After two seasons of their critically acclaimed TV series, Spaced, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright were hardly household names, even in their native England. The show, created and written by Pegg and Jessica Hynes, and entirely directed by Wright, is a mishmash of Gen-X cultural signifiers and movie fandom that came about at a time when nerd culture was only just taking shape as its own subset of pop culture. So when most of the team behind the show announced they would be creating a horror-comedy homage to the zombie films of George Romero, it seemed preordained, but no one could have been prepared for the shuffling, bloody masterpiece that is Shaun of the Dead.
Horror comedies aren’t the most unwieldy hybrid film, but they’re very difficult to get right tonally. They need to work as both a horror film and a comedy while not straying too far from either genre. This requires two things: a wide swath of knowledge concerning the history of both genres — something we already knew the Spaced alums had in abundance — and, more importantly, a respect for the horror genre. There’s a reason the Scary Movie franchise aged like a fart in a hot car, and that’s because it doesn’t have any respect for its subject matter. To have respect for horror, one needs to understand what makes horror compelling; the characters, their wants and desires, and their reasons to keep living. In other words, the heart of the film is the hearts of the characters themselves, even as those hearts are being ripped out by the living dead.
Shaun of the Dead follows the title character as he fights his way through a zombie outbreak to win back the love of his estranged girlfriend and reconcile his own shortcomings with his desire to be the person he truly thinks he can be if only given the chance. The Romero films famously critique consumerism in America; Shaun of the Dead takes a similar route, portraying the never-ending cycle of wage-death that has befallen Generation X in the early aughts. The first and second day of its story are literal mirror images of each other, showing Pegg’s character going through the motions of his life even as the world collapses into chaos around him. His urge to survive isn’t just by instinct or self-interest. It’s so he can finally become the leader he knows he could be, even as those he’s trying to save doubt his every move.
Not enough is said of male friendships in cinema (the word “bromance” should be banned in every country) and how it can inform the heart and spine of a story. Shaun (Pegg) and Ed (Frost) have been friends since college, and while Shaun’s depressing job at an appliance store is pretty bleak, Ed still lives on Shaun’s couch, smoking weed and playing Xbox, to the consternation and exasperation of Shaun’s roommate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz). Despite this, Shaun loves his friend Ed and defends him from Pete’s aggression at every turn. Why does he defend him so much? Because despite his shortcomings, Ed would literally die for Shaun, and as the horror breaks out in this film, this turns from an empty gesture to a heartbreaking reality. When Ed dies at the hands and teeth of the zombie horde, your heart breaks for him and for Shaun, because the love they had was palpable, and the lengths they would go to help their friend were endless.
Shaun’s mother and stepfather (Penelope Wilton and a note-perfect Bill Nighy) are also key to his journey from deadbeat son to zombie killing leader. His mother, spurned for years by Shaun for remarrying after his father died, gives him nothing but love and encouragement. His stepfather, an analog of the boomer generation, obviously thinks Shaun is another Gen-X fuck up, just like Shaun’s newly departed girlfriend does. He’s forgetful, selfish, lazy, and disrespectful of his elders. This is why Shaun wants to convince them to come with him and his idiot friend and get his ex-girlfriend and hide out in a pub. He may be lazy, forgetful, selfish, and immature, but he knows what to do in a zombie outbreak, and he knows what’s best for his family. Shaun’s love for his friends, his girlfriend, and yes, even his grumpy stepfather, overcome his selfishness. Much like the proverbial mother lifting the car off her young child, it takes an incredible circumstance for Shaun to find his strength.
After it all shakes out, most of Shaun’s family and friends find their end in the Winchester Pub, but not for lack of trying. Shaun does everything in his limited power and expertise to save them, and though it isn’t enough to save all of them, he does prove to his girlfriend and himself that he can think of other people before himself. And every character, before they meet their demise, expresses love for someone. Even Philip, Shaun’s stepfather, in his dying words, tells Shaun all he wanted was for him to be someone Shaun could look up to. Though Shaun’s plan has high casualties, his push to become the kind of person no one believes him capable of becoming couldn’t have happened without the love he has for his family and friends, and the love they show him back.
The trappings of horror generally tend toward the macabre. Blood. Gore. A clammy hand-raising out of newly packed soil. The things that keep our attention with horror, though, are those closest to our hearts. Family. Survival. Change. Shaun of the Dead knows that to make an effective horror-comedy, the laughs and the blood need to be in abundance, but before you kill anyone, you have to care about them first.