Shaun of the Dead (2004) is my favorite movie of all time. As a kid I loved it because it was vulgar and violent, but as an adult (if you can call me that) I can clearly see what makes it so great. It is not only the perfect genre film, but the perfect mix of genres in a film.
Director Edgar Wright found a way to take everything great about so many different genres and put them all into one movie. It’s part romantic comedy, part drama, and heaps of horror all rolled into one, creating something wholly original. Shaun of the Dead is a movie that makes me laugh, cringe, and cry. Sometimes all at the same time. To help get this point across, I think it’d be a good idea to break down the different genres found in the movie and how they flawlessly mix together.
Shaun of the Dead is a lot of different types of movies, but it is first and foremost a zombie film. I mean- it’s called Shaun of the Dead for a reason. What Wright does with his zombies is both a throwback to the old-school Romero days and at the same time completely original. Wright’s zombies, much like Romero’s, exist almost entirely as satire with several moments in the movie that directly draw parallels between the dead and the living (See: Commuters that are very clearly dead inside).
Similar to Romero, what Wright is saying that people are already zombies. They go about their day-to-day lives mindlessly doing the same thing over and over. In fact, people are so stuck in their zombified state that they don’t even notice the multiple signs of the soon-to-be zombie invasion. There are literal zombies out in the open, biting people in the opening of the movie, but no one pays any mind because they can’t tell the difference between a brain-dead person and an actually dead zombie anymore.
“A lot of horror-comedies tend to forget the horror […] but in the hands of a master like Edgar Wright we get the whole package.”
As great as the social commentary is, what’s more important is the zombies actually feel like a threat. Too many modern zombie stories use the old “Humans are the real monsters” approach. While there is some human conflict in the form of “nice guy” David, most of the danger comes from the zombies. The zombies literally tear characters limb for limb and mutilate people we’ve come to genuinely care about. Comedy or not, when these moments come they are outright horrifying.
Shaun of the Dead actually feels like a legitimate horror movie. A lot of horror-comedies tend to forget the horror, going just for gags and goofs but in the hands of a master like Edgar Wright we get the whole package.
Shaun of the Dead is described many times as a romantic comedy with zombies, which is pretty on point. It’s a love story about a guy trying to win back the affection of his ex while having to fight through hordes of the undead. The movie isn’t just a love story between a man and a woman though, it’s also one between a man and his best friend. First off, let’s focus on Shaun and Liz. I can’t blame Liz for dumping Shaun like a bag of rocks. Shaun is, by all accounts, a loser. He lets a seventeen-year-old talk back to him at work, he can’t remember where he and Liz met, and never keeps any of his promises because he is seemingly incapable of getting his life in order. Honestly, I don’t know why she didn’t dump him sooner.
However, when things go south Shaun’s first thought is to check on Liz. He loves her, but has no clue how to be a responsible adult. Luckily though (okay I mean it’s not very lucky, but the timing couldn’t be any better-) the zombie apocalypse has given him the opportunity to prove himself. Even though things go horribly wrong and almost everyone dies, he still gets off his ass and actually does something for the first time in his life. He takes charge and proves to both Liz and himself that he isn’t nearly the loser he seemed to be.
“when things go south his first thought is to check on Liz. […] the zombie apocalypse has given him the opportunity to prove himself.”
Speaking of losers, this leads me to the second love story going on in Shaun of the Dead, the one between Shaun and Ed. Unlike the relationship between Shaun and Liz which is a romance, the one between him and Ed is the ultimate bromance. They’re basically one step away from finishing each others sentences like an old married couple. After Liz breaks up with Shaun he literally says to Pete “we broke up with Liz” with the “we” meaning Ed.
Both of these relationships are touching, but for one to live, the other has to die. Ed may be Shaun’s best friend, but he isn’t the best influence. This becomes more apparent as the film goes on, and if Shaun really wants to be with Liz and grow up something needs to be done about Ed. Unfortunately, that something was him getting brutally torn to shreds by zombies. However, Ed knows that he’s been holding Shaun back and apologizes in the most Ed way possible in a genuinely sweet and hilarious moment that gets right to the heart of their friendship. Even though Shaun isn’t willing to leave his best friend behind and keeps him in a shed so they can play video games together, it’s clear that he learned something. Let’s just hope that Liz never needs to head out to the shed though…
The thing about Shaun of the Dead that people seem to never bring up in conversation about it is just how sad it is. There’s a reason this title of this has the word “tears” in it. Wright, among everything that is going on in the movie, is able to inject genuinely heartbreaking dramatic moments. There are two in particular that I’m going to talk about because, to me, they are the dramatic centerpieces to the film.
First up we’ve got the death of Shaun’s step-dad Phillip. We’re led to believe that Phillip is a terrible step-father, and when we eventually meet him it’s pretty easy to see why. However, later after being infected him and Shaun have a heart to heart. Phillip tells him that he wanted to be a good dad, but just didn’t know how. The reason he was so hard on him because he always knew Shaun was capable of great things, but just needed motivation. He uses his lasts breath to tell Shaun “that’s a good boy,” and immediately dies.
“…one emotional gut-punch after another and each one hurts more than the last.”
The second big dramatic beat comes later in the movie when Shaun’s mother, Barbara, is bitten. Unlike with Phillip, we’re never led to believe anything bad about her. Despite being a little naïve, she’s a complete sweetheart and lovable in every way. The relationship between her and Shaun is one filled with love, unlike the one between him and Phillip. So, when she is infected, and Shaun has to shoot his own mother in the head it hurts to watch.
Let’s just do a count here real quick. Shaun has to watch his step-dad, mother, and best friend all die within the span of only a few hours. That’s some heavy stuff right there, and it’s only made more painful by the way Wright makes us as the audience feel for the characters. The movie has one emotional gut-punch after another and each one hurts more than the last.
So, there we have it, 15 years later and Shaun of the Dead still stands the test of time. It’s a funny, bloody, heartfelt blast that feels unique and original even after all this time. I’m no psychic, but I can foresee many more trips to the Winchester in the future. Let us know how much you love Edgar Wright’s Shaun of The Dead on Twitter, in the NOFS Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club.