Welcome to Polygon's 13 Days of Halloween series! Between Oct. 19 and Oct. 31, Polygon will publish 13 opinion pieces about different films, shows and specials that exemplify what Halloween means to us. Whether that's the scariest movies you haven't seen yet or a look at a popular Treehouse of Horror episode, this is our tribute to the world of the strange, creepy and downright horrifying that exists within popular culture.
Shaun of the Dead could be the perfect movie.
While it's a satire of the romantic comedy genre housed in a zombie film, the movie proves that the zombie genre has the capacity to support ALL genres. In an hour and 40 minutes, Shaun of the Dead confirms it can be a romantic comedy, satire, zombie film, buddy comedy, action film, tragedy, tale of redemption and the start of a trilogy.
That's what makes it such a great film: for over a decade, the zombie genre has felt one note. Consider the Resident Evil films that have been strictly big budget action movies since the first one premiered in 2002. Or The Walking Dead television show that's continued AMC's trend of intense emotional dramas since 2010. Both are fine at what they do, the latter being a massive cultural phenomenon, but neither stretches beyond their boundaries. They're both good examples of what the core ideas of the zombie genre can do when you push them to their limits, but neither worries about seeing what's possible if you ignore those limits entirely.
Shaun of the Dead looks at the list of genres available to a film and decided to check off as many as it could. At its core, it's a satire of the romantic comedy genre, nestled within a zombie film aesthetic. Its action scenes are both harrowing and creative, its humor is uniquely British but universally palatable and while the majority of its cast are comic actors, they take the movie's script and explore the full range of human emotions.
Shaun of the Dead proves that the zombie genre can be the vehicle for all sorts of films. To see how it succeeds at that, it's helpful to see how well it pulls off being a zombie movie first.
Shaun of the Dead as a zombie film
There's no doubt that Shaun of the Dead is an homage to the zombie film classics that George A. Romero pioneered.
In fact, in the DVD extras of Shaun of the Dead, the film's lead actor, Simon Pegg confirmed that prior to releasing the film, he and director Edgar Wright sought out Romero's approval and blessing before releasing the film. Of course he said yes.
Much of the film carries the tropes of the zombie genre. A scene very early on in the film shows the title character watching TV and learning of the news of vicious attacks on his fellow Londoners. The news confirms that the bodies of the dead are attacking and consuming the flesh of the living. Like many zombie films set in modern times, the newscasters suggest staying in doors and letting the authorities and military handle the threat. Of course, like most zombie movies, Shaun disregards this advice. He devises a plan to not only protect himself, but to win back his ex-girlfriend, who broke up with him right before the zombie outbreak occurred.
Much of the film carries the tropes of the zombie genre.
Once the movie picks up pace, it utilizes a handful of zombie genre basics: a slow moving zombie horde to establish the main threat, a fearful journey to bring loved ones to safety and the essential need to find a stronghold to protect themselves from the zombie threat until it blows over. In between the opening and closing credits, other hallmarks of the zombie genre are used: the introduction of an annoying secondary character who hates the main characters and dies as a zombie offering some catharsis for the protagonists, important characters dying as a means to push the emotional plot and growth of our heroes and some wholesale slapstick violence thrown in for good measure.
These elements alone would make Shaun of the Dead a serviceable zombie film. But it's how the movie weaves elements of other films into it that makes it such a treat to watch. And the zombie genre has always been good at this. If you look at Romero's films, they run the gamut of tone: Night of the Living Dead touched upon civil rights, Dawn of the Dead was a satire on consumer culture and Day of the Dead is statement on the institutions of military and science. Even today, you could argue that our current obsession with zombies comes from an innate desire to move away from the digital media saturated lives we live.
With this in mind, can Shaun of the Dead do double duty and be a competent romantic comedy too? Absolutely.
Shaun of the Dead as a romantic comedy
The romantic comedy is a straightforward genre that survives on how it can insert itself into various, complicated situations.
So when Shaun hopes to win back his partner Liz in the middle of a zombie outbreak, the combination of genres ends up being an emotional whirlwind: Fear mixes with humor and laughs are used to transition out of dramatic scenes. Shaun's desire to be with his partner again is amplified by the sense of urgency in trying to secure her safety first. He has to not only fight through the emotional barriers their breakup caused, but also the zombie-filled streets of London. The fictional, undead horrors are placed side by side with real life relationship drama, giving the film a sense of realism that gives the humor a strong place to live.
Past arguments are turned into witty callbacks later in the film, missteps in communication are turned into sad jokes and moments of self-pity are turned into drunken, funny scenes. Tragedy and comedy have always been bedfellows. And Shaun of the Dead keeps them working in concert the whole film.
Most male leads in romantic comedies are built like Shaun
This is something I've always related to. While I've never had to fight through a zombie horde myself, I've always connected with the film and Shaun's everyman personality. Most male leads in romantic comedies are built like Shaun. They are lovable guys with their heart in the right place but they all carry some fundamental flaw that's keeping them away from true love. In Shaun's case, it's his inability to grow up and be responsible. Having been in a similar relationship in my life (without the zombies), I know the toll it takes on you and your partner. Looking at yourself and deciding to grow and be better is a tough personal challenge. It makes you question whether you're up to the task and sometimes, it does take a large catalyst to move forward and prove you can be a better person.
Shaun of the Dead carries a lot on its shoulders. As a zombie film, it excels. As a romantic comedy, it's heartfelt without being heavy-handed. But the film isn't content at stopping there.
Shaun of the Dead as other genres
Amidst the film's ability to act as a zombie film and romantic comedy, it also contains elements of other beloved film genres.
Shaun and Ed's relationship is a great example of the buddy comedy. The essence of the buddy comedy is playing up the differences and/or similarities between two actors. Shaun and Ed's relationship is tested when Ed's solutions all revolve around ideas that were the reasons why Liz split with Shaun, so Shaun recognizes his need to grow to prove to Liz that he can change. Ed's inability to change stresses his relationship with his best friend and in the end, Ed makes a powerful sacrifice to ensure Shaun can end his story as a hero. Their relationship houses plenty of moments of cooperation, humor, conflict and growth. Shaun and Ed's relationship is just as important as Shaun and Liz's – and it's a hilarious one.
On top of that, Shaun of the Dead packs in some great action scenes mixed with iconic music (like the fight scene set to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now"), tragedy as Shaun witnesses his step-father, mother and best friend die, a full hero's journey and the start of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy of films.
Shaun of the Dead is a film that can be enjoyed in dozens of ways. It will certainly make you laugh, it might make you cry and it will always have plenty of tricks up its sleeve for you to love. It mixes enough essential elements of various movie types to keep the film fresh from minute to minute. It's at times hilarious, scary, sad and romantic.
Each scene is memorable, instantly quotable and it has a killer soundtrack. It's both my favorite Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright movie and definitely my favorite zombie film and romantic comedy.
It's a slice of fried gold.