And here, we’ve arrived at the final zombie movie. In earlier days, we looked at Return of the Living Dead, Dead Alive, Resident Evil — spots from all around the subgenre’s massive spectrum. Only having seen three and a half of the Romero Dead movies, I can’t say I’m subgenre literate, perchance, but the meta humor and references are not what make Shaun of the Dead such a great film.
I’d say it’s twofold: the first half is genuinely hilarious, and the second half is appropriately dour, and rides on the characterization-by-humor we’ve experienced prior. You wish the zombies didn’t have to invade, because this slice of life is so entertaining — a man caught between two poles, the professional but lifeless Pete, and the slob ‘charmer’ Ed. Both of these characters are metaphors, but this never occurs to you, because they’re not only funny in themselves, but ever funnier around each other.
You also wish the zombies didn’t invade because you begin to care about these characters. It’s easy when they make you laugh, but Shaun in particular demonstrates some depth. The overall tonal shift in the movie is gradual, but dynamic. The writers exercise great control here, as more concisely seen in the moment where a hectic car escape turns into a heart-to-heart between stepfather and son.
I wouldn’t say that this is exemplary of the whole comedy/horror thing. It works as either — it’s surprisingly gory for a movie, period, although at least one of the bloodiest hits is a reference to Dawn of the Dead — and the comedy makes these characters too out of reach for our identification.
Escapism is the key to comedy/horrors like Tremors 2 or -another example-, where we can imagine ourselves running around in this environment, saying things that are funny, but wouldn’t really be to a movie audience. Shaun of the Dead is a mix in design only, but is much more like From Dusk till Dawn, its structure apparent though less abrupt.
The themes of the movie would survive in Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, and arguably, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (though who knows), and also have root in Spaced. If you like, the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nina Park catalogue is a less immature/crass version of the Kevin Smith catalogue. It’s a bit more grown up, yet all of these movies are about growing up.
It’s never better than in Shaun of the Dead, even just on the level of theme. Shaun rises from the dead, he breaks out of the lazy conformity of the world that looks and sounds like zombification, and finally, he fights zombies. It’s metaphor in action. A comprehensively crafted movie in a genre never expecting such attention to detail makes for a modern classic.