Zombie movies have occupied their own subgenre of the horror category ever since George A. Romero’s 1968 and ’78 classics Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. With recent additions like 28 Days Later, the Resident Evil series, and a remake of Dawn, the time is ripe for a zombie comedy. And who better than the Brits to deliver one with loads of understated humor, buckets of gore and some real-life subtext to, er, chew on?
The title character is a North Londoner who loves the neighborhood pub and his girl Liz. But Shaun’s got a problem. After three years together, Liz is tired of waiting for him to get his life together. She wants more than to spend every night at the Winchester with Shaun’s profane slacker friend/roommate, Ed, and her two friends from college, Diane and David. At 29, Shaun’s working a dead-end job (so to speak) at a TV store and headed nowhere in particular. When not at the pub or work, he’s home playing video games with the flatulent and goofy Ed and getting lectured to grow up by their other flatmate Pete. Shaun loves his mom, but he can’t stand his uptight and manipulative stepdad.
When Liz finally dumps him, Shaun feels lost, gets drunk and discovers a zombie in the back yard. But the multiplying zoms give Shaun a surprising purpose in life. With Ed’s help, he will kill them, save his mom, save Liz, take them all to the pub, and wait for the whole zombie mess to play itself out. At least that’s the plan.
Shaun is loyal to his friends. He also shows surprising courage (and discovers his confidence) by seeking to protect his friends, his family and Liz. Several characters sacrifice themselves for others.
In a surprisingly touching scene, Shaun’s much-hated stepdad reveals that he’s always loved Shaun and really wanted to help him grow up to be a worthwhile man. Shaun also displays his deep affection for his mom.
Viewed from one angle, the whole film can be seen as a metaphor about growing up, taking responsibility for your life and making a lasting connection with the one you love. More on that in the conclusion.
TV commentators refer to religious leaders calling the zombie invasion “judgment day.”
Ed makes some crude sexual jokes, including a couple about Shaun’s mom. One male zombie is naked, though he’s only seen from the waist up. In a brief TV clip, a woman claims to still love her zombie husband and is asked if she “goes to bed with it.”
By design this zombie comedy is a splatterfest. Because of the laughs, the gore feels a little tongue-in-cheek. (Not necessarily a good thing.) The special effects team celebrate zombiedom’s low-budget roots by giving every wound, every missing limb, every limping, groaning undead the full, bloody Creature Feature treatment.
As we learn from a TV news commentator early on, zombies can only be killed by “removing the head” or “smashing the brains.” Thus, our heroes repeatedly attempt to do both to these traditionally slow-moving creatures who only grow truly menacing in large numbers.
Not only do zombies get dismembered, impaled, shot, gouged, and run over (and then get up and stagger back for more, limbs akimbo), they also violently munch living humans resulting in spurting, gushing and pouring blood in every direction. Some of this stuff is really nauseating, including a moment when Shaun is forced to shoot a very recently departed love one in the head. The gore reaches its apex when a central character is disemboweled (with intestines and organs on display) and then torn apart at the limbs by the zombie horde. Did I mention there’s lots of blood?
Crude or Profane Language
The zombies themselves don’t swear, but everyone else in the film does. In addition to 40-some uses of the f-word (including at least one use of "m------f---er"), the film includes multiple uses of the s-word, "b-llocks" and "b--ch." Add to that a handful of the most obscene anatomical references possible, and abuses of God’s and Jesus’ names.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Most of the action takes place in a pub. Most of the characters smoke or drink, but Shaun and Ed specialize in both, getting completely drunk in one early scene during which they sing a song about drug use. Ed is also a would-be marijuana dealer. And if blood is considered a drug (zombies may well believe that it is!), there's enough of it here to satisfy a global invasion force of the undead.
Other Negative Elements
Ed scratches his crotch a lot. While impersonating an ape, he also makes an obscene gesture. And I’m not sure I mentioned how much blood there is in this movie. And the biting. And the dismemberment. And the bullets through the brains. And the zombies eating people. And the ...
Already a big hit in the U.K., Shaun of the Dead is a funny, disgusting movie that hides its sensitive beating heart under gallons of zombie makeup. Although a comedy, the film is no spoof, presenting it’s flesh-eating undead in horrific detail. And though not as meanspirited as the Dawn of the Dead remake, it’s equally gross, violent and foul-mouthed. Before the blood starts flying, writer/director Edgar Wright plays with his audience’s expectations, setting us up to see zombies who turn out instead to be ordinary people plodding through their day—riding the bus, working, shuffling down the street—with slack-jawed looks of sheer boredom. Shaun literally stumbles through this world, clueless about how to hold on to Liz or rise above his own stagnant existence.
When the zombies do start showing up over the shoulders of Shaun and his friends, they go unnoticed for a while to everyone but us.
In the end, though, Shuan isn’t really about zombies. It doesn’t reveal how the zombie infestation started, and it doesn’t offer any sci-fi fixes to the problem. Instead, the story is always about Shaun’s struggle to be more than a zombie himself. Writer/star Simon Pegg told moviecitynews.com, “In our film, if they're anything, [the zombies] stand in for apathy, and urban living, and becoming ... an anonymous automaton in a collective, where you don't have any identity.”
Beyond the profanity and stomach-turning violence is a metaphor suggesting that if a man wants to get anywhere in life, he can’t just sit mind-numbed on the couch waiting for something good to happen. He’s got to break out and “do something” positive and maybe selfless—even if he risks making big mistakes along the way. Shaun also learns that if two people really want to make a lasting connection with each other, they’re going to have to let go of all the other relationships that are getting in the way.
I’m not suggesting filmmakers Wright and Pegg have mounted any kind of a crusade here. Shaun is still meant mostly to provoke laughter, make people jump in their seats and gross everybody out with zombie gore. But those messages in the margins aren’t bad ones for the movie’s target audience—hordes of restless, video game-addicted, entertainment-engorged 18- to 35-year-old men who regularly consume violent content. Would that they have ears to hear such "shocking" ideas. Oh, and one more thing. There's lots of blood. Really.