I totally love Shaun Of The Dead (2004). It’s not just a great horror spoof; it’s a bloody great movie. And its clarity has much to do with it.
Today, it seems that the undead have a higher survival rate at the box office than many other genres. One of my recent favourites was the Korean master piece Train To Busan (2016).
Remove The Head, Destroy The Brain
Zombie pictures rarely cross over into mainstream territory, and this is what made Shaun Of The Dead special. It was produced in the year my son was born, and 12 years later we watched it together. We had a ball. The ultimate father/son bonding movie.
Shaun is a classic that defies pigeonholing, and it transcends style. It satisfies the staunchest fan of the genre, as well as those who have never seen any of Shaun’s zombie predecessors.
Among others, it pays homage to the movies of George A. Romero, easily the most revered zombie writer/director in cinema history.
Apparently Romero was so impressed with Shaun that he asked filmmakers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright to appear for zombie cameos in Land of the Dead (2005), the fourth part in Romero’s Dead series.
How To Make Zombies Go Viral
For reasons other than a recent zombie outbreak, super slacker Shaun is pushed out of his comfort zone. He has to get his girlfriend back, kill his mum’s boyfriend, and make it to the pub alive. Or, as the IMDB logline states in a rare example of clarity:
A man decides to turn his moribund life around by winning back his ex-girlfriend, reconciling his relationship with his mother, and dealing with an entire community that has returned from the dead to eat the living.
It gives us the goals, the circumstances/stakes, and the theme.
When a logline works, it often promises a well-structured, easily-remembered story, and this is exactly what Shaun Of The Dead delivers.
Filmmakers tend to underestimate the value of a simple logline, reflecting a clear structure. They think it makes the film feel predictable, or it dumbs things down. You know why a short, crystal-clear logline is so important?
It makes word of mouth a piece of cake.
After seeing the movie, my 12-year old could summarise the essence of the story in once sentence. That’s how successful movie marketing works.
Don’t get me wrong: you still need to deliver a brilliant movie. But the masses will do the viral campaigning for you.
Avoiding Death By Slackers
Shaun impersonates the perfect transformational character, forced to go on a mission that would be impossible for his normal self.
Early in the story, his girlfriend Liz paints the picture of where he is going with his life: “Look, if I don’t do something, I’m gonna end up in that pub every night for the rest of my life like those other sad old fuckers, drinking myself to death wondering what the hell happened.”
Shaun needs to grow up, let go of the friend who enables his immaturity, and settle with Liz… if he doesn’t want to lose her.
In a mythological sense, he will also need to kill his father, so he can enter the realm of masculine adulthood. And all the while, he is metaphorically surrounded by the threat of death by slackers.
The first act runs for about 35 minutes, yet it doesn’t drag. The zombie outbreak gives it tension, and the Wright/Pegg dialogue and editing gives it pace. As a result, the shortish second act feels nice and tight, too.
Shaun Of The Dead – Break Into 2
In the scene/sequence that concludes Act One, Shaun gives us an exact rundown of what he needs to achieve in the movie. It could be a rehearsal for the movie’s pitch, edited in the signature snappy Edgar Wright style.
But before we get to this sequence, Ed calls into the phone: “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
The irony is that George A. Romero, who was given a private viewing of the film, was oblivious to the fact that this line was copied literally from his own film Night of the Living Dead (1968). He only found out later after a phone conversation with Wright.
What follows is fabulous storytelling. We first see the events as they should happen, but with each next version, Shaun shows an increasingly flawed response to the various calls to adventure.
On the last shot of the sequence, we know where the story really should not, but might well end: the Winchester.