Shaun of the Dead
Directed by Edgar Wright
Edgar Wright was the first director that actually captured the world the way I saw it and the way I felt it.
Previous generations had Catcher in the Rye or Nirvana or whatever but for me it was Spaced. A show that made concrete the weird way that everything in your life always seemed like it was (or should be!) a movie reference. Partly it was the dialogue and how even breaking up with your girlfriend was an opportunity to talk about the thumb at the end of Terminator 2 (“I don’t understand, just… eergh… give me a reason! You think I’m unemotional, don’t you? I can be emotional!”) but also in the way that it was shot and how a certain line delivered in a certain way with a certain camera movement made you feel like you were the hero of your very own reality (“Groovy!”). Or to put it another way – if cinema is a language then Spaced was the first thing I ever saw that knew how to actually speak it.
(Of course I’m heaping all the praise on Edgar Wright here – but really it was a threeway creation between him and Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson (now Jessica Hynes) and like a mythical rock band it’s arguable that none of them alone have ever managed to create anything quite as magical since – but maybe that’s another conversation… shout out to Lizzie and Sarah tho which you really should see if you haven’t already: 30 minutes of pure evil genius)
And then Spaced ended. And I held my breath for what would happen next. And then three years later – came Shaun of the Dead.
It’s common when people ask “what’s your favourite movie?” to pick from the movies that already exist. But I can think it can sometimes be more fun to make up movies that don’t exist but that you think should. Maybe your favourite movie would be David Fincher directing a rom-com. A western starring Idris Elba. Or a Marvel movie made by early Tim Burton. You know something combining your favourite elements in exciting new ways. Which yeah is maybe a reductive way to approach your film taste but maybe it’s most accurate in terms of what you want to see? Like you get a taste for carrots at quite a young age or whatever and then so every time you get them served up to you you’re always like “oh yum – I love carrots.” And maybe that’s how it works for what you respond to in a work of Art? You develop a taste and it goes all the way deep into your lizard brain and so whenever it’s there you just can’t help but respond to it.
At the risk of just stating the complete and utter obvious – for me the thing that sets off the lizard part of my brain is zombies. And in terms of making up my ideal movie I think it’s something that at least have some hint of the undead there at some point. (Was going to make a joke that David Fincher making a zombie movie would probably be one of the best things ever but then remembered that he was due to make the World War Z sequel at some point and then felt sad all over again that that wasn’t happening…. sigh).
Why zombies? Well. There’s a part of me that wants to try and make the claim that zombies are actually the most cinematic monsters out there. But there’s a part of me that realises that maybe that’s bullshit and probably a bit of an overreach. That being said – I think that zombies are actually the most cinematic monsters out there. I mean Dracula and Ghosts and Werewolves all started off in books. But zombies basically only started with Night of the Living Dead in 1968 (and yeah ok sure maybe there were zombies before that but that’s like saying there were boy bands before The Beatles or punk bands before The Ramones you know?). Also while most of the other monsters out there can be described on a page and still get that same spooky effect – zombies only really pop when they’re on screen. Describing someone walking really slowly isn’t really the stuff that nightmares are made – but seeing it before your eyes is another thing entirely. Plus (and this is based on nothing but the words I’m typing down) but it seems that compared to other monsters zombies are pretty cheap. I mean yeah of course you can go full horror show and spend millions making someone look like a rotted skeleton back from the grave but then again you can also you can just paste on some grey make-up, walk slowly and moan a bit. And there’s something there about how they’re a collective phenomenon too that seems significant. I mean – one zombie isn’t scary but you know what is? (Justin Timberlake voice) a billion zombies.
Ok. Wait. Maybe a billion is too much. But you get my point.
Also – to run the risk of getting into areas which might be a bit too flouncy – zombies are just way more evocative in terms of their various significations. I mean yeah vampires are blood-suckers and mildly erotic and ghosts can be used in interesting ways and – well – I guess werewolves are the runt of the litter seeing how they’re basically just overgrown dogs right? But zombies just tick of these cool boxes – they’re the dead, they’re us, they’re other people, they’re the past, they’re the future, they’re Capitalism, they’re sickness, they’re machines, they’re unstoppable forces, they’re everything, they’re everywhere, they’re outside your door and they’re going to eat your brains.
So yeah – zombies are the ultimate cinematic monster. And I’m a fan. And they tickle something all the way down and deep inside me. So when I heard that the people behind Spaced were making a zombie movie it was like hearing that the people behind ice cream were making a new kind of chocolate or something. I was in. I was sold. This was obviously going to be amazing.
But hey – I’m going to leave it there for now and maybe try and rewatch it before writing more stuff.
But what did you think?
I have always been a Simon Pegg fan, since Big Train and The Bill Bailey show, I even remember him being mildly funny as a guest on a random episode of Mel and Sue. He is smart, a competent actor, has excellent comic timing, and I am always glad to see him in things and pleased he has blagged his way into Hollywood. If Shaun of the Dead does nothing else its serves as calling card as he effortlessly demonstrates how to bring a genuinely funny but uncynical loser to the the apocalypse.
It does remain burning injustice however that while he and Edgar Wright, and to a lesser extent Nick Frost have from this spring board gone on to rewarding movie careers Jessica Hynes has been left behind lurking in the background in Paddington 2, or being quietly amazing in BBC sitcoms like There She Goes. This is despite the fact that she probably deserves a much larger share of the credit for the first series of Spaced than she gets; is a much more versatile actor than anyone else on that show; and has a more interesting and challenging perspective than the others who, judging by their legacy of work, have just become trapped in a sort of arrested development.
I looked back at a recent Guardian Spaced retrospective which says she turned down a different, and presumably more prominent, role in Shaun and I wanted to scream: “why weren’t they writing it together! You were the fucking dream team!” I also attended an interview with Jessica Hynes at the Leicester Square Theatre where she spoke how she had sabotaged herself through various decisions like changing her name and refusing to send revealing pictures of herself to Harvey Weinstein for a film audition in her teens (no really!). Which made me feel sad that basically she had been punished for having principles. You could say that no one owes each other anything in the entertainment business, but Frost and Pegg have a joint production coming out this very week. They have also both worked with Edgar Wright three more times (including Tintin) and they use the same producer Nira Park as well. Shaun of the Dead feels like the time when the three male stars decided to sideline Jessica Hynes despite its status as clearly Spaced: The Movie. They are all smart people who have survived in a difficult industry and have made it, and sours it slightly that on that path they collectively decided “ah well, fuck her.”
So regardless of what actually went down it just seems a bit bleak, in a way which bleeds through into Shaun of the Dead itself – a movie which is effectively a sort of Ayn Randian fable about getting rid of emotional date weight in order to progress: Bin your best mate, change your habits, throw away your old records, reconcile with your parents as you say goodbye to them; and burn your spiritual home to the ground. Shaun’s entire life is ripped to shreds in this movie and at the end he is a happier and better person for it. So I think it is a genuinely impressive movie (more later) but also, despite its status as Spaced: The Movie it’s like a sort of Spaced: Evil Twin – it looks like Spaced, sounds like Spaced, it drives a nicer car than Spaced but it’s not your friend.
I did a rewatch of Shaun of the Dead last night and well yeah obviously it’s almost a perfect movie. Every part fits together like clockwork. Every bit references everything else and it makes every single thing it does look all so completely easy and effortlessly effortless.
Still when it ended there was a question that lingered that I couldn’t help but ask myself – but what’s the point of the movie?
I can see how that’s probably a stupid question. It’s a zombie movie set in England. Mostly the point is squeezing all of the fun juxtapositions between an outrageous American apocalypse with cosy little Englishisms (the single best line of the movie for me = “I’m quite all right, Barbara, I ran it under a cold tap”). Also it’s a movie about a typical English bloke called Shaun who needs to learn how to step and take charge of life and erm – have more sugars in his cup of tea? And commit to his romantic relationship by erm – killing his step-Dad and Mum and erm abandoning Best Friend? And oh it turns out that his Best Friend is probably actually a bit of dick so leaving him behind was probably actually the best thing to do anyway?
Yeah it’s a little bit confusing maybe.
And there’s the breakup scene where Liz says to Shaun: “If I don’t do something, I’ll end up in that pub for the rest of my life like those other sad old fuckers wondering what the hell happened.”
And Shaun says: “What do you mean do something?”
Cut to: Shaun being dumped.
But hey – it’s actually a pretty good question. What does Liz mean by “do something”? Like Shaun definitely isn’t the best boyfriend in the world and could definitely stand to be a bit more loving and attentive. But at the risk of making myself sound like a douche – I kinda feel like there’s a difference between “booking a place at a restaurant for a romantic meal” and “doing something.” Like yeah maybe Liz is just gesturing towards going on holiday and meeting Shaun’s mum and doing anything else than sitting around in The Winchester every night which yeah is all completely understandable (and most people can obviously relate) but also it’s interesting that the way it works it out is that “do something” = “Shaun becomes the heroic lead of a movie.” Which mostly comes down to him climbing up walls into flats, jumping into a crowd of zombies and (not quite) giving them the slip and (whoops) getting pretty much everyone killed.
Like there’s that insight that was making the round a few years ago that Raiders of the Lost Ark would have had exactly the same conclusion (Nazis open up the Lost Ark of the Covenant and are all melted by God) if Indiana Jones had stayed at home and played with his pet snake. And not to be too much of a downer but I can’t help myself but ask – but what would have happened if Shaun and Ed had decided to follow the advice on the TV and just stayed at home? His mum might have not been bitten. David might not have been ripped apart by all the zombies. And maybe Ed would still be a (mostly) functioning human being? I mean yeah maybe it’s possible that they all would have died anyway but even the movie itself is a little bit ambivalent as to whether or not going to The Winchester and waiting for all of this to blow over is the best possible idea… most notably when Jessica Stevenson shows up (Hooray!) and deadpans “The pub?” when Shaun tells them where he’s leading them to…
(Also shit – someone really should have made a Shaun of the Dead sequel that was just following around these guys)
But then hey all of this stuff is beside the point – it doesn’t really matter if Shaun actually saved the day or actually ended up making everything worse. Nah. The point is that he looks super cool taking charge. That moment when he grabs the pub snack in midair and starts barking commands it’s clear from the look on Liz’s face that Shaun has finally become the man she always wanted him to be. But thanks to my stupid brain I couldn’t help but think how incredibly superfical his transformation had been – it’s not that he actually manages to save to day it’s that it looks like he’s saving the day. One way of looking at this in terms of Liz’s “do something” is that he’s not actually doing anything apart from making himself look good but then again “do something” is such a vague formulation that maybe it doesn’t really matter? You know – there’s a lot of stuff that happens in Shaun of the Dead so who cares if it’s actually all joined up and productive or not?
Also – the underlying irony of all of this stuff is that even tho the film gestures towards the crux of the film being Shaun and Liz’s relationship and the whole zombie Odyssey being motivated by Shaun’s attempt to win her back and the feeling of completeness and satisfaction that comes from that penultimate shot of “DOMESTIC BLISS ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED!” it’s telling that the real relationship focus of the film is – obviously – Shaun and Ed.
Well yeah obviously. I mean – they even lampshade it at several point with the whole “he’s not my boyfriend” and “gay.” And you know – in the same way that I’ve always thought that Bridesmaids would be a better film if it ended with Kristen Wiig telling Chris O’Dowd to fuck off there’s a version of Shaun of the Dead where Shaun realises that Ed is the one he’s been searching for his whole life although maybe that’s actually needed seeing how the real final shot of the film in them playing computer games together (Striking Vipers anyone?)
I mean yeah Ed and Shaun do have their ups and downs and lover’s tiffs in front of everyone when they should be fighting the zombies (we’ve all been there right?) but if anything all the ways that the film shows up that Ed is kinda a dick just makes me feel like their relationship is even more realistic and nuanced. As opposed to Shaun and Liz where they’re basically trapped in these gender roles where Liz is the nagging girlfriend who feels like his Mum and Shaun is either the useless layabout or the dynamic cricket bat wielding hero. But then this is of course the problem with most rom-coms (with zoms or not) is that in making another person into a prize to be won back you end up avoiding all their various complications.
Maybe there’s another version of the film which ends with Liz and Shaun playing computer games together?
Now that would be a slice of fried gold.
I’ve been puzzling over the foreshadowing in Shaun of the Dead for a while. One example from many:
‘Do you know what we should do tomorrow?
Bloody Mary first thing
A bite at the Kings head
A couple at the Little princess
Stagger back here
And bang back at the bar for shots’ – Ed’s speech recounts all the plot points of the film.
It’s incredibly tightly constructed, with incredibly economical film-making, but good foreshadowing is always more about story, otherwise its just cleverness. My best answer about it is that its about how repeating these same points over and over again is killing him. Because that’s how it ends, with a suicide pact. They then get rescued by Yvonne and the army, but really, doing these same things over and over was death. By Drinking.
Edgar Wright loves some foreshadowing.
“If I don’t do something, I’ll end up in that pub for the rest of my life like those other sad old fuckers wondering what the hell happened.”
<coughs> Alcoholism. Alcoholism is what happened. Its a big part of the World End.
I think this is why the domestic bliss ending feels a bit off. Sidestepping the trauma of what happened, everyone seems fine. But if you were drinking every night for years, and then your pub gets destroyed, don’t you just find another pub? Or do you keep Ed in the shed?
So as I occasionally go on about, especially when talking about Cloverfield, how I am a massive fan of films where the camera deliberately doesn’t follow the “hero.” It’s a cool perspective when giant events go on and the main character has nothing to do with them and can’t really do anything to stop them. For zombie movies this is a frequent theme but often they limit the scope of the world they are dealing with or make the whole situation so hopeless that you don’t get the sense that there are any heroes out there.
The idea behind Shaun is that while he is one of the last people to know about the apocalypse somewhere out there much more exciting things are happening. When he walks to buy the Cornetto there is a brief radio report about a satellite crashing in to the atmosphere. Is that because the people on the satellite have the zombie disease? Or are they the cause of the zombie disease? We’ll never know, although apparently it’s a reference to Night of the Living Dead. A few minutes later Shaun glances for 2 seconds at some newspaper front pages suggesting something bad is going down, but again he’s got other things on his mind.
Finally when Jessica Hynes comes to their rescue the implication is that she has been in the “real” movie (and not just gone to the pub) and been through some sort of Die Hard style baptism of fire. But as with the satellite story, or the field hospital in Cloverfield, or the Space Jockey in Alien you are left to imagine your own story. It’s this rich detail which sets off some puzzle solving part of my brain and makes movies endure in my mind.
I read that rather than the loose Cornetto trilogy we ended up with they had considered having a direct sequel “From Dusk til Shaun” which presumably would have encountered vampires or some such. I am ambivalent about whether we missed out on something good and perhaps some sort of expanded Shauniverse because we got Hot Fuzz anyway which is great, and we also had a horrifying preview of what a regular Pegg and Frost creature feature would be like with Paul. It would also undermine the fundamental point of Shaun which is how spectacularly ill equipped he is to deal with any sort of jeopardy, but that would be hard to sustain over a sequel.
Indeed it was good of them to create an artefact like Paul to demonstrate why Edgar Wright is a crucial part of the equation. There is a restless energy to every scene as evidenced by the idea that Simon Pegg can’t even just walk to the shop without a massive horror movie going on all around him, or that as Clem says there is a foreshadowing joke in every throw away line: another more obvious example was the last thing Nick Frost says to Peter Serafinowicz (slightly under his breath) is “the next time I see you, you’ll be dead.” You can feel that every shot and frame has purpose and hangs together as a sort of experience regardless of what the story and this also helps to quickly move you passed any puzzling over how for example records inexplicably become a skull piercing weapon. This is a director who is looking at every detail to get the most out of the script on a small budget. Which compares favourably to say Christopher Nolan who spends years working on an intricate time travel plot but then writes dialogue that makes you wonder if he has ever met other human people.
Speaking of Nolan I hesitate to talk about the “Englishness” of Shaun of the Dead because, well because fuck the English and fuck the oh so civil “keep calm and and carry on” alleged resilience from this stupid country. But the obviously the main joke in the entire Cornetto trilogy is the way Edgar Wright offsets the small little Englander lives of its characters against random needle drops and US action-movie style editing. Returning to my original point it’s a joke in itself to see North London framed as the location for an apocalyptic battle, but then why shouldn’t it be? Imaginary bullshit, by its very nature can happen anywhere, and films can make places that no-one ever cared about mean something just as JK Rowling managed to turn a train platform into a minor pilgrimage site for Harry Potter fans, or as Douglas Adams did for Hotblack Desiato estate agents and Rise of the Silver Surfer did for the London Eye. The magic of Shaun of the Dead is that it isn’t just the tourist map version of London but the actual London of newsagents, tiny gardens and weird pubs – which makes the horror seem more vivid than a million zombies marching around the picture postcard London of Paddington Bear. With the right approach it’s at least as entertaining if not more so to see Simon Pegg wandering around Finchley with a cricket bat as it is to see Channing Tatum marching around the the Whitehouse with a grenade launcher.
I like Clem’s point. “Alcoholism. Alcoholism is what happened.” and it’s a pretty good way to approach the Shaun of the Dead and in fact the Cornetto trilogy in general and maybe helps to sum up a little bit of the reason why I feel like there’s a disconnect between me and this movie.
Part of me was going to go into this thing that Shaun of the Dead is a North London kinda movie and Attack the Block is more a South London kinda movie. And you know – having grown up in the wilds between Brixton and Camberwell that kinda meant that Attack the Block was more a movie that I felt more connected to (and makes more emotional sense) than the adventures of Shaun and his gang. North London being a strange netherworld where the streets aren’t so big and none of the people who live there are really from London. (Although – whoops – I guess that’s Brixton and Camberwell now huh?)
Then there’s also the whole drinking fixation thing…
Like yeah they don’t exactly make it all that subtle. The plot of Shaun of the Dead in a single sentence is “Let’s go to the pub.” Hot Fuzz has multiple pub scenes and World’s End is literally based around a pub crawl.
I mean – I’ve been in a few pubs from time to time (I met Simon Pegg in a pub once and me and my mates brought him a pint and a pack of Twiglets. Yeah I know) but for whatever reason I never really felt like I ever really embraced proper pub culture. Clem already mentioned the “sad old fuckers” who waste their whole lives sitting in pubs and god knows I saw enough of that when I was growing up. But then also maybe it’s just – I prefer the culture of sitting in the dark, not talking to anyone else, an ice cold glass of coke and watching people doing things on the screen?
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