Canon Entry - Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Shaun of the Dead is definitely a low-budget movie. Most zombie movies are actually, but I was still a little surprised on rewatching to see that aside from the zombie makeup, there are definitely not a lot of special effects, and shooting tended to happen in real locations. Much of the movie, especially the last act, takes place in one location, the Winchester. And Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg famously called on fans of their TV show Spaced to volunteer to be extras in this film.
However, the first time I watched this film, the low budget aesthetic was the farthest thing from my mind. Wright has so much visual panache and the movie moves along at such a brisk pace that I was swept away. My first viewing circumstances weren’t exactly ideal. I was surrounded by church people, mostly girls, who were too horrified by the violence (which is surprisingly decent) to really appreciate the wit and the comedy of the film.
I could understand where they were coming from though. For many people, Shaun of the Dead was probably their first exposure to Edgar Wright, and, unless you were specifically into this genre, their first exposure to horror comedy. Most people would not know whether to be scared or to laugh if their movie watching is extremely limited. Also, his kinetic style and his absolute love of genre movies and their tropes would probably be bracingly new for a lot of people (though he was not the first to make his name reworking genres *cough* Tarantino *cough.*) Though I have had my enjoyment of movies diminished many times by oversensitive audiences, Shaun of the Dead was an exception, and I later sought it out and enjoyed it immensely.
While I still enjoyed the film immensely on my rewatch, the movie definitely felt like a first-time feature to me although it was technically his second. Wright and Pegg’s script focuses heavily on foreshadowing, to the point that this movie could be taught in English classes all over as an example (if it weren’t so violent). Wright uses this as an opportunity to pull off so many visual gags that it’s impossible to get of all of them from a single viewing. Even a throw away line like half-muttered attempt to cheer up Shaun from Nick Frost’s Ed manages to summarize the plot for the rest of the film. (“You know what we should do tomorrow? Keep drinking. Have a Blood Mary first thing. Get a bite at the King’s Head. Grab a couple at the Little Princess, stagger back here and bang! We’re up at the bar for shots.”)
This film is also directed to within an inch of its life. There are so many big setpieces, which are big not because anything spectacular happens in them but because of how obsessively Wright focuses on the smallest details. Probably the most virtuosic scene is when Shaun goes about his day, completely oblivious to the zombie apocalypse that he had managed to avoid learning about. He only perceives them as slight hiccups in his daily routine, and we wonder how we are supposed to sympathize with a character so clueless, and, up to this point, unlikeable.
Earlier, Wright had established Shaun’s morning routine - going to the shop to get a soda, riding the bus, etc. - and his hints as to what will happen in the future are so overpowering that they barely qualify as hints. Nearly everyone Shaun encounters is already a zombie even before the plague has taken over. Wright just heightens this with great visual gags such as a whole armada of technology addicts with headphones in their ears shuffle along decidedly zombie-like. The point that he is making is obvious - about the disconnect that technology and modern society engenders and blah blah blah - but it’s not about the point but rather about how he makes the point. Even though we know that the joke is coming, sometimes the buildup is a lot better than the punchline, and that’s what Edgar Wright really understands.
Edgar Wright is much more about his style than he is about the message of his films. This is not at all meant to be an insult. You can sense his joy at creating visually dynamic, amazing features that are sheer eye candy, and, like in Baby Driver, ear candy. His tendency to make variations on genre films means that his work is naturally going to focus heavily on turning tropes on their heads. Frankly, His themes tend to be very similar in his films: manhood, male camaraderie, growing up, owning up to your mistakes, etc. When you list it out this way, Wright sounds like every other male comedy director, especially those who have worked with Judd Apatow and gang. I am willing to forgive him because of his aforementioned visual panache and clear love of craft.
Besides, plenty of films have important messages, but a message in the absence of strong, intelligent direction will only make a movie so good before it falls inevitably into mediocrity. If movies were just about what they were saying then there would be no point for them. We would be living in that world from The Invention of Lying, in which no one can lie and all movies are just people reading from scripts about real-life events. I’ll take my cinematic candy thank you very much.
There’s a great video about the importance of visual comedy from Tony Zhou at Every Frame a Painting. While not every director has to be like Edgar Wright, I do appreciate the video’s point about how there are different things a director can do to get a laugh without focusing so much on their actors’ physical and verbal humor.