Moving Pictures
Apr 04, 2024, 06:25AM

Shaun of the Dead Staggers on in the Current Zombie Apocalypse

Edgar Wright’s masterpiece is more relevant than ever.

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Twenty years after its release, Shaun of the Dead remains a joyfully silly showcase for director Edgar Wright’s hyperkinetic visual style. It’s also unsettlingly prescient about our ineffectuality and inertia in the face of apocalypse, and about how, given chance, humans will rush to devour each other.

Zombie films since George Romero are always about how the enemy is us. But Wright takes it to a brilliant extreme. Shaun (co-writer Simon Pegg) is a 29-year-old television salesman in a dead-end job whose girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) has just dumped him for his chronic lack of ambition. He does little but wander in a semi-stupor from his home to the convenience store and back to his permanent houseguest/awful farting roommate Ed (Nick Frost).

With no prospects, no interests, no goals, and barely any personality, Shaun, Ed, and everyone in the shabby London they inhabit are barely alive, which is part of why they almost don’t notice when the zombie apocalypse turns up and transforms their shuffling neighbors into shuffling undead. Wright uses jump cuts to emphasize every non-event in Shaun’s day—brushing teeth, pouring coffee spreading jam on toast—because the mundanity is the terror. Going into work every morning is as nightmarish as a zombie attack, to the extent you can even tell the two apart.

The gag was solid in 2004. Now, in 2024, the bite sinks deeper. Obviously, it’s hard not to think of Covid when you watch Shaun (and not just Shaun) ignore official pleas to quarantine and instead rush out to try to find and save Liz and his mother. People’s general refusal to believe there’s really a danger until it’s far too late also feels familiar. Philip (Bill Nighy), Shaun’s stepfather, keeps insisting that the zombies are just pill-addled gang members and that everyone is blowing the danger out of proportion even as they’re chased through the streets by the slavering dead. Ed takes a phone call and chats about where to find weed while the protagonists are surrounded and facing certain death. People’s petty day-to-day zombieness, and their desire for things to be just normal zombie awful, prevents them from dealing with the actual zombie apocalypse, even as they watch each other get murdered.

The coronavirus isn’t the only end of the world the bemused ineffectuality of Shaun and company brings to mind. The zombies creeping up on Shaun as he yawns and slips in blood could be the climate crisis. You get so focused on catching the bus you don’t notice the waters, and the temperature rising.

Or for an American audience, the zombies could as easily be those MAGA Christofascist rally-goers, looking with bleary hate for someone to do unto. Blink and suddenly your neighbors, and perhaps your aging Fox-News-watching parents, have turned into ravening husks of themselves, eager for murder and the end times. The metaphor feels more apropos when the non-zombies turn on each other, using the crisis to re-open old wounds and settle scores. Instead of uniting against the common enemy, everyone hopes that the monster will eat that guy next to you who you’re always hated.

The one place where the film is dated is the ending. The zombies don’t win; instead, the improbably competent military shows up and wipes out the enemy without taking down any civilians (in noted contrast to Night of the Living Dead). Shaun and Liz settle into a boring domestic bliss which is welcome after a taste of too much excitement. Ed, now a zombie, is chained up in the shed out back playing video games and slowly rotting, living his death much as he lived his life. Other left-over living dead are conscripted into service industry jobs or used as contestants in reality television shows. All is well in the end, Wright assures us—or at least, the movie thinks that the zombie apocalypse of tomorrow won’t be all that different from the zombie apocalypse of yesterday.

I hope Wright is correct about that, or that we can hope for something better than living death at some point. Shaun of the Dead will still be great in 2025, or in 2044. I wish I was as certain about life for the rest of us zombies.


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