Tuesday, 22 February 2011

#7 Shaun of the Dead: Why You Think You're Badass

So, let’s talk about Shaun of the Dead, the film that started off the whole zombie renaissance that so many people are getting sick of by now.

Oh, you thought it was 28 Days Later?

Or the general atmosphere of apocalyptic doom and despair that’s been prevalent since 9/11 and the Iraq War.

Well, they might have helped, but the reason that for the last decade nerds have been crafting intricate strategies for the hording of food and the decapitation of their neighbours (especially Neil, because fuck that guy) can be traced back to this film. This is the film that convinced you all that no matter how big a loser you are, the day the dead rise you will metamorphose into a cricket-bat wielding badass.
Some of you have completely lost touch with reality

Shaun of the Dead is different from the other movies we’ve looked at so far. Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later and I Am Legend aren’t just violent stories, but they’re also stories about violence. In one way or another these are stories about how violent people are, and the human cost violence has for the perpetrator as well as the victim. Even Pontypool is littered with references to the war in Afghanistan, and makes a major plot point of the guilt that comes from killing the obligatory kiddy zombie.

Shaun of the Dead gives a couple of nods to these themes, in the creepy look on Ed’s face after he’s smashed someone’s skull in with an ash tray, in that most of the improvised weapons and projectiles the characters use- records, swing-balls, and boxes of assorted throwing objects, turn out to be a bit shit and in that someone who spends hours of his life shooting down people in Timesplitters 2 will actually turn out to be a bit crap when he gets his hands on a rifle. But that isn’t Shaun of the Dead’s primary concern. Shaun of the Dead is a story about an aimless twenty-something struggling to grow up and get over his hangover. I can’t imagine why I like it so much.

Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s script is littered with foreshadowing and throwbacks, and one of these is that the entire plot of the movie is summed up with the drunken Shaun’s to-do list scrawled across the fridge:

Not long before, Ed also describes the plot of the whole movie in the form of a plan for a pub crawl:

“A Bloody Mary first thing, (the zombie they kill in the garden is called Mary) a bite at the King's Head, (Shaun’s stepdad getting bitten), couple at The Little Princess, (fetching Liz), stagger back here (the Winchester) and bang... back at the bar for shots. (Getting the rifle).”

The characters see the whole outbreak in terms of their everyday lives, relationships and trips to the pub, never even thinking about the larger political, philosophical and theological aspects of the zombie (not quite) apocalypse. When they flick through the TV channels and get nothing but blank, the response is a rather glib “There’s never anything on is there?” rather than wondering if we’ll see the lights turn on again in our lifetime.

I’ve already talked about the way zombie apocalypses have of narrowing the action down to an extremely small stage, then giving us hints and tips about the larger story through radio broadcasts and background action. The first part of Shaun of the Dead is littered with this. We see military trucks moving around in the background, people passing out at the bus stop, half-glimpsed headlines, a man eating a pigeon, a guy face down on his own steering wheel, and none of it is referred to by the characters directly. Shaun even manages to walk right to the corner shop and back through smashed up cars and scattered zombies without noticing that anything is wrong (incidentally, I’ve been to that corner shop, and they do a great strawberry Cornetto).

Edgar Wright has already gone on record as saying that this was partly inspired by his own discovery of the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK.

He’d missed the news for a couple of days, then turned the telly on to see mountains of burning cows. But it could just as easily be anything in the news. The movie came out while I was in uni and the Iraq War was getting into full swing, and my memories of that time are made up of sitting in the Union Bar, chatting about the usual bollocks students talk about, but with this constant background hum on the TV screens of tanks moving through deserts, reports of car bombs going off, and over-excited reporters in blurry, pixellated footage. Shaun of the Dead slots neatly into the Romero canon because like his films, these are characters at the periphery of the world-changing events. But unlike Romero’s characters, even as the world is falling apart these characters are still driven by the same pre-apocalyptic concerns- Shaun’s rivalry with his step-dad, his toxic friendship with Ed, and his attempts to win Liz back.

The real question at the end of the film isn’t about the aftermath of this huge, world changing cataclysm. Globally, the worst consequence of the apocalypse seems to be the return of It’s A Knockout.

Although in all fairness, I would totally watch this
The more dramatically important question at the end of the film is whether or not Shaun has moved on at all. In Simon Pegg’s memoir (which I’ve been reading to better to learn his ways so that I may eventually kill him and steal his life) he mentions that it’s left deliberately ambiguous whether Liz knows that Ed is being kept chained up in the garden shed (something else foreshadowed at the start of the film). If she doesn’t know, then Shaun hasn’t really changed and the idyllic post-zombie existence they’re enjoying may not last all that long. If she does, then she’s complicit in allowing him to carry on as he did before. Either way, Shaun remains the same person even in face of the zombie invasion, the petty tendencies and the bravery in the face of danger were equally a part of him all along. I believe that the fact that he remains the same ineffectual schlub even when he’s kicking zombie arse is a big part of the reason why this film is so popular, and why more geeks have a plan for the zombie apocalypse than a plan to escape their home in the event of a house fire.*

Right, let’s get to Winchester and line up some shots. The characters spend most of the story under siege in a pub (take a shot). We could argue over whether mankind is the real monster, but from the opening credits onwards the parallels between your average Londoner and your average zombie are made abundantly clear, and the characters spend plenty of time pointing guns, broken glass and bottle-openers at one another, so take a shot. Ed cries out “We’re coming to get you Barbara!” so take another two shots. These are proper old school zombies, who are dead, move slowly and can only be killed by a shot to the brain, so take four shots for that. We don’t know if the naturally dead rise, but given Pegg and Wright’s reverence for the Romero rules, I feel safe ordering a couple of shots for that as well. There is a kiddy zombie, so two shots for that. And while the word zombie is mentioned numerous times, character’s are explicitly told not to, so you can have one shot for that.

However, the two surviving characters are rescued by the army, who turn out not to be either insane or evil, so that is the one shot you’re not allowed to take this week.

How’s that for a slice of fried gold?

*Not an actual statistic. Someone should do the research on this.

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