© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), with its introduction of the concept of “fast” zombies (as opposed to the shambling, “slow” zombies made famous by the films of George Romero) ushered in a whole new era in the making of zombie films, marking both a thematic shift toward faster-moving, more ferocious zombies and a technical shift toward better special effects, enabling the exploration of new territory in the zombie film. It also marked an important step toward the internationalization of zombie films, as the making of such films spread beyond its American roots in the works of directors such as Romero. The subsequent global production of zombie films has also led to further thematic and technical innovations, as in the case of the ultra-violent (but somewhat tongue-in-cheek) Norwegian Nazi-zombie film Dead Snow (2009), or the fast-zombies-on-a-train motif of South Korea’s Train to Busan (2016)—something like Snowpiercer meets 28 Days Later.

28 Days Later also had important British successors, including its own sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007). But perhaps its most important British successor was a film in a very different mode, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004), a film that looked back to the slow, shambling zombies of Romero and to “zom-com” (zombie comedy) predecessors such as the Return of the Living Dead sequence, which began in 1985, the same year that Romero completed his original zombie trilogy with Day of the Dead. That zombie comedies parodying the zombie genre would begin to appear almost as soon as the modern zombie film itself should come as no surprise: the zombie film genre is one that thrives on excess, and films that depend on such excessiveness always need only a slight nudge to tip over into parody. One of the secrets to the remarkable success of Shaun of the Dead, however, is that—despite the hilarity of its very British humor, it is also an effective zombie film in its own right, even without the comedy. Further, as in the case of Romero—whose zombie films comment on a range of issues, including racism, sexism, and consumerism—Shaun also manages some quite effective social satire in the midst of its rather broad comedy.

The stage is set for Shaun’s social commentary in its very opening moments, as we are first introduced to the personal life of the eponymous Shaun (played by Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script with Wright), which turns out to be very much in a rut. In particular, the opening scene is set in Shaun’s favorite hangout, the Winchester pub, where we learn that the Winchester is, in fact, Shaun’s only hangout. His relationship with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is very much in jeopardy because of the humdrum, zombie-like routine that their life together has become, most of their time together being spent in the Winchester with Shaun’s oafish friend Ed (Nick Frost) always hovering over them and Liz’s friends David (Dylan Moran) and Dianne (Lucy Davis) generally present as well. The film then immediately cuts to the opening title sequence, which is a series of shots of bored people going through the mind-numbing motions of their daily lives, standing in checkout lines, mechanically checking their cell phones, or just walking robotically in unison down the street. Many of the people seen in these opening shots will be seen later in the film as zombies, the clear implication being that becoming zombies has changed their lives relatively little. Then this opening sequence is topped off with a shot of the legs and feet of what appears to be a zombie, staggering along, followed by the revelation that we are merely seeing Shaun shambling sleepily through the house he shares with Ed and their more bourgeois friend Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), then settling down on the couch beside his friend to play video games. Ed (whose only income derives from low-level weed-dealing) and Shaun (who works as a salesman in an appliance store) are already zombies of a sort, staggering through their meaningless lives without direction or purpose, other than perhaps to manage to get enough food to live off of.[1] Indeed, the human characters of this film are so similar to the zombies that, when the zombie outbreak first occurs, it takes Shaun quite a while to realize it, because most of the zombies he encounters are not acting all that differently from the way they did as humans. Meanwhile, later, when Shaun, Ed, and their group must make their way through a horde of zombies to reach the supposed safety of the Winchester, they do so by pretending to be zombies themselves, a ruse that turns out to be quite successful, despite the fact that (with the exception of Shaun) they all seem to be really bad at the impersonation. Shaun’s mother doesn’t even manage to act at all—and still pulls it off.

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Shaun and the gang pretend to be zombies.

Pegg explained the allegorical significance of Shaun of the Dead to interviewer Andrew Gronvall:

“The thing about the zombie as a movie monster is that it’s an all-purpose allegory for ourselves. … The zombie is an enduring figure for uses in allegory. In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, they are conceived as literally consumers. Romero took Descarte’s philosophy to the shopping mall: “I think therefore I am” becomes “I am, therefore I shop.” … In our film, if they’re anything, they stand in for apathy, and urban living, and becoming, as you said, an anonymous automaton in a collective, where you don’t have any identity other than as a member of a gang. They’re human beings who are just a little bit different. [Zombies are] just us. They’re us, reduced to our most basic. And also, of course, they are the literal, living embodiment of our greatest fear, which is death—they are walking death.”

The observation that the zombies of the film are just literalized, defamiliarized versions of the walking dead that all of us already are every day contains nothing especially striking or new. One need only to recall T.S. Eliot’s vision of London as a city of the walking dead in The Waste Land (1922) to realize that this same insight has been applied to the modern consumer capitalist world ever since it sprang into being at the beginning of the twentieth century. What is special about Shaun of the Dead is not the originality or profundity of its insights into the modern world and its use of the zombie as a metaphor for life in that world. What is special is the fact that it is able to deliver that message in a way that is both striking and, at the same time, leavened with humor, thus potentially making audiences more receptive to the message.

There is, however, a serious point to be made by the humor itself. For one thing, the primary kind of humor that is employed is a form of postmodern pastiche. Shaun of the Dead has a great deal of fun with the conventions of the zombie genre. However, unlike pure genre spoofs such as Young Frankenstein (1974) or the recent What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which employ exaggerated versions of genre conventions strictly for laughs, Shaun maintains a much more complex relationship with its genre, as it seeks to be an effective zombie movie and a send-up of the zombie genre at the same time. In this sense, it is very much a postmodern nostalgia film, in the mode discussed by Jameson with regard to phenomena such as the resurrection of film noir in neo-noir films such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), which self-consciously call attention to their roots in the noir tradition while also going beyond that tradition. For Jameson, in such films

“our awareness of the preexistence of other versions … is now a constitutive and essential part of the film’s structure; we are now, in other words, in “intertextuality” as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as the operator of a new connotation of “pastness” and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces “real” history” (Postmodernism 20).

Shaun of the Dead repeatedly calls attention to the fact that it replicates many motifs from earlier zombie films, especially those of Romero. However, at first glance, the status of Shaun of the Dead as a stylized representation of a more general cultural and/or historical past is not immediately clear—at least not, for example, in the way that the recent zombie spoof Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) resurrects the beginning of the nineteenth century in England, not through any attempt at historical authenticity but through a parody of Jane Austen’s original 1813 novel, used here precisely because it is a well-known classic of its period and because of the incongruity of its juxtaposition with the zombie genre. However, Shaun of the Dead does employ a very postmodern technique of referencing its predecessors not so much through directly naming them as through employing a variety of images and motifs the sources of which are well-enough known that the filmmakers can assume that their viewers will recognize these sources and take a certain pleasure in this recognition. This mode is, of course, precisely the one referred to by Jameson as pastiche, which is for him a kind of “blank” parody that consciously adopts the styles of various predecessors without any intention of commenting on those predecessors or revising our assessment of them (Postmodernism 17).

Pastiche is also a matter of replicating the conventions of previous genres, and Shaun is also very postmodern in the way it liberally intermixes the conventions of various well-known genres. Far from sticking to the typical zombie script, Shaun contains the elements of several other genres, including the buddy comedy, the slacker film, and the relationship comedy, any one of which might have developed into a successful film of its own, even without the zombie elements. Indeed, Shaun seems to pick elements from different genres as if off of a cafeteria menu, very much as I have elsewhere noted (drawing upon Jameson) the “tendency for contemporary artists to regard the styles of the past as a sort of aesthetic cafeteria from whose menu they can nostalgically pick and choose without concern for the historical context in which those styles originally arose” (Postmodern Hollywood xvi).

The stylistic similarity of Shaun’s zombies to those in Romero’s zombie films is quite striking—so much so that Romero had Pegg and Wright appear in cameo roles as zombies in Land of the Dead (2005), the relatively high-budget zombie film he made immediately after Shaun of the Dead.But Shaun calls attention to its predecessors in a variety of more subtle ways as well. As Shaun walks to work at his boring, dead-end job, the ambient sound includes a radio report announcing that a deep space probe returning to earth has unexpectedly entered the atmosphere over southeast England. The implication, in context, would seem to be that some sort of radiation or contagion carried by this spacecraft might be the source of the film’s zombie outbreak, though the actual cause is never determined (and the film goes out of its way to call attention to this fact). The reference here would seem to be to Romero’s breakthrough film Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which radiation from a spacecraft returning from Venus is suggested (but never verified) as the cause of the zombie outbreak in that film. Such nods to predecessors in the zombie genre are sprinkled throughout Shaun of the Dead—many of the them (such as this allusion to Night of the Living Dead) without any particular comedic or parodic intent. The film clearly wants to announce its participation in the zombie film tradition, though largely in the American Romero tradition, rather than the British tradition initiated by 28 Days Later. Indeed, the most sardonic allusion to earlier zombie films is to Boyle’s film: near the end of Shaun of the Dead, Shaun and Liz, now settled into post-zombie domestic bliss, watch a television report that announces that “claims that the virus was caused by rage-infected monkeys have now been dismissed as bol …” Liz switches off the set before the announcer can complete the word “bollocks,” but the playful suggestion that the idea of a zombie outbreak being triggered in such a way is nonsense is a clear reference to the then-recent 28 Days Later, in which the source of all the trouble is indeed a chimpanzee infected with a rage-inducing virus.

But Shaun derives almost as much from various comic traditions as from the zombie tradition. Roger Ebert notes that, instead of counting on the inherent comic potential of zombies, Shaun of the Dead derives its humor from treating “the living characters as sitcom regulars whose conflicts and arguments keep getting interrupted by annoying flesh-eaters.” Clearly, Ebert is onto something here, and one can easily imagine the comedy of Shaun of the Dead arising from the fact that the zombies of the film seem to have stumbled into another genre altogether, whether it be the slacker film, the buddy film, or the relationship film—elements of all of which can clearly be found in Shaun of the Dead. One can, indeed, imagine a similar comic effect occurring were zombies (actual zombies, not friends of the characters dressed in costumes) to wander into an episode of Cheers or Friends and then to start attacking the principals.

What Shaun of the Dead is really like, of course, is what might happen were zombies to wander into an episode of Spaced (1999–2001), the British television sitcom directed by Wright and created and written by Pegg and Jessica Stevenson (the latter two of whom also star in the series). The central characters of Spaced, Pegg’s Tim and Stevenson’s Daisy, are directionless, underachieving twenty-somethings who might fit in very well with Shaun and Ed and their crowd. Spaced also features Frost as the best friend of Pegg’s character, thus anticipating their relationship in Shaun. In the third episode of the first season of Spaced, Tim even become immersed in a video game in which he is killing zombies. Meanwhile, Shaun is particularly reminiscent of Spaced in the way both employ so many references to previous cultural artefacts, including films, television series, and video games, while drawing upon a variety of genres and employing a relatively intrusive editing style.

In their pitch for Spaced, Pegg and Stevenson reportedly described it as a cross between The Simpsons, The X-Files, and Northern Exposure (Lee). Spaced, in short, mixes genres very much in the way Shaun subsequently would do.This mixture of genres surely gives Shaun of the Dead much of its special flavor[2], but it also participates in a whole series of boundary-crossings in the film, the most important of which is the deconstruction of the polar opposition between the living and the undead. And this deconstruction itself serves multiple functions, in addition to the obvious one of pointing toward the walking death that life under modern consumer capitalism can entail. In particular, the hobbling, deformed, physically grotesque zombies would at first glance almost seem to be walking embodiments of disability, and one could certainly argue that zombie movies derive their emotional charge not just from a fear of death on the part of viewers, but also from a fear of becoming grotesquely disabled.

One could, of course, say the same thing about horror films in general. It is not for nothing that James Whale was so easily able to convince audiences of Frankenstein (1931) or Bride of Frankenstein (1935) to identify so completely with his misshapen monster (a sort of zombie in his own right)—or that the “one of us” chant of the eponymous characters in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) is so chilling and so well remembered. Zombie films, however, have a special significance in this regard in that it is generallylikely that viewers will identify with the zombies only in the negative sense of not wanting to be like them, rather than rooting for individual zombies, especially as zombies tend to exist as an undifferentiated mass with virtually no distinct individual identities. As Jamie McDaniel, has noted, zombie films are thus especially in danger of falling into “the horror genre’s tradition of reinforcing a cultural association between disability and deviance” (423). For McDaniel, however, Shaun of the Dead joins Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005) as films that use “the zombie figure to critique the ways that ableism becomes embedded in the cinematic language of the horror genre,” thereby examining “the process through which elements of abledness become normalized,” a process that “weakens negative stereotypes by shifting attention from the person with a disability or the disability itself and redirecting it toward the strategies defining the standards of an ideal, nondeviant, and ableist body” (425).

By aiming most of its humor at the human characters, rather than the zombies, Shaun of the Dead performs precisely the kind of shift in attention of which McDaniel speaks. Moreover, in conjunction with its dismantling of the traditional distinction between able and disabled,  Shaun deconstructs a number of other cinematic stereotypes as well. In particular, Shaun redefines the notion of movie heroism. Shaun, very clearly the film’s central character, is anything but a conventional hero. Lynn Pifer, in fact, has described Shaun as “the anti-Rambo” (164). Shaun does, to an extent, transcend his initial status as slacker and underachiever when he assumes a leadership role—Ed accuses him of appointing himself “king of the zombies”—in trying to bring his circle of friends to safety. However, it is also worth pointing out that Shaun is largely unsuccessful, despite his own ultimate survival. He is largely ineffectual in his battle against the zombies and has essentially nothing to do with the ultimate victory of the humans. By the end of the film, meanwhile, all of the members of his group have been converted into zombies (some subsequently being destroyed by Shaun himself), except for Liz and Shaun.

As Isra Daraiseh and I have argued in Consumerist Orientalism (speaking specifically of Westerns) traditional movie heroism is fundamentally based on a binary logic of self vs. other, with the hero playing the role of “self” and his antagonists figured as “others.” One might say the same thing about monster films, where the humans occupy the “self” pole and the monsters occupy the “other” pole. Zombies, though, are often uncomfortably similar to humans, which destabilizes this opposition to some extent. This destabilization is especially clear in the case of Shaun of the Dead, as I have noted above. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that this film would deconstruct the usual logic of movie heroism as well. However, this phenomenon is more complex than it might first appear. Shaun is not merely an anti-hero, but he is an anti-hero in a particularly unconventional way. One might expect that, in the face of danger, Shaun would rise to the occasion, throw off his earlier slackerdom, and save the day. In point of fact (and this is the secret to much of the humor in the film), Shaun remains fairly consistent throughout the film, even as conditions around him change dramatically. As the film opens, Liz’s main complaints about Shaun are that he never wants to do anything but go to the Winchester and that he always takes Ed along with him. His reaction to the zombie outbreak? Head to the Winchester and take Ed along with him. As Pifer puts it, he comes up with “the ultimate slacker plan: gather those he loves and head to his favorite pub” (167).

Even at the end of the film, while Shaun might seem to have moved to a new stage in his new life with Liz (signaled by their redecorated and much more “civilized” home), we find that little has changed there as well. In the film’s final scene, Shaun goes out to the shed behind the house, where we discover that he is keeping zombie Ed, chained in place. (We might recall that earlier in the film, even before the zombie outbreak, Pete had suggested that Ed should probably live in the shed.) Ed is perfectly happy, though: he has a chair and a video game setup, so he can play video games all he wants—which is pretty much all he ever wanted to do in the first place. Shaun then settles in beside him and they begin to play video games together, just like old times. Indeed, while Ed now seems to have been marginalized and contained, Shaun’s obvious happiness at joining Ed in the shed suggests that this is still his favorite pastime. None of this, however, is figured as a loss. Shaun is going nowhere as the film begins and he has gotten nowhere as the film ends. And that is just how he likes it.

Importantly, though, it is not just Shaun and Ed who have essentially remained unchanged by all that has happened in the film. After Shaun and Liz are saved, the film cuts six months into the future as we are treated to clips from a television program entitled Zombies from Hell that looks back on what is now called “Z-Day.” For one thing, the very existence of this exploitative program comments on the postmodern tendency to convert any and all events into entertainment spectacles—and even to label them with catchy, media-oriented titles, or brand-names, such as “Z-Day.” The program is thus a key example of the phenomenon noted by Guy Debord and the situationist movement, in which contemporary life, according Jameson’s summation of the insights of Debord, is centrally informed by “a whole historically original consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and ‘spectacles’” (Jameson, Postmodernism 18). This program notes, among other things that “the fact that the mobile deceased retained their primal instincts makes them ideal recruitment for the service industry,” as we see “tamed” zombies working at jobs such as gathering shopping carts at the same supermarket we saw in the film’s opening moments. Then we see a clip from an exploitative game show which extends the spectacle effect of Z-Day by employing zombies as much-abusedcontestants for the entertainment of sadistic viewers, further illustrating their usefulness in the new post-outbreak world. But, of course, similar game shows were already popular before the outbreak, and mind-numbing jobs such as collecting shopping carts already existed as well. Again, nothing significant seems to have changed.

The zombie genre is, of course, perfect as an elaboration of Debord’s “society of the spectacle.” It is, after all, the most public of all horror genres, the propagation of zombies proceeding rapidly, like the outburst of a flash mob, from genesis to spectacle. Vampires, ghosts, and even slashers tend to operate in private, specializing in one-on-one attacks out of the public eye. Zombies, on the other hand, operate in crowds—in the streets and in shopping malls. The zombies of Shaun do very much the same, except that, by combining the zombie genre with more intimate and private genres such as the buddy film and the romantic comedy, Shaun at least gives us a tiny peek at aspects of life that are based on authentic interpersonal connections and not on public spectacles.

To an extent, one would expect this lack of change in a work that is as obviously postmodern as is Shaun of the Dead. After all, one of Jameson’s central points about the postmodern imagination is that it involves the loss of the kind of genuine historical sense that would enable one to envision a future that is fundamentally different from the present. Importantly, Jameson has specifically applied this insight to the recent prominence of the postapocalyptic genre, of which many zombie films can be seen to constitute an important subgenre. In his essay “Future City,” Jameson argues that the postmodern loss of historical sense makes it difficult to imagine a historical process that moves into a future that is fundamentally different from the present. As a result, the only way to imagine such fundamental change is through a vision of an apocalyptic event that wipes out civilization altogether. Or, as Jameson puts it, “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world” (76).

Shaun of the Dead, of course, imagines neither the end of the world nor the end of capitalism, because the zombie outburst ends abruptly: just as Shaun and Liz seem hopelessly surrounded by zombies, the British military arrives with overwhelming force and easily smashes the relatively defenseless zombies. The film then immediately cuts to Zombies from Hell, which already looks back on the zombie event as a thing of the past.This deus ex machina ending should not, however, be taken as a conservative celebration of the military or of a demonstration of why strong military forces are needed in the postmodern world. If anything, it is the opposite: a suggestion that arguments for the maintenance of a strong military are based on the imagination of threats (such as the possibility of a zombie apocalypse) that do not actually exist. But this ending is not really about the military at all; it is about movie endings in general. Happy Hollywood endings, of course, have been widely critiqued, and the ending of Shaun—to the extent that it can be read as a conventional romantic comedy in which all obstacles are overcome so that the two lovers can wind up together—can be taken as a parodic recreation of such endings.

To the extent that Shaun is a zombie film, however, this ending functions rather differently. Zombie films quite often end either in uncertainty or in an apparent zombie triumph. One thinks of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in which Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy seem to have overcome all obstacles to their romantic union, only to discover that they are walking into the teeth of a whole new zombie army as the film ends. Even more relevant is Train to Busan, in which most of the military forces called out to quell the zombie uprising become infected and thus join the zombies in their attacks on humans, apparently leaving the humans in charge of only one small much-embattled enclave. And, of course, Romero was able to make one zombie film after another precisely because the zombies were so difficult definitively to put down.

Shaun might thus be seen as an example of the final and total collapse of the postmodern historical imagination, in which it is impossible to imagine even an apocalypse leading to anything fundamentally different from the present. And that would be true if not for the fact that Shaun is such a self-conscious and self-parodic film, a fact that completely flips this meaning so that the film becomes not the ultimate example of loss of historical imagination but in fact a critique of that loss in general. That Shaun is perfectly aware of its own failure to envision a different future for its characters or for society in general would seem to be a positive step. That it fails to attempt to overcome this failure my creating its own vision of a genuinely different future might be attributed both to the difficulty of that task and to the fact that Shaun is simply not that kind of film—though of course those kinds of films are hard to find. Jameson goes on to note that certain works of science fiction[3] do seem to have the potential to “jumpstart the sense of history so that it begins again to transmit feeble signals of time, of otherness, of change, of Utopia” (“Future City” 76). It remains to be seen whether some as yet unimagined and unforeseen breakthrough in popular culture will perform that process of “jumpstarting” on a broader scale. Shaun of the Dead is not that breakthrough, yet it does more to delineate the barrier that needs to be broken through than almost any high-budget “serious” film one could name.


[1] It should be noted, however, that the social satire of Shaun of the Dead goes well beyond a send-up of the directionlessness of youthful slackers such as Shaun and Ed. For example, Shaun’s mother (Penelope Wilton) and stepfather (Bill Nighy), paragons of British bourgeois conformity, cluelessly maintain that stance even in the face of a zombie apocalypse, never wavering (until their final ends) from the devotion to the proper. It is as if they are running on automatic pilot, so programmed to obey certain social conventions that they are unable to deviate from their programming, even in an extreme crisis. Pete, Ed and Shaun’s more bourgeois friend, is similarly programmed.

[2] It should also be noted that Shaun of the Dead was the first in a three-film exercise in genre filmmaking directed by Wright and written by Wright and Pegg, the latter of whom stars in all three films. Collectively known as the “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy”—because each film features a different flavor of Cornetto ice cream—each also features a different flavor of pop culture, as each belongs to a different popular genre. In addition to Shaun, these films include Hot Fuzz (2007), a cop film, and The World’s End (2013), an alien invasion film.

[3] Jameson mentions certain kinds of architecture—as well as the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, and J. G. Ballard—as participating in this project, but—perhaps significantly—mentions no films.