In his rewatch of Shaun of the Dead, Maccewill Yip toggles on the Blu-ray’s special feature known as the Zomb-O-Meter and has a bloody good time exploring the film’s numerous in-jokes, references, and foreshadowing.
It had taken me a while before I first watched Shaun of the Dead. I first encountered it online in a clip that showed Shaun and Ed meeting the girl zombie in their garden. I thought it looked interesting and filed it in my mind as something to look into, but then I forgot about it until a couple of years later while browsing for films to rent at my local video shop (the now defunct Lunch Money in Seattle) and saw the movie on the shelf. It wasn’t until I rented and watched it that I discovered that it was the movie from where the clip came from. Since I am rarely frightened by scary movies, it was the additional mix of elements of what they dubbed as RomZomCom that quickly made this one of my favorite horror flicks. Over the years, I’ve been anticipating every new film by the director Edgar Wright, as well as looking into Spaced,the TV series he did with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost before Shaun. Although I enjoyed them all, I still hold a special spot for Shaun of the Dead.
Most fans of Edgar Wright know that his works are filled with references, so much so that there are people who see some that were never intended. I knew several of them going into my viewing for this review. For instance:
-The place Shaun was trying to get a reservation for, Fulci’s Restaurant, referred to the Italian director Lucio Fulci, who made an unofficial, yet iconic sequel to Dawn of the Dead.
-Nick Frost saying, “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” A line similar to what one a character says from Night of the Living Dead: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” (Although the creator of Night, George A. Romero, loved Shaun, he apparently did not get this reference to his own movie the first time he watched it.)
-A short discussion of not using the word “zombie” because not only do they agree that it is ridiculous, some of the biggest zombie movies doesn’t use it as well. (Same with The Walking Dead, which uses the term “Walkers.”)
-Some of the songs used in the film are from Dawn of the Dead.
There was another one during this viewing that I was surprised I hadn’t noticed before: At the end of the film, a news station reported that scientists ruled out the possibility of monkeys carrying a virus was the cause of the zombie apocalypse (a reference to the rage virus from28 Days Later). To see if there were more that I didn’t catch, I decided for this viewing to turn on a feature of the Blu-ray I never really tried, the Zomb-O-Meter, a kind of pop-up trivia feature. There were lots of music titles cited, mainly electro and the Dawn of the Dead music mentioned earlier, and a few more name references that I didn’t get early on, both for people (the co-worker in the electronics shop whose out sick is named after Ash of Army of Darkness; Liz’s nickname for Shaun is Flash, after Flash Gordon) and businesses (Bud’s Pizza of Day of the Dead, Foree Electronics of Dawn of the Dead). I was surprised to learn of more references to Spaced than the ones I knew already. The ones I knew already were culled from the film’s commentary, such as the origins of the term “fried gold” (which I also learned from Zomb-O-Meter was coined by Nick Frost) and the running gag of whether dogs can look up (from difficulty of getting a dog to do so in the show). In fact, I had originally sought out Spaced because of hearing about it in the commentary. The ones I just learned about was (a) Peter Serafinowicz, who plays the roommate of Shaun and Ed named Pete, answers his phone in the movie exactly like the character he plays in Spaced; and (b), a character from Spaced called Tyres can be seen as one of the zombies outside of the Winchester pub.
Shaun of the Dead not only references other movies, but itself becomes one as elements from this film gets carried into the other two films that altogether forms the Three Flavor Cornetto Trilogy (AKA Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy): Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. As the names imply, all three films have lots of blood and each features a different flavor of Cornetto ice cream, or Drumstick here in the States. But they share more than that. The sound from the game that Ed plays in the pub can be heard in the other two films, and each film has their own unique fence jumping gag. Other than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, there are other actors that pop up again in the other two films, such as Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, Patricia Franklin, Rafe Spall, and Julia Deakin. Finally, there is the varying themes of friendship we see between the different characters Pegg and Frost portray for each film.
Besides the constant use of references, writers Edgar Wright Simon Pegg just loves to add tons of foreshadowing. A lot of it is throwaway lines that you only catch after repeated viewings. I would say that about sixty to seventy percent of the dialogue before the zombie apocalypse will hint at something that will happen later on in the film, and if someone at that time says “you’re dead” (soccer kid, Pete), then, well, you know what will happen to that character. Even the music does it, as you can hear at the end of the very first pub scene, the soundtracks lyrics goes: “This town is coming like a ghost town.” The most interesting one comes from the second pub scene, where Ed, trying to console Shaun after being broken up by Liz, describes what they should do the next day: “We’ll have a Bloody Mary first thing, have a bite at the King’s Head, have a couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here and be back at the bar for shots.” The whole line hints at exactly what happens the next day: Bloody Mary (Cashier Zombie Mary in the garden), bite at King’s Head (Shaun’s stepfather, Phil, gets bit), a couple at The Little Princess (couple David and Diane at Liz’s place), and stagger back to the bar (pretending to be zombies to get into the Winchester) for shots (the shoot-out at the pub). Going through the film again with the Zomb-O-Meter brought out more that I had never even noticed. For instance, in the pub there is a patron known as Snakehips that Ed says is always surrounded by women. Later in the film when Shaun and his group heads to the Winchester and one of them ask how far they are, you see Shaun stare out to see Snakehips body surrounded and consumed by female zombies as Shaun responds, “We’re pretty close.” A big one that surprised me was how each character’s name supposedly rhymes, some imperfectly, with their fate in the film:
Ed: Becomes dead
Phil: Gets killed
Barbara: Ends up a cadaver
Pete: Gets Eat
Yvonne: Moves on
Dave: Goes to his grave
Di: Dies (although there is a special feature that shows that she survives)
Along with all the foreshadowing are also a variety of callbacks. In the opening credit sequence, we see various people going about their daily lives, which itself is filmed in a joking manner to show how they mindlessly go about their routine. If you pay close attention, you will find that just about everybody you see in this opening sequence appears later as a zombie, the most noticeable being Mary the grocery cashier that becomes the garden girl zombie. One discovered from the Zomb-O-Meter shows that the dialogue from a discussion Shaun has while Ed is playing a shooting game is echoed during the bar scene when Shaun is shooting at the zombies. Another way Edgar Wright adds layers of callbacks is by mirroring an earlier scene. A good example is the two times we see Shaun head to and from the mini-mart near his home. They’re both shot the same way with the same people, but the second time happens post-apocalypse where we see Shaun oblivious to the devastation around him. He uses the same technique in Hot Fuzz and The World’s End (which not only mirror the two pub crawls between when they were kids and adults, but also in the in the kids version of the events uses an anecdote that foreshadows everything that happens later when they go through the same run again as adults, like the line Ed had in the pub on Shaun of the Dead that was mentioned earlier). Another interesting mirroring joke happens when we see Shaun’s gang running into the group lead by his and Liz’s old friend, Yvonne. Every member of Shaun’s gang has an alternate in Yvonne’s. However a closer look shows that everybody in Yvonne’s group still have their weapons and their clothes are a little bloodier, showing that Yvonne’s gang seems to be faring better than Shaun’s.
Beyond all that, the other thing I look forward to in all of Edgar Wright’s films is the energy that he infuses into each work he produces. Not only is it present in the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, but also in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, the movie he adapted from a comic series written by Bryan Lee O’Malley. In that movie, he brought in so much different gags, trick shots, techniques, etc. that for a lesser director, it would look cluttered and convoluted. However, Wright has a way of piecing it all together in ways that there is cohesion and flow, and the variety of the different elements help bring the energy I just mentioned. You don’t see as much of it in Shaun of the Dead, but you do see seeds of those elements starting to appear and see it build and grow with Hot Fuzz. One of those techniques is the quick action cuts of mundane actions, which itself became a director trait for Wright and all his films, but was born as a parody of sequences in action films that use those kinds of shots to show a montage of getting prepared for battle. Another technique is employing various different shots, many themselves references to past directors. These variety of shot prevent the film from becoming static, and he uses them just right so that they don’t become overdone and self-indulgent.
Though compared to Hot Fuzz and The World’s End these techniques are pretty sparse, that is exactly why I still prefer to go back to Shaun. As much as I love all of Edgar Wright’s work, it often builds into the absurd and the ridiculous, although it is still a lot of fun to watch. InShaun of the Dead, although it is set in a zombie apocalypse, it somehow feels more grounded. It’s almost as if this could happen in the same universe as The Walking Dead, although not as grim. I believe this can be pinpointed beginning with one event: the death of Shaun’s mother, Barbara. In all of the commentaries, each of the actors mentioned how hard it was for them to see Barbara die, especially when she convulsed before she passed away. They then all talked about how the film got dark when Shaun was forced to shoot his mom after she turned into a zombie. In other Wright films, this moment would turn quickly back to humor; but in Shaun, this moment lingers, then continues going downhill. There are little funny quirks in between, but it mainly continues being bleak until Yvonne comes with the army to save them. As I mentioned earlier, this and other moments help ground the movie from going too far out into the absurd.
One thing upon re-watching this film that I admired was some of the acting. Most of the characters had something hidden that can be felt through their whole performance. Shaun’s mother might be the easiest to point out, where after an event of encountering a zombie who she thought was an old friend, she later seems to continually become distracted and stare out into space. It is later found out that she had been bitten earlier and was trying to hide it so as not to worry Shaun. David we have come to associate as being a “twat” who looks down on Shaun. However, it is hinted and later revealed that he had affections for Liz and was jealous of Shaun. Diane knew about it, which she revealed in the end with David’s admission, but can be seen a couple of times when she reacts to David trying to play ignorant to his feelings for Liz. All of these are surprisingly nuanced for a movie of this type and adds to its depth.
When re-watching for this review, I went through all but one of the commentaries. (There are four of them and I didn’t have time to get to all of them. Sorry, zombie acting commentators.) A lot of stuff in the first two, writers/director’s and actors’ commentary, mainly had a lot of facts and trivia that I have covered already. However, the commentary that caught my attention was the one with the actors that played Shaun’s parents, Bill Nighy (Phil) and Penelope Wilton (Barbara). There were constant praise and admiration for the young actors and director, but with a slight wisp of nostalgia for their own youth. There were a couple of times where Wilton admitted to having a crush on Nighy years ago, especially when Nighy mentions how self-conscious he is. In fact, that kind of became of running thing with him, where he feels embarrassed whenever he comes on screen. He would keep saying “I can’t look” and “Oh, I am terrible at this.” However, his tone changes completely in the part where he becomes a zombie, because suddenly he goes from being self-deprecating and shy, to saying, “Oh yeah! Look at that!” I thought it was kind of adorable. Another moment I thought was cute was during the scene where Snakehip’s body is being devoured, Wilton excitedly describes how the effect was achieved to an attentive Nighy. They also mentioned relationships that blossomed on set: Mary the garden zombie dating the panhandling dog-walking zombie, and Edgar Wright dating the daughter of Patricia Franklin, the bar spinster. The most interesting fact I learned in the commentary, though, was how the filmmakers approached Wilton for the role by comparing what they are trying to do with the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are going about their own issues amidst the grand events of Hamlet. Likewise inShaun of the Dead, Shaun and Liz are going about their relationship problems in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
Revisiting Shaun of the Dead was as fun now as it did when I first watched it all those years ago. Sure, there are plenty of new zombie movies, such as 28 Days Later, zombie comedies, such as Zombieland. However, Shaun had the perfect mix that balanced each other out. It also doesn’t feel dated, at least not yet. Not only that, the plot and character motivations, although sometimes a little simple, are pretty spot on. It’s interesting to see how big Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have gotten. Especially Pegg, who has gotten into huge franchises likeMission: Impossible and Star Trek. Hell, it was even fun seeing the cameo by Martin Freeman, who has gone big himself as Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Watson in Sherlock, and Bilbo in The Hobbit trilogy. Although he had done a lot of television before, it is still surprising that this was Edgar Wright’s first film. For a while he was compared to Joss Whedon, popular in the geek culture, but have yet to make it big. That is why it is disappointing that he was dropped from the Ant-Man project, which could have been his big break into the mainstream, like what The Avengers did for Whedon. However, there is word that he has a new project in mind that would involve his old pals Pegg and Frost. If that is the case, then I will be one of the first in line, hoping for a big crowd behind me to follow along.
-This viewing was the first time that I noticed that a couple of calls Ed has on his cell phone was to Noel, the teen worker at the electronics store that talks back at Shaun. I mainly discovered this through the Zomb-O-Meter defining the term “Henry” as an eighth of weed and checking the subtitles to see that both Noel and Ed use the term in their respective phone calls.
-If you want to get truly meta, the name of the trilogy itself, The Three Flavor Cornetto, was said by Wright to be a reference to The Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, White and Red) by Krzysztof Kieślowski.
-Nighy apparently likes to use the terms “dig” and “hip” a lot.
-In the barkeep zombie fight scene, an alternative music choice to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” would have been Boney M.’s “Rasputin.”
-An early costume choice before Ed’s “I’ve Got Wood” shirt would’ve been one with a cat that says, “I Love Pussy.” This was instead used for the alternate Ed character in Yvonne’s group.
-Really, there are lots of references, foreshadows and callbacks that I just couldn’t mention. If you’ve seen the film already, it’s fun, at least to me, to look these up and find them in another viewing.