It recently dawned upon me that at the heart of all of the works of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, therein lies a straightforward yet touching story of character development amidst the zombies, gunfights and alien invasions. Although this is most glaringly obvious in The World’s End and even their first TV-Sitcom Spaced, I wanted to take some time to have a closer look at their first feature film Shaun of The Dead, a personal favourite of mine.
Before the outbreak of the zombie epidemic, each and every character exhibits this incessant desire for a change of lifestyle, or an improvement of their lifestyle rather than a change of character. Pete wants Ed to move out and keep the flat clean, Lizzie wants to do more exciting things with Shaun and Shaun’s relationship with his mum and (step)dad is almost non-existent: “Perhaps you could bring the flowers you forgot to bring Barbra on mother’s day” – “I was gunna”.
It just seems relatively interesting that the entire establishing of character is executed through showing us what the characters want or need in their lives. From this, we begin to learn who they are as a person. One may argue that this could be a comment on modern society as, with the newer developments of fashion and technology, we seem to define ourselves by what we have and what we want rather than who we actually are as a person. This would then go hand-in-hand with the postmodern approach to filmmaking that Wright and Pegg seem to have, as they lace each of their films with references to popular culture, dark comedy and intertextuality within the Cornetto trilogy.
Anyway, as the zombies (“The… Z-word, don’t say it!”) begin to creep into the suburban streets of London and through Shaun’s front door, notice how his character begins to change rather than his lifestyle. Shaun quickly begins to notice those in his life that are most important to him, despite previous problems they have both experienced. He puts his best friend, his ex-girlfriend, her flat mates, his mother and even his ‘stepdad’ before his own well-being, even to the point of using himself as bait so they can get to safety. Not only this, but he begins to stand up to Ed’s care-free attitude, as he yells at him to ‘Stop telling me to chill out!’ and ‘I’ve spent my entire life sticking my neck out for you and all you ever do is fuck things up… I’m not going to let you do it anymore, Ok?’
Shaun finally has his moment of reconciliation with Phillip too, accepting him into his family before his death and he confronts his tyrannical flatmate Pete when he yells at his zombie ‘I said leave him alone!’ before shooting his brains out.
By the end of the film, Shaun is a completely new person; he’s the person he was always meant to be but was instead bogged down by everyone’s desire for an improvement of lifestyle.
What the audience would expect is for things to be different after the chaos has died down. We’d expect Shaun and Liz to go on and live a happy life together, perusing new and exciting adventures. Visiting the theatre, going to fancy restaurants – that kind of 21st century suburban life. Yet, Wright and Pegg refuse to conform to this kind of ‘happily-ever-after’ and Shaun and Liz are back at square one. They wake up on a Sunday morning, they plan their day of going to the Winchester and having a roast, and in every possible way their lifestyle hasn’t changed.
But this is the underlying message of Shaun of The Dead: everything you need was right in-front of you. It’s not what you have and what you own that defines you, it’s who you are as a person and who you surround yourself with. At the very end of the film, Shaun and Liz conclude their story right where they belong: with each other. And even Ed ends up where he belongs: the shed.
This, I believe, is where Shaun of the Dead succeeds in its own way of being a postmodern comedy; things don’t really conclude, they just come back full circle. But that’s ok.