Shaun of the Dead: Happy zombie-versary to one of the genre's best

The hurricane was gathering outside when I witnessed the dead return. That’s how I remember my first screening of Shaun of the Dead in theaters 10 years ago.

A decade after opening in the U.S. on Sept. 24, 2004, Shaun still holds up as one of my favorite movies, but also as one of the most important zombie movies ever.

Directed by Edgar Wright from a script he wrote with star Simon Pegg, and also starring Nick Frost, Shaun is a very British flick about a Gen-X underachiever navigating his way through romance, friendships, parental relationships and an underwhelming career -- who just happens to become a leader amid a zombie apocalypse.

Having graduated with my master's less than a year prior, I moved back from New York City to my hometown of Orlando in 2004. I was trying to figure out what was up with my life, working as a 25-year-old freelance writer and renting an apartment off the highway, across the street from the biblical theme park The Holy Land Experience (which featured daily crucifixions accompanied by a light and sound show). While Central Florida prepped for Hurricane Jeanne to hit -- the third hurricane expected to make landfall in the state in just over a month -- I hit the movie theater. 

As some people planned an evacuation route, escaping to the movies was typical for me. My life itself felt stormy, and the romantic zombie comedy (rom-zom-com) connected with me on a few levels. 

So, in Shaun, I could see me, a guy too old to be considered a kid but too young to be ready for adulthood. Pegg’s character avoided life problems by going to the Winchester with Frost’s Ed for a pint. I avoided mine by hitting the cinema. 

Like their series Spaced before it (a Friends for my friends, which I didn’t catch until later) the film taps into the mindset of a late 20-something/early 30-something individual. There isn’t a sense of no direction but more one of misdirection in life. Much as they didn't for a lot of Gen-Xers and millennials -- who are almost cursed by the blessing of too many opportunities and little sacrifice -- things haven’t quite worked out the way a younger Shaun might expect. There is a malaise that sets in, especially when his girlfriend Liz dumps him. He feels held back, stuck in a rut with a co-dependent friend and largely devoid of any responsibility. He literally can’t let go of his past, like that original pressing of "Blue Monday." 

Shaun has to sort life out; so did I.

Shaun's board with a pre-zombie to-do list

Shaun of the Dead also connects to the very best of what George A. Romero offered in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, Dawn of the Dead (1979) and -- my favorite of George’s zombie films -- Day of the Dead (1985). 

When I saw Romero’s Night of the Living Dead at far too young an age, it scarred me, and the scar never completely faded. Like a lot of NOTLD fans, the black-and-white film deeply unsettled me. And though I wasn’t thinking much about social commentary or its cinematic impact when I viewed it as a kid, I felt it in my gut: this was something different. 

Romero got a little zanier in his two followups (I’ll save talk of his Land, Diary and Survival films for another day), though he never lost the message, and the gore only got better -- thanks to special-effects wizards Tom Savini and then Greg Nicotero.

The zombie stuff stuck with me, and my affection for Romero opened the door for an appreciation for Dead Alive (Braindead) and Cemetery Man. Then, in high school, I joined a bunch of students to work with playwright Morris Sullivan on a community theater musical comedy -- Night of the Living Dead Rock Stars. We aimed, and maybe even succeeded, to channel the blood, laughs and the spirit of Romero. Clearly, I was a fan.

As were Wright and Pegg. Shaun might has well have been a valentine to the director. They learned the very best of what Romero had taught us so well that Shaun could exist in the same universe as his. Give audiences a meal of blood and viscera, but don’t forget serve up the heart and funny bone. And never neglect the braiiins (yes, I know that’s not a Romero-ism, but I’ll get to that). 

The “zed-words” looked familiar, with those greyish Savini hues, and the practical effects when David gets ripped apart would be at home in the best straight-on horror flicks. But along with the sight gags and fart jokes -- and a masterfully utilized soundtrack to accompany a Goblin-esque score -- Shaun makes you feel. The scene at the Winchester with his mum is brutal to watch, and it shocks the viewer into thinking about the mortality of one’s parents.

That's the thing about Shaun that ensures its relevancy. While it doesn't cheat us on the zombies, they are literally and figuratively background figures. The needs, immaturity and eventually growth of the living humans is what takes the forefront. Again like Romero's stories, the pettiness and selfishness of those characters is what often gets them in trouble. The popularity of the monster threat may fade, but good characters will always hold up over time. 

The first of what would come to be known as the Wright/Pegg/Frost Cornetto Trilogy, this combo of horror, head, heart and humor with a relatable protagonist were novel within zombie cinema at the time. In many ways Wright and Pegg made a better Romero film than Romero. For the record, Romero told me once he loved them too, and what they accomplished with Shaun.

In a larger context, Shaun of the Dead capped 2003 and ‘04 in what would become the third great milestone of the modern zombie genre -- which we’re still feeling the impacts of.

Haitian Voodoo zombies were already present in pop culture in 1968, but Night of the Living Dead introduced the modern zombie, or the Romero Zombie. Matt Mogk of the Zombie Research Society thusly defines the modern zombie as a “relentlessly aggressive, reanimated human corpse driven by a biological infection.” That apt definition captures most of the zombies we know and love/fear to this day. 

After Night changed things by creating a new kind of monster to shamble through our nightmares, the next major year of the zombie was 1985.

Not to undermine the impact of Dawn of the Dead in 1978, but director Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (which doesn’t at all resemble the source material by former Romero partner John Russo) altered the genre with his so-called “splatstick” gore-comedy. It also gave the world the idea that zombies love dining on brains specifically -- and enormously contributed to the 1980s zombie craze. 

Romero made a mark in 1985 with Day of the Dead. The film popularized the individualistic zombie character, or Zombies With Personality. Although Return had Tarman, Day had Sherman Howard’s Bub -- a zombie who influenced just about every other reanimated character with motivations, feelings and a basic ability to utilize tools. Before Fido, Big Daddy, R or even Zombie Ed, there was Bub. 

However, the genre was largely experiencing time underground in the early 2000s, and zombie comedies were especially buried. But a general uneasiness in a post-9/11 world, with our nation engaged in two wars, a contentious presidential campaign being waged and a growing concern about the economy, jobs and the environment set the stage for a zombie resurrection.

The 2002 Resident Evil movie adaptation made zombies commercially viable. And after premiering in November 2002 in the United Kingdom, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later opened stateside in June 2003. Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide hit stands that September; Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic debuted in October; Zack Snyder’s take on Dawn of the Dead killed at the box office beginning March 2004.

All of these contributed to the ripple effect that keeps consumers hungry for zombies a decade later.

28 Days Later was intense, with its viral “zombies” that ran, and the social commentary was there. Snyder’s Dawn remake delivered on the gore and introduced hyper-accelerated super-powered corpses. Brooks made the zombie apocalypse feel like a real-world problem one should approach practically. Aside from constructing a world where not even major characters are ever safe, you can probably guess the 15-million-viewer strong legacy of Kirkman.

But Shaun of the Dead brought the clever. In the third significant era of zombies, Wright and Pegg crafted a comedy that was an homage, not a parody. It paid tribute to its horror roots but spoke to a specific Gen-X audience, and did so in an intelligent fashion -- without ever questioning the humor of an “I Got Wood” tee shirt. The film is a high-water mark of what a zombie movie can be (and just maybe an example of comedic genius). It probably also did wonders for cricket bat sales in the U.S.

Happy zombie-versary to Shaun of the Dead, a film that not only grabbed this zombie fan when he was weathering a storm but is also one of the greats of the genre.

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