The zombie movie has always been a very low-rent type of film, fit mainly for drive-ins, late-night cable TV, and teenagers' video collections. Yet, as the new film Shaun of the Dead reminds us, there is often more to these movies than just blood and gore. In the current case, there are some very interesting insights into the state of Great Britain and the United States today, and perhaps even some clues to why the recent American elections went the way they did.
Earlier zombie films such as Val Lewton's thoughtful I Walked with a Zombie dealt with the plight of an individual or small group of people menaced by zombies or threatened with being turned into the walking dead themselves by the machinations of some mad scientist or voodoo aficionado. Typically, the victims had to be pulled into the world of voodoo, rather than that world intruding incorrigibly into our own. And in that form, the zombie movie never really caught on.
That changed entirely in 1968, with the release of independent filmmaker George Romero's low-budget Night of the Living Dead. In Romero's version of the zombie myth, the dead spontaneously return to life, apparently as a result of radiation, and go on the hunt for human flesh to consume. The zombies wander about slowly, without any apparent consciousness, but they are relentless and surprisingly effective in their pursuit of people to eat.
Romero's unusual treatment of the subject matter, combining the zombie with the mummy and the ghoul, gave the zombie film what it had previously lacked: a threat to the general population. In Night of the Living Dead, it is not just a pretty young female who is threatened, but all of us -- in fact, as the movie's ending makes clear, civilization itself is at stake.
Romero's film caught the imagination with its symbolism: the plague of zombies tearing a town to bits and eating people alive called to mind the rising disorder and social chaos of late '60s, early '70s America. The authorities were stupid and ineffectual, powerless to stop the horror, and people had no clue as to how to respond. Romero's zombies evoked, on a symbolic level, ordinary people's fears of being torn to shreds by a rising tide of crime and immorality.
In the even-gorier Dawn of the Dead (1978), the madness overtook the suburbs, and by the time of Day of the Dead (1985), only a few small pockets of civilization remained, and these were under dire siege and seemed unlikely to last.
Other filmmakers have taken up Romero's theme in additional zombie films during the past three decades, including the highly interesting Night of the Comet (1984), Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and its sequels, the 1992 splatterfest Dead Alive, by Peter Jackson (director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy), some ultra-gory Italian films, the British 28 Days Later (2002), and remakes of Night of the Living Dead (1990) and Dawn of the Dead (2004). Romero is currently working on a new zombie film of his own, Land of the Dead, in which the zombies have taken over the world, and the remaining humans, living in a walled city, begin to fight back with serious purpose, in an evident parallel to the current War on Terror.
Shaun of the Dead brings new meaning and energy to the form, and a surprising amount of real comedy -- as when two characters confronted by a couple of zombies in their backyard and having no idea of how to kill them, hurl old record albums at them, pausing first to decide which ones are cheesy enough to destroy. The film, co-written by the young British actor Simon Pegg and director Nick Wright, takes place in contemporary London, and initially follows the mundane life of 29-year-old stereo salesman Shaun (played with subtlety and charm by co-writer Pegg), whose girlfriend, Liz, breaks up with him after he forgets to change their dinner reservation.
The real reason she has left him, however, is that Shaun's life is entirely meaningless, quite without purpose. He spends dreary hours at his boring job, goes to the local pub, drinks lots of beer, plays video games with his unemployed friend Ed, and fails to connect emotionally with Liz, his mum and stepdad, or anybody else. As the film's clever title suggests, Shaun is for all intents and purposes a zombie, as are most of his friends and associates.
Therein lies a good portion of the film's humor, as the characters fail, for the first few scenes, to notice the zombies lurching among them and lunching on their neighbors. There is a truly bizarre sequence, for example, in which Shaun and Ed see a couple necking outside the pub and fail to realize that the woman is actually chewing on the man's throat. The humor is largely understated and very British, especially in these early scenes, although once the violence begins to rise, the comedy moves more toward the slapstick variety.
But as with Romero's films, the ghoulishness and mayhem have a greater purpose. The mess and tangle in the streets, the violent public behavior, and the frequent sirens don't set off any alarm bells among the central characters, although we know that these disturbances are all being caused by zombies in their shambling hunt for food. That this level of disorder has become so commonplace in the Britain of today, and that people have become resigned to it, is a highly accurate satirical point.
Together, the film's two major themes of chaos and emptiness paint Blair-era Britain as an increasingly coarse, violent, aimless, dreary place. But this is a "romantic comedy with zombies," as the filmmakers have accurately characterized it, and that is a very astute choice on their part. Romantic comedy, after all, is a genre devoted to the celebration of life, as the literary critic Northrop Frye noted. Aimed at showing a young couple overcoming numerous barriers to reach wedded bliss and heal the ills of society, the romantic comedy commemorates the triumph of life over death. Thus the conventions of the form fit this zombie story surprisingly well, on both the literal and symbolic levels.
Shaun is a classic underachiever, and it is clearly because there is little in the culture around him to inspire a person to work hard. With a minimum of effort, one can have a comfortable life, if a pointless and dull one, and that is exactly what Shaun has. Ed, who gets by without any job at all other than the occasional marijuana sale, serves as a caricature of Shaun's aimlessness and a warning of what he could yet become.
Liz, Shaun's schoolteacher girlfriend, wants a life with meaning and importance, and that is the great point of contention between them. Liz resists being sucked into Shaun's pointless routine of minor pleasures, and her abandonment of him forces Shaun to decide what is really important in life. But knowing what is right is not enough; Shaun must also summon up the will to change.
Ironically, of course, the zombie attack brings a definite purpose to their lives -- basic survival -- and ultimately pulls the couple back together after Shaun rises to the occasion and enables the two of them to escape the zombies. This should sound familiar, of course, to Americans who remember how the nation pulled together in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
As a consequence of this greater seriousness of purpose in the characters' lives, the wartime scenes of Shaun of the Dead have several moments of real feeling, usually during or directly preceding death scenes, including a particularly affecting one in which Phil (portrayed with great intelligence by Bill Nighy), the stepfather whom Shaun has always despised and ignored, expresses how much he has always loved Shaun, and Shaun realizes that it is true and that he has missed out on this man's affection because of his own selfishness and stubbornness.
In scenes like this and in Shaun's slow but steady growth into real manhood, one can see intimations of the evolution of American and British society after the September 11 attacks, as our blithe 1990s culture was jarred into sobriety. Shaun of the Dead brings back the stiff-upper-lip, muddling-through, stolid British attitude of years past, without any overload of irony, using humor and excitement to make it palatable and appealing to contemporary audiences.
The American version of this attitude -- dogged determination combined with pragmatism and a persistent sense of humor -- has likewise become increasingly familiar here as the War on Terror has progressed. This is an act of rejuvenation more impressive than an army of zombies.
S. T. Karnick, senior editor for The Heartland Institute, associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute, and coeditor of The Reform Club.