There’s a reason why “adulting” has become an industry. Compared to older generations, the young adults of this era have been slower to reach the landmarks traditionally associated with full-fledged adulthood. For some, milestones like getting marriage and home ownership are a distant dream thanks to the challenges posed by living in a harsh economic environment with stagnant wage growth and a crippling student debt crisis.
But what truly makes a person an adult? Having the skills to live self-sufficiently is one answer, but with many young adults living with their parents well into their 20s, developing those skills is another matter entirely. As a result, the public perception of early adulthood has grown murky — a person in their 20s is no longer an adolescent, but they’re not quite an adult yet either. Emerging adulthood, the name sociologists have given this new developmental stage, reflects that in-between stage. Instead of stepping into adulthood as effortlessly as their parents before them, young adults of this era are tiptoeing in one inch at a time.
Many millennials and their younger Gen Z counterparts live in uncertainty, questioning their identity and the world. In a time of great social unrest and economic turmoil, the future no longer seems like a polished star shining in the distance — it’s immeasurably vast, dark, and unknown. Worst of all, it has teeth.
So what’s a 20-something to do in the face of this great unknown? Fall to pieces, embrace entropy? Or face the darkness with a smile and the uniquely Gen Z self-deprecating sense of humor?
The era we’re living in has made the coming-of-age story more relevant than ever with young people being forced to grow up at an alarming rate. The fears of modern adulthood also lend themselves surprisingly well to horror. It seems logical that the two could work well together.
Enter: Shaun of the Dead (dir. Edgar Wright, 2004).
In the early 2000s, the zombie genre hadn’t yet oversaturated the market, but was beginning to get there. The Resident Evil video game series had just released their fourth installment and was building a successful movie franchise. In 2003, American comic writer Robert Kirkman began work on a new series called The Walking Dead; it would go on to win an Eisner award for Best Continuing Series and become the basis for the megapopular AMC television series of the same name, which, at the time of this writing, still continues to this day. A year later on March 19th, Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, based on the 1978 George Romero film of the same name, was released in theaters. And shortly thereafter — only a few days after Dawn of the Dead premiered in the US, in fact — Shaun of the Dead crept into UK theaters.
What I’m trying to get at is that zombie films were only just beginning to reenter the public consciousness. Legendary horror maestro George Romero turned zombies into a household name throughout the 70s and 80s with Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), inspiring a host of parodies and imitations––but this genre vanished after the 80s. Filmmakers were keen on replicating Romero’s style, but none of them managed to nail his scathing social commentary and very dark humor.
Shaun of the Dead did the impossible by being more of a George Romero movie than the actual George Romero remake that was released alongside it. Is it tense and atmospheric? Yes. Is it bloody? Undoubtedly so. Is it filled with social commentary? Oh yes. Is it still hilarious? You better believe it.
Shaun of the Dead follows our titular hero Shaun (Simon Pegg), a 29-year-old Londoner aimlessly wandering through life. He’s stuck at a retail job he hates, with younger coworkers that relentlessly mock him. He has a terrible relationship with his stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy), and has a crippling fear of commitment––much to the woe of his long-suffering girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). His only real friend is his flatmate Ed (Nick Frost), an even bigger slacker who enables Shaun’s self-destructive lifestyle, encouraging him to stay up all night playing video games and drink his troubles away at their favorite pub, The Winchester.
After Liz finally breaks up with Shaun, he has an epiphany. Drunk, he stumbles into his kitchen and grabs a marker, furiously scribbling on the whiteboard stuck to his fridge before he passes out on the floor. He wakes up the next morning to see his messy handwriting staring back at him: “GO AROUND MUM’S, GET LIZ BACK, SORT LIFE OUT!” Groggily pulling himself up, Shaun shuffles out of his flat to start the day. There’s only one problem: a viral outbreak has swept over London and the city is now overrun by zombies. Thus begins the hardest day of Shaun’s life. He’s forced to become a responsible adult — whether he likes it or not — as he struggles to keep himself, his family and his friends alive.
In George Romero’s movies, the undead were a social justice metaphor to describe the sociopolitical state of America throughout the 60s and 70s. Zombies weren’t just a force of chaos that progressed the plot forward to its climax: they represented a mass movement that upset the social order, the new generation literally eating the old. They were monsters, but they weren’t the true enemies of Romero’s films: humans were. By being unable to trust one another and put aside their selfish whims, the survivors of Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead engineered their own downfall, and their actions proved to be more horrifying than anything the dead were capable of.
In contrast to the cynicism of Romero’s Dead films, Shaun of the Dead’s social commentary is far more lighthearted, even cheeky. The montage that plays over the title credits goes from one location to the next, showing groups of dead-eyed Londoners performing rote tasks of everyday life — working retail jobs, commuting to work, shuffling through the city streets, all with the same glazed, vacant look. These people were already dead before the outbreak ever started; by the time they return later in the film as zombies, there’s very little difference between what they’ve become and what they were when they were alive.
Even Shaun himself isn’t exempt from this mindless repetition and crushing monotony. In fact, he’s become so deadened by it that he initially doesn’t realize the apocalypse has begun.
In the film’s opening sequence, Shaun gets ready for work and drags himself down to the corner store to buy an ice cream cone. This scene is replicated once again post-outbreak, right down to the camera work. He stares forlornly at his feet as he trudges through the empty streets, passing overturned traffic signs and wrecked cars. When a panicked man runs by him, he only offers a passing glance and shrugs. In the store, he doesn’t even notice the bloody handprints smeared on the freezer door when he dips in for his precious ice cream, and on the way home, he narrowly avoids falling into the undead clutches of a dogwalker he passed in the title sequence — brushing it off when he assumes it wants change.
Underneath the bloody slapstick and sight gags, Shaun of the Dead is a story about a man learning how to be an adult under unprecedented circumstances — a reality most of us find ourselves living now in the age of COVID. With his dead-end job, fear of commitment, and aimless life, it’s difficult for the audience not to see at least a tiny part of themselves in Shaun.
Unlike the doomed heroes of Romero’s zombie films, Shaun is not utterly defeated or mentally broken by his experiences. Instead, we watch him undergo a metamorphosis into an assertive and mature man, opposite to the one he was at the film’s start. He unknowingly checks off each task on his whiteboard list: he takes care of his mother, he repairs his relationship with his stepfather, and he even gets Liz back. However, that’s not to say all of this doesn’t come without great personal cost. As silly as Shaun of the Dead may be, it’s still a horror movie with high stakes and an even higher body count. Not all of Shaun’s loved ones make it out alive, and the film plays their deaths for as much heartbreak as it can, making these dramatic moments all the more poignant in an otherwise hilarious film.
The bittersweet message in showing that Shaun isn’t able to save everyone also feels like a bit like a commentary on growing up: no matter how hard we try to hold onto our adolescence as we transition into adulthood, there will always be some things — and people — we will have to leave behind.