Movies are projections. Yes, literally, in the sense of filmstock and screens and projectors and bulbs. But movies can also be projections of ourselves — a momentary snapshot of the internal, the introspective, the metaphysical. Given the circumstances, we as the film beat are seeing less literal projections in movie theaters and doing more projecting ourselves. So what are we thinking about? Among them are “Wicked,” Dcoms (Disney comedies, for uncultured readers) and of course, apocalyptic cinema. This series will traverse the cinematic doomsday in its eclectic iterations. After all, why grapple with an uncomfortable reality when you can watch movies that hyperbolize it completely?
— Anish Tamhaney, Daily Film Editor
I don’t like apocalypse movies, or zombie movies, or any horror movies really. I’ve never gotten much joy out of the suspense before a grisly murder or the stress of watching the world end. Yet, for some odd reason, I really like “Shaun of the Dead.” Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”) and Simon Pegg’s (“Star Trek Beyond”) zombie apocalypse movie is filled with stress and gore, but is also laced with humor and emotion that feels very true to life. In the time of coronavirus, it’s fascinating to see how a manufactured and somewhat comedic apocalypse can parallel a real one.
The titular Shaun (Pegg) is a loser, a creature of habit who doesn’t fully put in effort for his loved ones. His contentious relationship with his stepdad Philip (Bill Nighy, “Love Actually”) has caused rifts between him and his mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton, “Downton Abbey”). His flatmate Peter (Peter Serafinowicz, “The Tick”) is sick of Shaun’s excuses for his sloppy friend and roommate Ed (Nick Frost, “Hot Fuzz”). His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield, “This Little Life”) is tired of his empty promises and his inability to put effort into their relationship. Liz’s friends Dianne (Lucy Davis, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”) and David (Dylan Moran, “Black Books”) don’t know how to feel about Shaun and watch uncomfortably as his and Liz’s relationship splinters. This all changes, though, when he is thrust into the zombie apocalypse, pushed outside of his sphere of safe comfort and forced to fight.
The onset of the apocalypse is subtle: a woman falling at a bus station, clips on the news, tanks rolling past the electronics store where Shaun works and the chronic sound of sirens in the background. It’s so subtle that Shaun and Ed don’t even seem to notice, still ignoring the signs of apocalypse even as the audience knows exactly what’s going on. On the street, Shaun and Ed comment lightheartedly on a pair of people who appear to be making out, but the man’s head falls off as soon as they turn their back. Shaun walks bleary-eyed past bloody handprints and dead bodies, oblivious to the clear explanations of what’s happening on the news. Ed starts taking pictures of what he thinks is Shaun fending off a romantic advance from what is clearly a zombie. All of the puzzle pieces are there, so it’s maddening to the audience to watch them take so long to understand the kind of danger they’re in.
By the time they figure out what’s going on, they’re immediately propelled into action. Watching Shaun thrust into a survival situation is fascinating. The change between his boring (albeit safe) life one day to the zombie apocalypse the next is staggering — though he looks like the classic pasty-faced loser protagonist, he’s surprisingly good at taking down zombies with a cricket bat. A team is quickly formed in the throes of survival, an odd collection that includes Shaun, Ed, Liz, Barbara, Dianne and David, forced together in a time of trial.
As we’ve seen in the crisis today, the apocalypse brings out the best and the worst in us. In “Shaun of the Dead,” Shaun’s best is drawn into focus, as he becomes level-headed and confident in his decisions, as well as being a pretty good fighter. However, it brings out the worst in David, who is so worked up about his negative feelings toward Shaun that he starts working against the group. With coronavirus, we see this same dichotomy, seeing the best in the healthcare workers who work tirelessly to take care of patients, and the worst in the people ignoring CDC guidelines to party or the people stocking up on essentials to sell them for profit. The fight-or-flight response becomes commonplace during a crisis, and the characters in “Shaun” have to decide between helping others and saving themselves on multiple occasions.
“Shaun of the Dead” is the first film in the “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy by Wright and Pegg, consisting of “Shaun,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End” (an alien apocalypse movie), and is consistent with the quirky, fast-paced humor that the writing duo is associated with. It’s, for lack of a better term, very British, with quick cuts, quick humor and an exorbitant amount of cussing. The threat of zombies is ever-present, but so is the humor, and sometimes they coincide: A particularly comical scene occurs when Shaun, Ed and Liz fight a zombie while accompanied by Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” hitting the zombie with pool cues in time to the music while Dianne and Barbara watch and bob their heads to the song. Throughout the movie, bickering between characters over personal struggles that seem insignificant in the face of the crisis is ridiculous, but also deeply human.
The parallels between the apocalypse in “Shaun of the Dead” and that of our current age are staggering, so much so that Pegg and Frost made a parody PSA of one of the scenes (and a sly apology for a joke that didn’t age as well). The slow realization of danger and the quick spread are similar, as well as the advice given by the authorities to isolate anyone who’s been bitten and to avoid physical contact, even with loved ones. The core characters’ main goals are to get somewhere safe where they can hole out until the apocalypse ends. Sound familiar? This is how it feels these days, like we’re all just sitting around waiting for something to happen, with no idea when this will be over. Watching the characters in “Shaun of the Dead” holing up in a bar and talking about nothing while everything rages outside feels right.
On paper, “Shaun of the Dead” is a zombie movie, but in reality it is more than that. If you can get past the gore, you arrive at a movie about love and self-sacrifice, about weathering through the end of the world with the people you love. One of the wildest parts of the movie comes at the end, when a news montage explains what has happened one year after the apocalypse with the title of “Remembering Z-Day.” Everything seems to have gone essentially back to normal. This part was craziest to me because it was a wild reminder that, as hard as it may be to believe, this will all be over too. One day, we’ll look back on this crisis as a horrible period of time that happened but, thankfully, passed. There will probably be a catchy nickname that lasts for decades, and one day history books will talk about the global pandemic that took thousands of lives. But it will pass, eventually, and everything will seem to go back to normal, even as the scars of the ordeal remain.
As of now, the end of this period is nowhere in sight. In these unprecedented, challenging, times, all we can do is fight against this virus. For us, that doesn’t mean bashing zombies on the head with a cricket bat or shooting them through the head with a rifle. For us, it means staying home and staying safe, and it’s a much more frustrating fight because we can’t take any real action. Still, if “Shaun” tells us anything, it’s that the apocalypse can bring out the best in us, if we let it. Any of us can step up, even if it means staying on our couch and watching old apocalypse movies.