Horromedy: Fear and Fun in Shaun of the Dead

We can tell a lot about the era we’re living in by determining whether horror or comedy is dominant in hybrids that merge the two genres onscreen.  When comedy dominates, as it did in such Roger Corman classics as A Bucket of Blood (1959) or The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), it serves to lighten the seriousness of real-life historical horrors such as the Cold War, which culminated in the very scary Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  When horror dominates as it did in Wes Craven’s self-reflexive Scream (1996) and it’s two sequels, it suggests there may be an unforeseen dark side to prosperity, as there was after all the giddy free-spending fun of the early “dot-comedy” years.  With that in mind comedy has once again taken top billing in Edgar Wright’s horromedy Shaun of the Dead, which bills itself as “A romantic comedy, with zombies.”  If the amount of humor in this film is any indicator, real life may be scarier than we think.

Like all movies with “…of the dead” in their title, Shaun of the Dead is descended from George Romero’s 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead.   It takes Romero’s premise—a small band of live humans trying to flee from flesh-eating zombies—and adds a contemporary twist: 21st century life has put so many of us into a zombie-like state, that it takes about half the film before the main character, Shaun (Simon Pegg) realizes that all of London is staggering with the ravenous undead.  In the midst of working his go-nowhere job as an appliance salesman, playing video games and drinking beer with his pot-dealing, deadbeat best friend Ed (Nick Frost), and struggling to keep his increasingly disappointed girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), Shaun fails to notice all the signs that zombies are taking over.  He can hardly be blamed, though.  In an era when daily suicide bombings and televised beheadings fail to shock, how many of us would notice if the evening news slipped in a story about roving gangs of cannibalistic corpses?

Eventually, Shaun and Ed do figure things out, however, and this is where Ed has to step up to the plate and prove he’s a man amongst zombies.  Fittingly, he chooses a cricket bat as his weapon of choice.  It’s testimony to the thin line between horror and comedy that some of the funniest scenes depict Ed bashing the heads of zombie predators with his bat as he struggles to rescue his mother, his girlfriend, and her two uncooperative friends.  It’s part of the zombie movie code that the group will eventually wind up trapped in a building surrounded by flesh eaters and blaming each other for their predicament.  Shaun leads the group to the Winchester, the pub where he and Ed have spent most of their adult lives downing pints and smoking fags.  As the zombies start closing in, we know that not all of them will make it out alive.  In spite of this, Shaun of the Dead avoids predictable plot lines, and finds a fresh way to resolve the tension created by Shaun’s allegiance to Ed and his love for Liz.

What makes Shaun of the Dead so much fun to watch is the skillful way that it blends its two parent genres.  It places the content of comedy in the form of horror.  Witty one-liners and silly sight gags complement the shock-paced editing so that script and visual style keep the viewer constantly off-balance, caught between laughing and gasping.  Humor does outweigh horror in this film, but the relationship between the two is complexly intertwined.   There’s something funny about Ed taking a call from a pot customer on his cell phone while surrounded by zombies, but there’s also a larger point about the dominance of cell phones in modern life that is horrific. 

Not only cell phones, but car alarms, sirens, shattering glass, chattering TVs, the PlayStation that Ed is addicted to, the Juke box at the Winchester, all of these and more contribute to an endless din in the background of Shaun of the Dead.  It is the soundtrack of contemporary consumer culture, and it’s perfect for a zombie movie, because zombies are first and foremost consumers.  That’s why Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) was set in a shopping mall.  Where Dawn of the Dead serves up a stinging critique of consumer culture, Shaun of the Dead suggests that the cell phones, cables shows, pop songs, and video games—the very things that turn us into zombies—may also be the only things that keep us from consuming each other.  That thought entertains some, but it terrifies others. 

This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, October 2004. Joseph Christopher Schaub