Never the Butt of the Joke:
Genuine Horror in Shaun of the Dead
Parody or pastiche? Nick Bartlett revisits Shaun of the Dead (2004) to explore the balance between horror and humour, finding it a heartfelt homage to Romero's vision...
*This article contains spoilers*
One of the first horror movie experiences of my life was sitting with my dad and watching the iconic An American Werewolf In London (UK/USA, John Landis, 1981) when I was far too young. I remember thinking how funny the opening was, how likeable both David and Jack were. They aren’t your typical heroes; they’re dorky, likeable and genuinely funny. I remember being utterly shaken by the suddenness and brutality of the first attack, and much of this is due to actually liking the characters. For the first half-hour of the film, you laugh along with them and put yourself in their shoes, which makes the inevitable horror all the more unnerving – in the best way possible. The comedy actually makes you relate to these characters in a way that you never can with the generic, square-jawed heroes of most conventional horror films, and it only serves to intensify the horror.
This applies just as much to Shaun Of The Dead (UK, Edgar Wright, 2004). Frequently and justifiably held up as one of the best comedy horrors of all time, it is often referred to as pure comedy but the horror elements are there and played admirably straight. The comedy is genuinely funny and the horror is at least authentic, if not outright scary.
You could nitpick all day over the latter point but I would argue that most zombie films, particularly the original trilogy by Romero, aren’t exactly terrifying, but rather incredibly fatalistic stories filled with horrifying gore effects, more concerned with story than scares. The moments where you cover your eyes aren’t traditionally scary as much as incredibly suspenseful. In this regard, Shaun Of The Dead is undeniably cut from the same cloth, and, if anything feels like a new instalment of Romero’s series. (It certainly feels more in-keeping with the original trilogy than any of Romero’s later sequels.)
. Paul Martinovic addresses this in his article for Den Of Geek: ‘What sets Shaun apart from its horror-comedy peers is its commitment to the Romero zombie framework – Braindead and Evil Dead 2 are magnificent, innovative comedies, but they forgo the more horrific aspects of zombie lore that are so well-articulated in the Romero films in favour of turning them into gloopy, slapstick cannon fodder.’(1) Shaun Of The Dead, by comparison, remains faithful to Romero’s zombie mythology. While there are some really slick comedy set-pieces, it’s consistent in its depiction of the undead.
Wright and Simon Pegg transpose the pop culture-infused, dynamic aesthetic they perfected with Jessica Hynes on Spaced (UK, Big Talk, 1999-2001) to a horror setting, and the result is pretty much a perfect comedy horror. Shaun (Pegg) is in a dead-end job and on the verge of being dumped by his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). After the initial zombie outbreak – sorry, I know we’re not supposed to use the Z-word – Shaun leaps into action, trying to save his girlfriend, his mum (Penelope Wilton) and his relationship, all in the safe sanctuary of their local pub, The Winchester.
What distinguishes Shaun Of The Dead from the swathe of comedy horrors that followed is the way that everyone plays their characters completely straight. There’s no ironic detachment or self-awareness here; the comedy comes from their reactions to the outbreak (‘we’ve drawn the curtains’) and pre-existing interpersonal dynamics. There’s the tension between Shaun and his infantile best friend Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun’s refusal to accept his stuffy stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) as his dad, and the all-too-plausible love square (?) of Shaun, Liz, and her flatmates: the priggish David (Dylan Moran) and theatrical Dianne (Lucy Davis).
This also applies to the zombies themselves. They are never the butt of the joke and present a constant and legitimate threat. As Keith Phipps puts it in his piece for The AV Club: ‘The zombies come straight out of a George Romero film, lumbering along with a fearsome intensity.’(2) By way of contrast, in Cockneys vs Zombies (UK, Matthias Hoene, 2012), Richard Briers escapes a zombie while using a zimmer frame and exclaiming ‘Oooh! Zombieees!’ In Shaun Of The Dead, these aren’t ‘comedy zombies’ and the threat is treated as very real. The final act is as dark as any horror, and David’s gruesome death is treated as horrific – unlike, say, This Is The End (USA, Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg, 2013) where the celebrity deaths are treated as punchlines. There is an urgency to Shaun that means a lot of the jokes are easy to miss, but it respects the monsters enough to never nod and wink at the audience.
Wright has since drifted into more overtly comedic territory, to the extent that it’s now a little jarring to watch the nastier scenes of Shaun Of The Dead. Hot Fuzz (UK, 2007) and The World’s End (UK, 2013) are excellent – much better than they are given credit for – and both have moments of pathos that Wright handles deftly. However, Shaun Of The Dead is undoubtedly the most successful at seamlessly weaving together the disparate elements. From the moment the survivors reach The Winchester, it strays very quickly away from comedy and into pure horror.
In fact, everything happens so quickly from this point that it’s easy to miss just how many genres the film is straddling. First, we have the ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ sequence, which is often referred to as the highlight of the film from a comic standpoint. Straight after that comes the first proper attack by the zombies, complete with John Carpenter-esque music and a thrilling Assault On Precinct 13-style shootout (Moran’s hand-flapping panic is a great encapsulation of the suspense). This is followed by the reveal that Shaun’s mum has been bitten; she quickly succumbs to the bite in an incredibly raw and emotional moment, which in turn becomes a Mexican standoff as David tries to shoot her. Once the tension has abated, and David gets his long-overdue punch in the face, he attempts to shoot Shaun and is subsequently torn to shreds by zombies. This is an insane range to go through. Even after David’s death, which is undoubtedly the film’s nastiest moment, Wright keeps the intensity up. The zombified Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) appears, and the rest of the dead overwhelm the pub. It’s quite an achievement, and shouldn’t be written off as ‘just’ a silly comedy. In fact, by the time the ending rolls around, we could not be further from the light-hearted comedy of the first half.
I think a popular misconception is that Shaun Of The Dead is a horror parody or spoof. It’s not. It’s a pastiche that is also a comedy. Wright clearly respects the horror genre, paying loving homage to his favourite horror films, from the obvious references to George A Romero and John Carpenter to more niche ones including Sam Raimi, John Landis and Lucio Fulci. He emulates shots and sequences from classic films as well as putting his own unique spin on the genre. The whip pans and quick cuts he mastered in Spaced are present and give the film a kinetic quality. Yes, there are jokes in there too, but it’s also a film with real drive behind it. The gags, especially those early on, all serve to keep the story moving and contribute to the heightened drama of the climax. It’s a meticulously constructed film.
Another reason it works as well as it does is that the characters are all living, breathing people. Romero’s films tend to be populated with archetypes rather than fully fleshed-out characters, while the characters in Shaun Of The Dead are painfully human and motivated by that most uniquely human trait, love. Shaun himself is striving to be better and protect his friends and family at all costs, and the price he pays is so painful because of the warmth and affection we feel for the group. In his piece for Film School Rejects, M. J. Mcintyre writes: ‘When Ed dies at the hands and teeth of the zombie horde, your heart breaks for him and for Shaun, because the love they had was palpable and the lengths they would go to help their friend were endless.’(3) Wright’s film has a genuine heart to it, and, while you could argue that this dilutes the horror, in fact, it makes it all the more relatable.
In a good horror, we relate to the main characters. In a good comedy, we love them. Shaun Of The Dead is an incredibly funny film, with appropriately horrific moments, and scenes of pathos that are raw and realistic. However, it’s also full of warmth and love for its characters, which makes it all the more upsetting when they start getting picked off. It’s a perfectly judged mixture of comedy and horror, and the varying degrees of success enjoyed by subsequent British horror-comedies, combined with the fact that they are invariably compared to Shaun Of The Dead, speaks of its enduring appeal, and its continued potency as the highpoint of this blend of genres.
 Looking Back At Shaun Of The Dead, Den Of Geek, Paul Martinovic (2012)
 Shaun Of The Dead, AV Club, Keith Phipps (2004)
 Shaun Of The Dead and finding horror with humor and heart, Film School Rejects, M. J. McIntyre (2019)