Now start paying attention, unless you want to find yourself
at the bottom of a zombie dogpile. You can't rely on dumb
luck to survive, though it works wonderfully for some (who may
not even be that dumb), because the world (at least part of
England) is going to hell in a (very large) hand basket and
you don't want to be one of those carried along for the
picnic. In hell. (See: hand basket.)
Of course, none of this (except the hand basket) is the focus
of the first third of Shaun of the Dead. The opening
scene sets the tone, and the real drive, behind the movie —
Shaun (Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the script) getting his
life together and finding a way to deal with his best friend
Ed (Nick Frost) as an adult so that his girlfriend, Liz (Kate
Ashfield), will stay with him. Along the way, of course, there's
the usual working things out with the step-dad, the heart-to-heart
with mum, and the failed (but ultimately successful?) attempt
to prove oneself "a man." With zombies.
Shaun is paying attention — unlike the heroine Ana in
the Dawn of the Dead remake, who is oblivious to newscasts,
radio messages, anything except her own middle-class life. There
are strange things going on in London. From a bus window he
watches a man fall down from a heart attack; across the street
from a convenience store a homeless man stalks and eats pigeons;
and there are sirens everywhere. Shaun may not know what is
going on, but he definitely knows something is. It
is hard to stay oblivious when you're trying to sell a
TV and every channel you flip is covering the same local emergency.
Of course, Shaun's step-dad Philip (Bill Nighy) shows
up to berate him for not remembering flowers for his mother,
so we never see what the emergency is about.
But that's the genius of the movie. Of course we, the
audience, know what's going on — and if you don't,
maybe you should read the title again, and again, and again
— and, as usual, the characters in the movie don't.
But every time Shaun is close to finding out the danger in the
beginning, or the movie threatens to only be about zombies after
Z-Day, the action is interrupted by the personal. Shaun
of the Dead isn't about zombies any more than Dune
is about spice or Flash Gordon is about people wearing
tight gaudy clothes and bad alien costumes . . . actually,
I take that back about Flash Gordon. Still, Shaun
is more about personal relationships than it is about zombies
taking over the world (or even just downtown London).
On that score — real people involved with real zombies
— the movie succeeds. There's reality to Ed and
Shaun's first zombie kills and the fact that they can't
stop beating the corpses. As with the original Dawn of the
Dead, there's a little craziness that infects the
characters that seems a necessary defiance to a world gone mad.
Often this tinge of insanity is funny — and when it's
not, it's scary. Most Hollywood horror movies don't
give us the chance to see real psychological reactions to monsters
or horrifying moments; all we're ever given is running
Pay attention! I know running and screaming sounds like fun,
and there's some of that here if you want, but you have
to realize there's more to life or death than Run, Scream,
Die. In fact, if you want the running and screaming, you can
find those moments as tangents in the film — at the end
of an alley behind Shaun's group, a woman runs (yes, screaming)
from zombies; as Shaun goes to get breakfast (beer and ice cream)
a man races (no, not screaming) past; another car swerves madly
through the streets as the heroes enact their Plan. This movie,
more than any other apocalyptic film I've seen, presents
the world as a mass of stories going on simultaneously, and
though we're only allowed Shaun's story we see bits
of the world beyond him. Take Yvonne's group of survivors
that Shaun's group passes; her group has the same number
of people and the same type of people, check 'em off right
down to the rescued, and slightly bewildered, mother.
The movie is chock full of nuts — um . . .
humor and small treats — that you'll miss if you're not
(as I've said you should) paying attention all the time. This
doesn't just include references, though you'll find nods to
28 Days Later, Romero's original Dawn (re:
the biker on the mall floor surrounded by zombies), and the
Evil Dead movies, as well as Michael Jackson's Thriller
and, sprinkled throughout, all the theories past movies
have given for the rise of zombies. Not to mention such scene
dressing as the coffee cups Shaun holds in each vision of The
Plan. You need to stay aware, because although the movie alternates
slow and fast scenes, there's never really a pause — almost
always there are several things going on at once.
One of those things is the music, ironic and attentive to
the action, that almost tells a story on its own. Take a listen
to the soundtrack if you don't believe me. (No, really, take
the soundtrack. I mean, even if you don't see the movie, the
soundtrack is worth buying.) After the initial pub scene there's
a montage under the credits that is simply amazing. It only
lasts a short moment, but it encapsulates the whole visual tone
and theme of the movie. Romero's movie was about consumerism,
the remake about action (some would say "fear of a chaotic
world"); Shaun is about getting lost in the routine
Director Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (you should recognize
that name; don't make me quiz you) have created a movie that
shambles beyond the horror genre into the larger, ill-defined
good movie genre. Sure, there are zombies running (um . . .
limping) rampant, and there's death and destruction, but when
you get right down to it, the movie is simply about the relationship
between three people: Shaun, Liz, and Ed. And the zombies.
Okay, this is the last time I'm going to tell you to pay
attention. Don't stand in front of a window when you know
there are zombies outside. If someone looking distinctly ill
is behind a sliding glass door, don't open it. If you
can see the whites of their eyes, you're too filking close.
And for goodness' sake, never throw darts at someone.
Come on, common sense here, people.