Just as the fire department tells us we should rehearse what we’d do in case of fire (planning escape routes, designating a safe meeting place), disaster movies do us the psychological service of forcing a quick march through “the worst that could happen.” At the end we see that you win a few, you lose a few, some cars are up in trees, and only the most attractive of the young people have survived. This should have the effect of sending us straight from the theaters to our Stairmasters, but instead we head straight for the comfort food, judging by the looks of the crowd that shows up at the next disaster movie. We can’t say they didn’t warn us.
In Shaun of the Dead, a witty new British comedy, we’d surely end up part of that ever-increasing portion of the cast that shuffles stiff-legged, arms stretched forward, moaning for a bit of human flesh. They populate the edges of scenes only slowly, and the audience notes that something serious appears to be going wrong long before the lead character, Shaun (Simon Pegg), does.
Shaun is more concerned about Liz (Kate Ashfield), his longtime girl who has dumped him because of his broken promises and general aimlessness. He walks to the corner shop for a soda so absorbed in his troubles that he takes lurching zombies for beggars and fails to note the bloody handprint on the glass door of the refrigerator case. He slumps on his sofa to watch TV, clicking through emergency bulletins without allowing the audience to hear any complete explanation of the growing menace, though each announcer’s sentence is teasingly completed by the next. It’s only after a long, hard night of misery drinking with his friend Ed (Nick Frost), culminating in Shaun’s scrawling a resolution to “Go round Mum’s, Get Liz back, Sort life out!!” that the zombie movie lurking on edges forces its way into the romantic comedy. (This new genre has a name so unpronounceable it will never be used again-the rom com zom.)
So how is this different from Scary Movie or any other horror spoof? For one thing, it’s British, which means that the reanimated corpses are attempting to ravage people who are very polite. When Shaun phones his mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), to find out whether she is safe, she allows that they did have an unexpected encounter, but keeps insisting that everything is all right. Eventually she admits, “Well, they were a bit bitey.”
Also, the movie is simply clever. It resists the audience’s knowledge that this is going to turn into a zombie movie by offering teasers and misdirection. The TV montage, mentioned above, tantalizes us with truncated, ridiculous information. When Shaun is told “You’ve got red on you,” it turns out to be a leaking pen in his shirt pocket (at least the first few times). Later, when three characters are beating a large, well-padded zombie with pool cues (to the tune of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”), their dance around him is so neatly choreographed that it looks like an homage to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Not all elements are so successful. Friends Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran) add little to the story, and their irrelevant interactions sometimes amount to dead air. Shaun’s friend Ed is intended to be slovenly and disgusting, but he succeeds so well at this that there’s nothing to like. On the other hand, Shaun’s stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) is so interesting that it’s a shame he is given little to do, and wasted in sequences, for example, where the humor is based on too many people being crammed into a car. Nighy seems born to play a zombie, and this would have been his chance to shine.
One intriguing thing for American audiences is the regular hints, overheard on TV-news broadcasts, that it would be utterly unacceptable to draw any religions implications from the fact that the dead are being raised to life. Although we hear that some groups are claiming that this is an “apocalyptic” event indicating the end of the world, the Prime Minister refuses to be drawn into associating with “religious fanatics.” In the U.S., it wouldn’t be so strange to hear someone associate an event like this with an act of God.
Of course, this movie is a comedy, and has its own way of resolving things. It turns out it isn’t the end of the world, and all ends peaceably with zombies becoming productive and entertaining members of society. A movie like this is a kind of dress rehearsal, like making a fire-escape plan, to test out what we’d do if something unusual happened-in this case, something that appears to be truly supernatural. We’re reassured that, after a bit of excitement, we’d go right back to being comfortable consumers, watching the telly and going to the pub in the evening. That’s pretty much what Jesus predicted: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.