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Zombies Are Us

Funny, frightening Shaun of the Dead celebrates those great social critics, The Undead.

By Dorothy Woodend 8 Oct 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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We're all zombies now. That's the message of the Shaun of the Dead. When the cashiers at Walmart, the stoned slackers with their perpetual Ipods, the dead eyed souls who ride mass transit turn into brain-eating living dead, the eponymous Shaun doesn't even notice.

Simon Pegg (familiar to fans of Spaced, which aired on Bravo a few years back) plays Shaun, a 29 year old boy/man living with his best mate Ed (Nick Frost) in London. He's stuck in a dead end job and in a relationship that is also dying on the vine and spends most of his time sitting on the couch with Ed playing video games and having a 'larf'. But deep down in Shaun there is a hero waiting to rise. All it takes it some brain munchers and a little lovesick blues to bring it to the surface. When his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) dumps him, Ed says, "It's not the end of the world," but of course, it is.

Some mysterious force has caused the dead to come back to life with a taste for the living and soon enough it's snack time for zombos. Shaun and Ed have missed most of the preliminaries, having been pissed throughout most of it; even when their flatmate gets mugged and bitten, they're too busy singing hip hop to note that there's something odd going on.

When the two finally wake up with massive hangovers, they fail to notice that Armageddon has arrived. Shaun decides to stumble to the corner store and asks Ed what he wants. "Cornetto" he says, his eyes never leaving his video game. The streets are filled with corpses both live and dead, smashed stuff and evidence of mass chaos, but none of it has as much impact as the need for caffeine.

Shaun kills a can of coke and stumbles back to his flat unaware. It isn't until Ed spies a girl in the garden that they sense something is amiss with this miss. At first they mistake her for a pisshead, dead drunk in the middle of the morning, but she's more dead than drunk. Plus she's got the munchies bad. When zombie Mary impales herself on a pole and still keeps coming, you get a glimpse of Ed's t-shirt through the gaping hole in her mid-section. "I Got Wood" it says. Indeed, but they'll need more than a cricket bat to fend off the growing armies of the undead.

Zombies aren't polite

One of the best things about zombie films is that sense that all the normal rules of polite society are suspended and all the things you really want to do, like drive your friend's fancy car or kill your step-dad are now possible. Shaun's step-dead-dad is played by Bill Nighy. And he's note perfect. He seems more alive when he's dead than when he was actually alive. Spaced alum also include Nick Frost and the film's director Edgar Wright, who shares writing credits on the film with Simon Pegg. AHHHHHHH... It's like a warm bath, you can sink in and know that in no way are these boys going to make a misstep and of course, they don't, it's all good.

It's nice to see a film where the writing is so immediately brilliant that a certain part of you relaxes. You think, I will be taken care of, my brain nourished with zingers, good characterization, and a wealth of grace notes that make the film heart sing. Like Shaun taking tiny precise steps up a child's plastic slide to look over a back garden fence at a sea of living dead.

The film maker's love of the genre is obvious and immediate and there are lots of references to other zombie films. Ed perpetually leaves the front door open, much to the consternation of their flatmate, and when a zombie wanders in and attacks them, Shaun squeals, "He's got an arm off!" There are so many utterly brilliant throw-aways, that really you can be forgiven for thinking the British are simply better or perhaps more clever than the rest of us. This is writing that can make you grind your teeth with envy at the seemingly effortless way it's just tossed off. Damn you England! Is there nothing you can't do?

Apparently not, as two of the best zombie films in recent memory, (Shaun and 28 Days Later) have originated from this tiny island. It's a tricky thing to be both scary and funny and somehow this film manages to walk that fine line. When Liz's flatmates, Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran) are devoured, it's horrifying, even though a moment earlier they were being thoroughly horrid themselves. Finally when Shaun must choose between the life he's known with Ed and a new life with Liz, the choice is, like all major decisions, agonizing. Especially for Ed (short for Ed-ible).

Headless pop culture

I laughed, I screamed and I laughed again. But this film, despite its easy ways, has a message, like all good horror films do. Zombies are stumbling, lurching metaphors that can be made to carry any number of messages about modern culture's endless self-devouring nature. They're such useful creatures: they can imply the soul deadness of modern world, disease ridden contagion a la Sars, or technology run amok. Whatever form they take, the living dead are everywhere.

What Shaun does differently--and it can afford to do this because it's a comedy--is blur the line between us and them. The dead and the living can share the same space and we can make use of them, the same way we make use of migrant workers. We can still be friends with them, even marry them, even though they may take a chunk out of us, every so often. Good old Capitalism will find a way to make a buck off our brain eating buddies. It's a key difference. In most other zombie films the entire point is to kill or be killed. This time the Apocalypse is no match for pop culture, which marches indomitably forth, unstoppable, like the living dead. Even if you cut off its head, it still keeps going; actually it's better if you cut off its head, turns out, it doesn't really need it after all.

Not dead yet

Zombie films aren't dead yet. This year alone we've seen the remake of Dawn of the Dead (released on DVD next week), Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and 28 Days Later. The man who pretty much invented the genre is stepping back into the fray. George A. Romero's Land of the Dead is planned for release on October 21, 2005. Mark your calendar. In Land of the Dead, the zombies having taken over the world. The few people left alive are bunkered down in a walled-in city. Much like contemporary society, the rich folks who can afford to live in safe, secure towers do so and the rest of the humans are scrabbling around like humans do.

But the zombies are changing, getting smarter. Like the spawn of Bub from Day of the Dead, they've retained some spark of smarts. And they want in. The cast is headed by Dennis Hopper. But it also features Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead (strange hey!?), special effects master Tom Savini, and John Leguizamo. Romero is famous for using his films as social criticism, from issues of race in Night of the Living Dead to the Marxist overtones of Dawn to the military bunkered sensibility in Day.

So what does the master have to tell us now? Perhaps, that like Shaun of the Dead, and the other host of undead films that zombies are us. But more than that, soon enough, they'll probably be better than us.

Dorothy Woodend's film reviews appear Fridays on The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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