy restaurant and suggests a drink at the Winchester instead, Liz dumps him. After being dumped, Shaun discovers that he truly loves Liz, and decides to try to win her back.

As you have read this so far, you're probably wondering where the Zombies come in. Eventually they do. For whatever reason (the film does not explain it), people begin to turn into Zombies and begin killing and eating the living. Shaun, realising that both his mother and his ex-girlfriend are in mortal danger, then decides to try to rescue them.

It is Shaun's decisive actions in acting as the rescuer and main zombie-killer that transforms him from an unmotivated peon into a genuine hero. In many ways, the character of Shaun is the same as that of Ash from Army of Darkness. Ash, played by Bruce Campbell, begins his life as a lowly store-worker at "S-Mart", a dead-end job that involves pricing goods and dealing with customers at the till. Similarly, Shaun works at an electronics retail store selling Televisions and DVD players, working alongside 16 year olds who are at least as competent as he is. This link between Ash and Shaun is made explicit as an in-joke for careful viewers when Shaun, as acting manager, tells the staff that "Ash" was sick and couldn't make it to work that day.

Shaun is also like Ash in that he is constantly warring between his "responsible" side and his "irresponsible" side. Yet while Ash swings from confident and arrogant hero to craven coward every few minutes, Shaun's swings are more human, more believable and less contrived (although I must point out that the contrived hero/coward behaviour of Ash in Army of Darkness is one of that film's greatest strengths. The humanness of Shaun is simply different to, rather than better than, Ash). Forced into action by the most ridiculous of premises (a sudden invasion of Zombies), Shaun moves from being immature to being mature, from being ridiculed to being respected, and from being cowardly to being heroic.

Shaun can also be compared favourably to Braindead's Lionel, whose zombie-killing frees him from the clutches of his domineering mother. In a sense, Shaun is freed from his self-imposed shackles in the same way as Lionel is "freed" from the shackles imposed on him by his mother.

It is thus through the bloody dismemberment of undead flesh that the unremarkable, shackled and disgraceful can conquer their faults and rise to prominence and power. It is as though the Zombies represent the protagonists in all their faults - and the death of the Zombies by these protagonists is necessary in order for them to become heros. In a sense it a battle against the self, and one which requires the death of the head (in much the same way as the guillotine recreated France during the revolution).

Gee, that sounded really intellectual.

What gives the film an added "vibe" is its setting. Rather than being in Middle America or the Middle Ages (which, of course, was what we were to believe in Army of Darkness, though it was obvious that they were filming in California scrubland), Shaun of the Dead is set in suburban London. By having the setting in London, and having to deal with Londoners, is what separates the film from other Zombie films. In suburban London we have a corner store run a Pakistani immigrant, a neighbourhood youth who kicks a football all the time, colourful and traditional pubs in abundance, cramped but well-kept backyard gardens, narrow streets being driven along by cheap 4-cylinder cars or expensive Jaguars - and it is here that we view the mysterious Zombie invasion. It is this setting, along with the cast, that makes Shaun of the Dead a quintessentially English film, despite its reliance upon American based themes. Zombies will always be Zombies, but the way ordinary English people respond to the threat would be different to the way Americans act. So while Americans may barricade the doors or pull out firearms allowed by the US constitution, the English have a sit down or throw cups and saucers at their antagonists - well, at least English portrayed by English comedians.

Incidentally, it is this style of setting - remaining true to a particular locale and culture - that makes all comedies work well. Think of the Britishness of Monty Python for example. Braindead was so good because it remained true to New Zealand culture and thus became entertaining to those outside of New Zealand. Any Rom Zom Com will work internationally if it is kept within the bounds of a particular culture. I'd really like to see a Zombie Comedy from, say India, or Minnesota, or Mexico, or Russia.

One of my favourite parts of the film occurs when Ed and Shaun discover that the only way to permanently kill Zombies is to either cut off their heads or destroy their brains. Armed with this information, they then attempt to kill two zombies by hurling LP records at them (in the hope that decaptiation would result). After Ed inadvertently hurls an original copy of Blue Monday at the advancing Zombies, the two then discuss which albums can be thrown and which deserve to be kept - Dire Straits and the Batman Soundtrack are dispatched at their undead foes, while the two albums by The Stone Roses are kept. Moreover, when Shaun is first attacked by a Zombie, both Ed and Shaun think that the Zombie, a woman, is merely very drunk and amorous, resulting in Ed taking a picture of the two of them struggling away.

The Zombie-killing motif in the film is represented by Shaun's cricket bat, which he uses to bash in the heads of the undead. Cricket is an English sport, so the use of a cricket bat makes the Zombie-killing motif as much English as the chainsaw/shotgun combination makes Ash's motif American (or the Sub-machine-gun makes Alice's motif American in Resident Evil, or the underpowered lawnmower makes Lionel's motif New Zealander in Braindead). When he loses the bat, Shaun then uses the Winchester rifle that he finds in the Winchester pub - almost identical to the Winchester Ash uses in S-Mart at the end of Army of Darkness. Unlike Ash, however, Shaun has no experience firing rifles apart from his time on the Playstation, so his use of the Winchester is haphazard. The Winchester is also used by David (Dylan Moran) a university lecturer and an avowed pacifist (what irony) to threaten the life of a another cast member who is changing into a Zombie.

Music also has its place in the film. While Resident Evil has an appropriately dark and industrial-metal soundtrack, Shaun of the Dead includes a memorable rendition of Queen's Don't Stop Me Now (a song glorifying Freddie Mercury's outrageous libido) playing as the characters attempt to kill a Zombie by beating it with Pool cues in time with the music. The use of this song, which is resplendent in images of excitement and boasting, is subverted by the scene of killing a Zombie - similar to the way the ear-removal scene in Reservoir Dogs subverts the 70s pop tune Stuck in the Middle with You (although this scene in Shaun of the Dead is hardly ruinous).

As I stated earlier, Shaun of the dead is not a parody of Zombie films. Zombie-comedies like Army of Darkness, Braindead and Return of the Living Dead are well regarded in the genre, which means that Shaun of the Dead can actually be labelled a Zombie horror film (the way Dylan Moran's character dies in the film is simultaneously horrible and incredibly funny). Unlike these two Zombie-Horror films, though, the film's humour lies in the way in which the characters respond to the Zombies, rather than poking fun at the Zombies themselves (something which Shaun of the Dead only does at the conclusion of the film). It is one thing to rip zombies apart with gigantic fan attached to the front of a steam powered car (as Ash does in Army of Darkness), it is another thing to skewer a Zombie with a Totem Tennis pole (as what happens in Shaun of the Dead). The former is humourous because it is overstated, the latter is humourous because it is understated.

With the success of Shaun of the Dead, along with the history of previous Zom Coms, I would hazard a guess that future films starring Zombie invasions gore and humour are likely to continue. I'm glad, though, that the creators of Shaun of the Dead (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) were talented enough to get away with a quality picture when there is always a chance that something only mediocre could be created. The success of this film, along with their later Hot Fuzz, shows a talented pair of British comedians willing to try new things.



© 2007 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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1 comment:

Sam Norton said...

One of my favourite films. Have you looked at ?