Shaun of the Dead can be called a zombie movie, but it’s mostly satire of a zombie movie. Still what makes a zombie movie a zombie movie?
Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright wrote the script for the movie based on their mutual enjoyment of zombie movies and based it mostly on the George Romero’s Living Dead series. There are tons of zombie movies and while each type of zombie is a bit different, the basic idea is the same: reanimated corpses, (mostly) slow, and killed by destroying the brain. So we’ve defined the basic zombie, but what about the zombie film?
Well, I believe the most basic question is: what’s a spoof/satire of a film genre? Spoof is parody, according to Wikipedia, and Merriam-Webster defines a parody as “a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule”. This means that in order to really laugh at a work or genre, it must be as close as possible to different aspects in that genre. So by this definition, and Chandler’s idea that “a genre in any medium can be seen as embodying certain values and ideological assumptions”, we can start by dissecting the idea of a zombie film.
The reason Romero made the Living Dead series was not only to make horror, but also to tell a parable of human existence. For example, Diary of the Dead was produced in an era where the world is just discovering the freedom of alternative media, such as blogging and YouTube, in ways like Tweeters are doing in Iran at this time. The government’s covering up the zombie epidemic, but the Internet is awash with some truth, some speculation, and some insanity. So George Romero seeks to discuss different issues as they come up and in which era, which fits Chandler’s beliefs of genre. The zombie movie seems not just about scares, but also a bit of sociopolitical commentary… well, at least the good ones are.
Right… now to the subject at hand: if Shaun of the Dead is a zombie film parody, then it should be fairly close to the zombie film genre.
- So we start off analyzing the zombies, which are essentially the main actors; they’re not intelligent, killed by destroying the brain, and terribly slow. Because as Simon Pegg remarked, “Death is not an energy drink”; so these zombies fit the bill.
- It must be some sort of epidemic, where zombies overrun all of civilization, and it does seem that way (except the ending, but then again this is a parody). Zombies are seen everywhere, especially locked rooms to quarantine the infected (a reference to Dawn of the Dead). In Shaun of the Dead, we find the undead locked in a back room of a pub as a measure of quarantine.
- The survivors seek refuge in some sanctuary against the tide of the undead. Which they do in Shaun… in a pub because someone needs to smoke.
- Why there’s an epidemic is due to the fact that people turn into zombies from being bitten by a member of the undead, provided that their brains haven’t been obliterated, then dying from infection. Many people have become zombies in this film – no question about it. I believe someone in the remake of Dawn of the Dead said it best: “[They’re dead] in the sense that they all sort of, uh... fell down... and then got up... and started eating each other.”
- Zombies are not called zombies, or no one says the z word. The cause of the zombie invasion is never mentioned, either. Ed, who calls them zombies, breaks this rule; causing Shaun to say, “Don’t say that!” And where the zombies came from is hush-hush.
- There is a group of people who are slowly whittled down to two or three people, usually a male and female, supported by nearly all the George Romero movies and several “generic” genre pieces (e.g. Night of the Living Dead). This occurs (somewhat) in Shaun of the Dead where the last two survivors are a guy and girl, Shaun and his ex.
- At least one loved one will receive a mercy killing usually after they’ve turned into a zombie (e.g. Dawn of the Dead). In this case, Shaun’s mom had her zombie brains blown all over some bar furniture.
- At least one person, usually an annoying person, will be vivisected or eaten to death by a horde of zombies (e.g. Dawn of the Dead). In this case, David is casually ripped into edible chunks by the rampaging horde.
- The climax of the film usually involves zombies breaking into the sanctuary either due to human stupidity or the sheer number of the undead. In Shaun, they break into said pub because the number of zombies just multiplied exponentially. This is usually where the survivors are killed off (well, they can’t be called survivors anymore, can they?) one by one because there’s simply nowhere to run.
Finally, it must be said that Shaun of the Dead does comment on social issues, even if the message in itself is just a rehash of Romero’s beliefs that mankind has become zombified and lives day to day in routine. Shaun so illustrates this in the beginning of the film where he is shown to follow the routine and somehow gets zombies to believe he is one of their own. (There’s a cool scene where the group tricks the zombies into believing they’re zombies by acting like zombies; I don’t think Romero zombies are THAT dumb.)
Shaun of the Dead could fit into disaster, action, comedy, or drama based on what you look for as well. But since we’re examining whether Shaun of the Dead is a zombie movie, then it mostly fits the bill. However, since Chandler also states that “film theorists frequently refer to popular films as 'genre films' in contrast to 'non-formula films'”. Shaun of the Dead is a popular film; so popular it might garner cult film status. Nevertheless, the genre may just be defined by its worst elements. (House of the Dead, anyone?) It seems, then, that Shaun of the Dead is just a very good zombie film.