Shaun of the Dead – 2004 – dir. Edgar Wright
Now for a more natural apocalypse film. Perhaps the most natural apocalypse film for an apocalypse that most likely isn’t happening but feels like it could. Not a parody of the zombie apocalypse genre but rather an entry that just so happens to be a comedy, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead presents pre- and post-zombie apocalypse life as uncannily similar. Its comically bleak set-up turns into a twisted sort of positivity. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” by REM would fit if not for the fact it’s a complete cliche and Wright has much better taste in soundtrack selections than that (the movie owns “Don’t Stop Me Now”, and also makes good use of Prince’s Batman soundtrack… as a weapon).
One useful message we get for facing an apocalyptic event in the movie: if it happened, would anyone notice? Maybe not. The opening credit sequence presents a series of tableaus of London before the outbreak, rendering everyday people as zombies. The actual zombies arrive shortly afterward, but it’s not until a half hour into the film when Simon Pegg’s Shaun notices what’s up. He’s too wrapped up in a personal apocalypse, a break-up with his girlfriend, to see the global one, which blends in far too much with the mundanity of everyday routine. This first half-hour is some of the funniest filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and one of the greatest opening acts, up there with Raiders’ jungle excursion, Wall-E’s silent romance, and Basterds’ verbal interrogation.
One of the satirical targets of the first act is the sensationalism of news media combined with the desensitization of the public. Casually flipping through channels as every station reports on the zombie outbreak, Shaun reacts with mere slackjawed boredom rather than gaining any sort of awareness of what’s going on. Wright seems to be attacking how when the news continually sensationalizes stories, it becomes hard to care when something truly worth the attention happens. Yet as he finds it wrong in the context of the news, Wright is a fan of sensationalism in the context of art. He infuses high energy, hyper-edited montages into otherwise mundane scenes for maximum comedic effect, and when it comes to the serious action, his love for high-octane genre filmmaking comes through. Where the fakeness he criticizes in the news deadens emotion, his high artifice heightens emotion, allowing for laugh-out-loud moments but also genuinely dramatic horror climaxes. He’s a director with the pulse of a Tony Scott or a Baz Luhrman combined with the brain of a Richard Linklater. He crafts thoughtful guilt-free pleasure, and he might be the best comedic director working today.
I don’t want to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it. There’s too much fun and too many thrills to be had going into the movie clean. What I can say about the ending is that it’s bittersweet, leaning on the happier side of things but not without its ironies. Life returns to as close to normal as it can be in these circumstances. If normality was already a zombie-like existence, the presence of actual zombies is able to be dealt with. If anything, the treasuring of what’s been lost and what can still be preserved allows for a greater appreciation of this weird little life. The final shot is simultaneously funny, sad, and sweet. Wright, Pegg, and Nick Frost’s next collaboration is titled The World’s End, promising a further examination of the apocalyptic themes dealt with in Shaun, and I don’t know if it’ll end as sweetly. But for this “apocalypse”, their first film is as good a movie to watch as any, and maybe has a bit of wisdom for us to take from between the graphic dismemberments.