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He Slays Me: How Edgar Wright Turns Horror Into Humor in Shaun of the Dead

Six classic scenes that illustrate the zom-com’s cinematic genius

Focus Features 10.20.2020
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In Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Ed (Nick Frost) face down a zombie apocalypse with a simple plan: “Take car. Go to Mum's. Kill Phil—"Sorry"—grab Liz, go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over. How's that for a slice of fried gold?”  While their scheme doesn't go exactly to plan, Wright’s comedy works brilliantly. The 2004 comedy re-animated the nearly dead horror genre, bringing to life legions of future zom-coms. From the start, Wright understood “that the zombie genre has the capacity to support ALL genres,” explains Polygon, with Shaun of the Dead morphing into “a romantic comedy, satire, zombie film, buddy comedy, action film, tragedy, tale of redemption, and the start of a trilogy.” Wright’s intention was never to make fun of the zombie film, but to fully appreciate its traditions, lore, and logic. Starting with his and Pegg’s ingenious screenplay, Wright uses every cinematic tool, from montage and music to costuming and camera work, to bring out the genre's inherent humor and humanity, as well as its horror. 

To celebrate its fried goldenness this Halloween, we showcase six scenes that illustrate Wright's cinematic and comic prowess. (Register to win Focus Insider's Shaun of the Dead prize package, and you can use the cricket bat and Winchester pint glass to act out these scenes from the comfort of your home.)

Watch Shaun of the Dead now on iTunes or at Amazon.

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The official trailer for Shaun of the Dead

Title Sequence 

“In Shaun of the Dead, the zombies aren’t the focus,” observes Screenrant. “They're just a plot engine that forces the characters to confront their own interpersonal conflicts.” That point is brilliantly demonstrated in the film’s title sequence where a montage of modern London observes the zombiness of everyday life.  The grim synchronization of work—from checking out grocery items to waiting for the bus—is set to a jaunty tune and clothed in the cheerful pastel tones of blue, white, and pink. But the people all move with the empty, rhythmic spirit of the undead. Rooted “firmly in mundane inanity of modern life, a febrile area for both comedy and horror,” suggests Den of Geek, the film subtly suggests at the start that horror and humor might just be two sides of the same coin. Wright hilariously confirms this point as the characters in the title sequence reappear as zombies throughout the film, acting not all that differently than when we first meet them. 

The title sequence from Shaun of the Dead.

"Have you got any papers?"

On the morning after the zombie outbreak, a hungover, bleary-eyed Shaun strolls to his local convenience store for a soda and cornetto cone. Oblivious to the destruction on the street or the zombies lumbering down the sidewalk, or even the blood on the refrigerator window, Shaun repeats his morning ritual with a sort of Buster Keaton naiveté. In fact, we have just seen Shaun take the same walk a few scenes early, albeit without zombies. For The Today Show this scene exemplifies the “kind of comedy that makes Shaun of the Dead a rare successful hybrid… a horror movie that’s funny, intelligent — and, yes — horrific, and seamlessly so.” Echoing the cemetery scene from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, where a brother and sister find the grotesquely moving figures in the distance funny before they turn deadly, Shaun’s stroll reflects the film’s own razor-thin walk between slapstick and savagery. To add to the set up, Wright had, according to Pegg, the announcer on the radio in the back of the store explain in Hindi, “The dead have come back to life. This is not a prank”—a joke that makes us as oblivious as Shawn. 

"Have you got any papers" scene in Shaun of the Dead.

Throwing Records

In every zombie film there comes a point when the living humans face the impossible question, “how do we kill these things?” When a couple of the undead appear in the garden, Shaun and Ed decide to throw their record collection at them, an idea that actually came from a friend of Wright’s who threw albums at a tree until they stuck. “Of all the cockamamie ways folks in films and television have tried to take out zombies before realizing a sturdy club will suffice, the record-throwing scene in Shaun of the Dead stands out,” exclaims Vinyl Me Please, both for its ingeniousness and its biting commentary on fanboy culture. Even in the direst of circumstances, one can’t help qualifying which are Prince’s best albums. "'Sign o’ the Times?' 'Definitely not.' 'The Batman soundtrack?' 'Throw it.'" Indeed the scene serves as a mini-commentary on Wright's own feelings. “I am a Prince fan,” notes Wright, "but even I will concede that Batman was the start of the downturn.” While the albums prove less-than-successful weapons against the undead, the right song will later propel Shaun, Ed, and Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) into action.

"Throwing Records" scene in Shaun of The Dead.

Garden Fences

On their way to find a safe place, Shaun points out that The Winchester pub is just over there. “Just over there, over the 20 garden fences?” mocks David (Dylan Moran). Playing the hero, Shaun tries to show them a shortcut by leaping over the fence, only to have his plans fall tragically flat. From this simple slapstick gag, however, Wright teased out a trope that would link all three films of the Cornetto trilogy together. “We liked the idea of these little running gags,” Wright notes. “Because Nicholas Angel is a supercop [in Hot Fuzz] wouldn’t it be funny if he excelled at doing what Shaun did badly?” Then Wright took the joke to a whole new level in The World’s End. In Wright’s imagination, the fence scenes are more than just a bit of comic cut-up. “When I used to walk to school,” remembers Wright, “I always wanted to take a shortcut through gardens, and I never did, so I'm living vicariously through the movies.”

"Garden Fences" scene in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

Zombie Practice

When Shaun and his friends realize that the only way to get to The Winchester is by pretending to be zombies in order to blend in with the mob, Diane (Lucy Davis), an ex-actress, now drama teacher, coaches everyone—Shaun, Ed, David, Liz, and Shaun’s mom (Penelope Wilton)—on how to be their very best zombie. The scene, which proves hilarious in the way each character’s imitation is lamer than the last one, is also according to Slate "a classic farce scene...[that] plugs into our collective zombie-movie unconsciousness." For one, the scene becomes a meta-joke about the film itself, about a bunch of friends getting together to pretend to be zombies. During the production, when they had stretched their budget to the limit, Wright contacted fans of his previous TV show Spaced. “We put a call out, asking them to be our zombie extras, and the response was overwhelming,” Wright remembers. While Shaun’s gang barely got into character, the extras went overboard. “I needed to record some zombie sounds, so one lunchtime I stood in the middle of the pub and asked them all to attack me,” recalls Wright. “One came straight at me and bit my leg. They’d gone feral.”

"Zombie practice" scene in Shaun of the Dead.

"Don’t Stop me Now"

If Edgar Wright is acclaimed for his masterly use of music in films, no scene better illustrates that talent than the use of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” in The Winchester. Locked inside the pub with hordes of hungry zombies pawing at the windows, Shaun and his gang have to fight an enemy from within when John the barman becomes infected. With no obvious weapons to use, Shawn tosses pool cues to Liz and Ed and the trio spring into a perfectly choreographed ballet of beauty and brute force, pounding John to the beat of Queen. While the scene was written with Queen’s song in mind, it was never clear that the production could afford such an A-list song. The filmmakers even had an alternative, Boney M.’s "Rasputin," ready to go. But luckily Brian May and the other members of Queen agreed to a discounted rate, and the classic scene was created. Beyond the impeccable synchronization of song beat to beat down, the song's refrain, “Don’t Stop Me,” takes on an exquisite ambiguity in that it could refer to either Shaun and his friends' determination or the unrelenting drive of the zombies. 

"Don't Stop Me Now" scene in Shaun of the Dead

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