Shaun of the Dead (2004)

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*. A successful and long-running genre inevitably generates parody. James Bond begets Austin Powers. Friday the 13th begets Scream which begets Scary Movie. Dawn of the Dead begets Shaun of the Dead. Once a genre or franchise is fully developed there just aren’t that many places left for it to go.
*. Not that earlier zombie movies were without a sense of humour. The original Dawn of the Dead was quite a funny movie. But it wasn’t self-satire, it wasn’t sending up the zombie genre. That’s the difference.

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*. Probably the best known scene here is the long take of Shaun’s walk through his neighbourhood (to the general store and back), completely oblivious to the results of the zombie apocalypse all around him. The joke behind this movie, then, is its amplification of Romero’s essential theme, that the zombies are us.

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*. It’s funny because it’s true. The shots of Londoners going about their business in the opening credit montage only reinforce the point. Look at Shaun’s fellow commuters on the bus he takes to and from work, slack-jawed and seeming barely alive. Or listen to his girlfriend’s complaint in the opening scene, where she expresses a desire to “live a little” and get out of the living death of routine and going-nowhereism that is her so-called life. It’s T. S. Eliot’s observation of Londoners in the 1920s, of how he had not thought death had undone so many (itself a borrowing from Dante), updated to the twenty-first century.
*. But then the apocalypse is upon us and everyone suddenly is alive. They’re tossed out of their ruts, they have a purpose, a goal in life . . . even if it’s ironically the same one they had before the shit hit the fan: to get to the Winchester.
*. That sort of repetition of before and after is also key to the movie’s structure. Lines and props and characters get recycled. Some of these are pretty obvious, like the way the bouquet of flowers or the pack of cigarettes resurface at the end. Others are more subtle, like Pete taunting Ed about living like an animal in a shed. And some I didn’t notice at all until I heard them pointed out on the commentary (like the way Snake Hips, who is introduced as always surrounded by women, is last scene being devoured by hungry maenads).

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*. I mentioned in my notes on Dawn of the Dead (the remake) that suburban zombies were an interesting new direction that the movie might have gone in. This movie came out at exactly the same time (its release was put back until just after Dawn of the Dead because of similarities in the title), and does in fact go a bit further in this line.
*. I don’t get the joke about the “zed word”: not calling the zombies by that particular name. Why not?
*. Other jokes that are easy to whiff on have to do with Pegg’s and Wright’s earlier work, particularly on the series Spaced. There’s a lot of that here, but at least it’s unobtrusive so it doesn’t really matter if you’re not getting the in-jokes.
*. It seems to me that only the Brits could do this material in the right register. The situation is desperate but not serious. The world is falling apart but everyone will keep up appearances and observe a kind of rough decorum. Humour arises from the mangled priorities of the survivors.

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*. Also very British is the lack of gun play. In the U.S. everyone just has to grab the heavy artillery that they have stashed around their homes, or in the glove compartments of their cars, and start blazing away. Here there is humour in the laundry basket of household items that Shaun and Ed throw at the zombies in the backyard, the shovel and the cricket bat they carry, and the plastic children’s lawn furniture they try and use to kill the bathrobe zombie (before settlng for a tetherball pole).
*. Then when Shaun does get his hands on a gun he (a) doesn’t know how to use it; and (b) can’t hit anything with it when he does figure it out. Say what you will about America’s gun culture, but it does make surviving the zombie apocalypse easier.

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