I don’t really have many movies, shows, books, etc., that I would call my favorites. There are just too many of them that I love; I can’t ever choose just one. That being said, Shaun of the Dead has stayed near the top of my nebulous, ever-changing list of “favorites” since the first time I saw it roughly 10 years ago. It was the horror rom-com that I didn’t know I needed. Yep. You read that right. Horror. Rom-com. Before I go any further, though, I do want to give you guys a heads-up on a couple of things.
Firstly, this movie is rated R for “zombie violence/gore” and language, so if R-rated movies aren’t your cup of tea, this movie probably isn’t for you.
Secondly, this post will also be looking at some of the many nods and references to other classic horror movies. And trust me, there are a LOT of references in this movie. Heck, even the title is a riff on Dawn of the Dead.
Lastly, because this post will also be looking at the many references to other media, there WILL be spoilers. If you haven’t seen it yet (or just want a refresher) Shaun of the Dead is available for streaming through Amazon Prime. So, now that all that’s out of the way, let’s get on to the movie!
Shaun of the Dead, written and directed by Edgar Wright, came out back in 2004 and is set in North London. The movie starts out strong, straight out of the gate. We get some memorable shots and bits of dialog that quickly but effectively set the tone for the film.
We’re introduced to most of our main characters, a key location, and the initial tension of the movie’s rom-com aspect is set up in this one scene. While we’re seeing the rom-com being set up, the music and editing style are planting the idea in our minds that this won’t be just another typical rom-com. We may need to be mindful of our characters’ surroundings even if they aren’t. We also get our first hint that music may play a weirdly important role for a non-musical, and it’s all done in such a way that none of it feels forced or “info-dumpy.”
The opening credits roll, giving us a layout of the town and showing us some faces we’ll see again later on as everyone trudges through their mornings like zombies. We get to Shaun as he stumbles out of his bedroom and starts preparing for the day. We get a sense of his daily life, how he interacts with his two roommates, and are introduced to some editing techniques that we’ll see throughout the movie.
This scene also gives us one of our first references to another classic film, but more on that later, the rest of the scene establishes a few more things that will be important throughout the movie. The next few scenes show us more of the town, give us a few more movie references, and show us how others (including his stepfather) treat Shaun. We are also introduced to the idea of newscasts being used for exposition and start to see that something isn’t quite right.
Shaun continues on with his day and remembers that he was supposed to book a table for his and his girlfriend’s anniversary dinner, giving us yet another reference in the process and building up the tension for the rom-com. Shaun’s girlfriend breaks up with him and his day goes from bad to worse when things start to kick up a notch with the horror elements. We also get another instance of music being weirdly relevant when Shaun goes to the pub for a pint and a cry, and the jukebox (set to random) starts playing “If You Leave Me Now” by Chicago. Soon after, we’re treated to one of my favorite scenes out of basically any movie I’ve ever seen. This is when Shaun and Ed (his roommate) leave the pub completely wasted and sing “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash with a zombie.
The next day Shaun walks to the shop, utterly oblivious to all of the car alarms, glass breaking, and literal zombies staggering around. He even slips in a puddle of blood while in the shop and doesn’t even notice. It’s not until he gets back home that he finally realizes what is going on. We also get another (indirect) movie reference in this scene. A few minutes later, Shaun forms a plan of action, and we get another reference in the process.
From this point, the horror movie is in full swing, and the rom-com is on the back burner. Shaun and Ed go and pick up Shaun’s mum and stepfather, then his ex-girlfriend and her roommates, fighting off zombies as best they can the entire way. Shaun’s stepfather is bitten and turned before they reach their chosen “safe house.” Ironically enough, that safe house was the same pub that Shaun spent every night at, which was part of the reason Liz broke up with him in the first place.
The group is forced to abandon their vehicle before reaching their destination and make their way on foot while fighting off more zombies. On their way to the pub, they run into an old friend of Shaun’s leading her own (exactly parallel) group of survivors in the opposite direction. The final stretch of their journey is blocked by a massive hoard of zombies, and all hope appears to be lost.
That is until Shaun is inspired by Liz’s bickering roommates and comes up with a plan to get them through the hoard. They pretend to be zombies and make their way through and to the pub, and we get yet another subtle movie reference in the process. They nearly make it, but before they can get inside, Ed receives (and takes) a phone call, completely blowing their cover and alerting the zombies to their presence.
Shaun tries to tell the group about another way inside the pub but is interrupted when Liz’s roommate David chucks a trashbin through the pub’s window. This leaves Shaun with no choice but to use himself as a distraction to draw the zombies away from the group, giving them a chance to get inside. Shaun joins them in the pub just as the group is about to give up all hope of his return, but they soon realize some flaws in their plan.
They have no idea what to do now that they are actually inside the pub but quickly discover they have more pressing issues to deal with. Shaun was followed. Zombies have amassed outside the back door, and there was at least one zombie inside the building, behind a locked door. The audience sees this, but Shaun and the others don’t know about the one inside yet. Meanwhile, Ed has the brilliant idea to start up the slot machine, broadcasting their location to every zombie in the vicinity with its lights and music.
Moments later, the pub owner (now a zombie) enters the room. “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen suddenly starts playing on the jukebox, thus starting one of my other favorite scenes. More zombies begin to bust into the pub, and chaos ensues as Shaun and co. try to defend themselves with pool cues, darts, a fire extinguisher, and anything else they can get their hands on. All perfectly in sync with Queen down to David fiddling with the breaker box and the zombies pounding on the glass. However, this moment of levity is cut short. They learn that Shaun’s mum was bitten by one of the zombies while on their way to the pub. She collapses, only to turn and rise back up as a zombie while the group is arguing about whether or not to shoot her. She attempts to bite Shaun, and he is forced to shoot her.
All Hell breaks loose inside the pub. Zombies break through the front window and drag David outside. The others try to save him, but the zombies pull him apart. Grief-stricken, Dianne rushes outside to join him. Zombies start pouring into the pub from the broken window, the (now open) front door, and from the back. One of them, Shaun’s other roommate, Pete, is one of the zombies that break in from the back. He grabs and bites Ed.
Ed manages to get away, and he, Shaun, and Liz barricade themselves behind the bar, which Shaun then lights on fire to keep the zombies back. A zombie gets through but is Deus-ex-machina-ed and shot through the head by a bullet that was left on the (now flaming) bar. The three survivors then make their way into the cellar through the hatch behind the bar. They think they are trapped, but Shaun figures out how to work the lift up to the street mere moments before the zombies start busting through the hatch they had come through.
Liz and Shaun make it to the surface and find themselves surrounded by zombies. They ready the hatchets they had picked up in the cellar and prepare to go down fighting. They don’t get the chance to, though, and don’t need to. A group of the military vehicles we saw earlier in town and on the news roll in and save them at the last possible moment.
The movie itself technically ends here, but we do get an epilogue set six months in the future. Shaun and Liz are living together and we see them flipping through channels on tv. We get to see that the world has largely gone back to normal and that zombies have, for lack of a better word, essentially become domesticated. They are used for labor and in game shows similar to Wipe Out. We also learn that Ed, now a zombie, lives out in the shed in Shaun’s back garden and still plays video games with Shaun.
Shaun of the Dead is absolutely jam-packed with references to other classic horror movies, and it is fantastic. I’ll include all of the references that I found in the film, but I’m sure there are others that I may have missed, so let me know if you guys spot any that I didn’t!
- The first one that I noticed was a nod to the 1981 classic: An American Werewolf in London. Right at the start of the movie, while Shaun is getting ready for work, he shuts the medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom, revealing the reflection of his roommate, Pete.
- The next one that I noticed was during the long shot of Shaun on his way to work. The shot gives us a better feel for the setting and shows us several characters that we’ll see again a bit later. It also gives us our first real clue that something weird is about to happen through an easy-to-miss reference to Night of the Living Dead (1968.) Before reaching the shop where he buys a drink before work, Shaun passes a worker on the street listening to a news broadcast on his portable radio. We hear that a space probe had re-entered the atmosphere unexpectedly and broken up over England.
- When Shaun gets home from work later that day, he flips through the Yellow Pages to find the number for the restaurant he’d promised Liz he’d book a table at. The restaurant was an Italian restaurant called “Fulci’s,” a quick nod to the Italian horror director, Lucio Fulci. We also get a cameo from writer/director Edgar Wright as he voices the man that answered the phone at Fulci’s.
- The next day Shaun walks to the shop, and we see that something has definitely happened. Car alarms are blaring, windshields are smashed in, and zombies aimlessly roam the streets. Shaun is entirely oblivious to all of it, not even noticing the bloody handprint on the cooler in the shop or that the substance he had slipped on was blood. Not long after returning home, he and Ed find a girl in their back garden. They go around back and watch her stagger around, thinking that she’s absolutely plastered. From the nametag she’s wearing, we see that her name is Mary and that she works for a supermarket called Landis. This is a double reference to the director of An American Werewolf in London, John Landis, and to the real-life chain of English supermarkets called Londis.
- After they realize that Mary isn’t a drunk but, in fact, a zombie. Shaun and Ed rush back inside, where they have to fight off the zombie that wandered in through the front door, which they had left open again. Shaun gets a call from his mother, Barbara, and she tells him that some men had tried to get into her house and had been a bit “bitey.” She protests when Shaun tells her that he’s coming to take her somewhere safe because she doesn’t want to cause a fuss. We then get an (almost) direct quote from Night of the Living Dead (1968) when Ed shouts, “we’re coming to get you, Barbara,” into the phone.
- Shaun and Ed pick up Barbara and (reluctantly) Shaun’s stepfather, Philip, then Liz and her roommates. On their way to the pub they planned to barricade themselves in, Philip (who had already been bitten) dies and comes back as a zombie. The group is forced to exit their vehicle and leave him locked inside. We are immediately greeted by a reference to the music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The group finds themselves encircled by a group of zombies, the same as Michael. The camera movements are exactly the same between the two scenes.
- They go the rest of the way on foot and we are treated to a subtle nod to Alien (1979) in the form of a 360 degree camera pan when Shaun and co. have to pretend to be zombies to make it through a massive hoard and reach the pub.
- It’s not long before the zombies make it into the pub where Shaun and the others are hiding, forcing them to defend themselves. When this happens, we get another reference to Night of the Living Dead. Ed grabs the gun hanging on the wall of the pub to fight off the invading zombies. The gun is a Winchester model 66, the same as the one used in both the original 1968 version and the remake from 1990.
- The last one I saw wasn’t really a reference, but it was a cameo. In the movie’s epilogue, we see Edgar Wright (the writer/director of Shaun of the Dead) as one of the zombies shown in the news footage.
Those were ones that I saw, but I’m certain there are more. Let me know if you guys caught any that I didn’t!
Honestly, this movie is fantastic to watch if you’re interested in filmmaking because it is so well made. It does a wonderful job of establishing cathexis (getting the audience to care about the characters) early on and achieving teleology. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, teleology is ensuring that everything is connected and everything that happens in the film is intentional. This gives the entire film a sense of wholeness because each element reinforces another. Everything has its payoff, and the audience gets everything they need to piece together the film’s overarching story before the characters do.
There are so many things that I could cover in this movie that I could spend hours talking about it. In fact, I had to completely rework this entire post because, in the first draft, my analysis of the first 20 minutes alone was nearly 6 pages. This post is still pretty long, especially compared to most of our others, so I will try to keep this section as brief as possible and post my analysis separately later on. Everything in this movie, from the music to the set design and everything in between, does a fantastic job setting the tone and pushing the story forward organically.
The horror and rom-com elements of the movie are very well balanced, and the characters all feel like actual people and not just plot puppets. Dialog and humor are used very well to keep the movie from being too dark and give us several memorable moments. Like two of my favorite scenes, the one where Shaun and Ed drunkenly sing “White Lines” with a zombie. Or later on, when Shaun and co fight off zombies perfectly in sync with Queen playing on the jukebox. Honestly, I could go on and on about all of the moments and elements that make this movie great. That’ll have to wait for the analysis, though, since this post is already pretty long.
To wrap things up, I’ll just say that this is a fantastic movie for anyone interested in filmmaking or even just love great movies. I highly recommend watching it if you get the chance, and again, it is available for streaming through Amazon Prime. If you don’t mind a bit of language and some zombie gore, this might just be your next favorite movie.