Last night we had a zombie-fest which involved 1. Drinking zombies, and 2. Watching zombie movies on Mike’s giant projection TV screen. We watched Shaun of the Dead (which somebody there hadn’t yet seen… gasp!) and then The Return of the Living Dead (which a few people there hadn’t seen… slightly less shocked gasp!)
Until Shaun was released in 2004, Return was the best zombie comedy in existence. I was shocked that it could be knocked out of the top spot after nearly twenty years, but there you go. Shaun is hilarious and touching and grisly and cynical without being mean-spirited and did I mention hilarious? I did.
Both movies are not actually horror “spoofs” in the style of the Scary Movie franchise or Mel Brooks films. They are simply horror movies that are also funny. Or, alternately, comedies where people also get eaten by the living dead.
(A spoof is a parody, which is a specific sub-set of comedy that derives its humor specifically by mocking or subverting expectations established in another work, or in a genre as a whole.)
Both movies obviously take their inspiration from George Romero’s influential series of zombie movies — according to the Wikipedia article Return arose from a dispute between John Russo and George Romero about how to handle sequels to Night of the Living Dead, so both men simply went their separate ways. Huh. I didn’t know that. Russo wrote a book as a sequel, and Return was originally going to be based on that book, but wasn’t.
Shaun is just made by people who love zombie movies, as all right-thinking people do.
Return introduced an important aspect of pop-culture zombiedom: it is the source of zombies that want brains…. brains…. It is also part of the evolution toward the “fast zombies” seen in 28 Days Later and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Return zombies are neither fast nor slow — they are normal human speed.
The real distinction of Return zombies, though, is that they are smart. Articulate. Mostly all they say is “brains” but, when the need arises, they can also say things like “send more cops.” There are a few scenes where they cooperate, or use complex tools or schemes in order to get after a person.
Another Return distinction is that the pieces of the dead body are animated independent of the brain and spinal cord. This means that you cannot disable them by removing the head or even by chopping them into little bits. The bits will still come after you.
Shaun zombies are extremely slow and very stupid, which is often played for laughs, as when Shaun and his buddy Ed think the zombie girl on their lawn is just monumentally drunk. Shaun zombies are too stupid to fight or plan, and they are easily disabled by brain injuries.
These differences actually make the emotional engagement with the protagonists very different: in Return, once the zombie rules are established, it seems pretty obvious that nobody in the film is going to make it out alive. In fact, the film ends pointing toward the complete zombie apocalypse of the later Romero films.
But in Shaun, the zombie threat seems very much as if it can be managed. There is a possibility of success that increases the suspense. The audience, by being allowed to suspect that the characters might survive, starts to become worried about whether they will.
Overall, Shaun is much more character-driven than Return. Return‘s characters are mostly stupid teenagers (a funny and cringeworthy cross-section of mid-80s pop culture types), a couple of hapless medical-supply-center employees, a slightly evil weasel of a boss, and a possible Nazi war criminal. The choices that lead to them being where they are when the zombies attack aren’t particularly important, unless you want to interpret the movie as an anti-capitalism metaphor.
(One of the hapless employees is the boyfriend of one of the teenagers — he has just started a new job and the other teenagers mock this “responsible” choice. Rightfully so, given that it results in everyone getting eaten by zombies.)
In Shaun, the interpersonal conflicts at work before the zombies attack are absolutely crucial to every decision made by the protagonists. They affect where people go to try to fight off the zombies, how they try to fight them, and also which SO STUPID OH MY GOD YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE! decisions they make. The zombie attack becomes a way of revealing character.
Also, Shaun plays one trick with character that I love, love, love. It is very common for horror and suspense movies (any movie where lots of people die) to have at least one or two unlikable characters who get killed off early. Sometimes this bothers me a lot, especially when I feel that the death of an unlikable character is played for laughs (the lawyer or the fat guy in Jurassic Park) but nobody else’s death is. It’s not only ethically troubling, it also strikes me as lazy, unchallenging filmmaking. Pandering, even. Why make a movie where people die horribly if you’re not going to challenge the audience to be at least a little disturbed by this fact?
What Shaun does, is, there are two characters (Shaun’s stepfather and his girlfriend’s flatmate) who Shaun dislikes intensely, and at first the audience agrees with him. Then, these characters are touchingly humanized right before they die horribly.
Now, that’s filmmaking.
One interesting similarity between both films is the way they reflect the time in which they were made. Return was released in 1985 and is 80s-sploitation as much as it is anything else. It clearly reflects anxieties about environmental contamination, militarization, and nuclear war. In Return, the zombie apocalypse is acute, immediate, possibly total. (And based on the failure of a containment system built by the Army Corps of Engineers… how’s that for prescience?)
Shaun was released in 2004 and reflects a very 2004 set of anxieties. I’m not sure if it’s quite fair to describe a British movie as having a post-9/11 sensibility, but I can’t think of a better way to explain it. In Shaun, the zombie apocalypse lasts for a day. During that day many people die and it seems, for a while, that this is really it. The end of the world.
Yet six months later, in a brilliant coda, we see that the apocalypse has simply been absorbed by the all-powerful amoeba of popular culture. A click-through the television channels reveals that the zombie threat has been reduced to the point where chained-up zombies are actually kept around to perform menial tasks and participate in tacky game shows, and also for sentimental reasons.
There is something fundamentally existential about the zombie genre — after all, these films deal precisely with the question of where our selves reside, are we meat, or spirit? Zombie films come down firmly on the side of meat. Zombie films do not imply transcendence.
In The Return of the Living Dead, you cannot win because, no matter what you do, the threat does not go away.
In Shaun of the Dead, you cannot win because, no matter what happens, nothing changes.