not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
This last weekend, some friends and I re-watched the first two chapters in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s “Cornetto Trilogy,” and on Sunday watched the final film, The World’s End, in a theater with not nearly enough people in it. Edgar Wright’s films always seem to underperform in the States, possibly because Wright’s directing style is such an outlier in a period of blockbuster-heavy cinema, with so many films looking, sounding, and playing exactly the same. When The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Skyfall, and Star Trek: Into Darkness all have the exact same sequence of events happen to their villain, when every mainstream film seems to be a variation on the exact same story, a filmmaker like Wright can fall by the wayside. His films move fast and trust the audience to keep up, something modern audiences appreciate less than one would expect. As the aggregate knowledge of pop culture has risen with the increasing democratization of media, you would expect a greater number of people who appreciate Pegg and Wright’s decision to respect their audience rather than pander to it.
But enough complaining, let’s get to the purpose: rewatching all three films in the same weekend made me realize that there was more to just this trilogy than the reappearance of an ice cream cone and a fence-jumping gag. Every film engages with one of the more well-worn paths of modern cinema, and rather than simply recreate familiar moments, each film works as a commentary on its particular subgenre.
In Shaun of the Dead, Pegg and Wright look at the zombie movie’s function as a power fantasy. The near-simultaneous resurgence of zombie and superhero films at the beginning of the 2000s is not coincidence; both subgenres tend to focus on a single character who is physically and mentally exceptional in his current environment. Most of the time, he was not previously like this- no stronger or smarter than the people around him, just an average person living an average life. Then something changed, and he was at the top of the pyramid. The major difference between superhero films and zombie films is that in the former, the protagonist improves himself; in the latter, his people around him degrade. Both types of stories traditionally work as an escapist fantasy for adolescents who can both identify with the protagonist’s initial powerlessness, and feel a vicarious thrill when he is endowed with power. Anyone who has felt like Peter Parker will immediately grasp the appeal of being Spider-Man.
Likewise, anyone who has been in Shaun’s position, trapped in a world that constantly demands he improve himself, societal expectations hemming him in on all sides, can easily appreciate the appeal of that society being torn down around him. For the young man in his 20s being forced to grow up against his will, this idea is particularly appealing. His friends have moved on to bigger and better things, his parents seem to regard him with a deep disappointment that they are reluctant to articulate, his girlfriend is beginning to wonder whether their history together is enough justification to continue the relationship. The conclusion many such a man comes to is that society is the source of his troubles. He can’t live a more adult life until he gets a better job, he can’t get a better job because he hasn’t accomplished anything commensurate to the qualifications for a real career, and he can’t accomplish anything because the thousand minor inconveniences of everyday life keep getting in his way. If all the bullshit was stripped away, all the petty expectations and endless demands of society wiped off the map, then his true colors would show. Then he would be able to become the sort of person everyone expects him to be.
This isn’t to say he wants all of society stripped away, especially if society is people- he’d like a few of his friends to be around, and his parents, and his girlfriend, and maybe a few of her friends, too – he wants her to be happy, after all – and maybe make them the friends who have never approved of him, who always thought him a waste of time, and let them eat their words as they see the type of person he can be when it really counts, and he no longer has to deal with all the bullshit that was getting in the way before. And his girlfriend will see it, and his parents, and his friends. After all, they’re not the problem, it’s the larger societal network of people he doesn’t know and rarely interacts with who are the real problem. But if he has any self-awareness at all, the young man will realize that this isn’t entirely realistic- you have to lose some people close to you in any apocalypse, and maybe the friend who’s become an asshole, the stepfather you never really bonded with, maybe you could stand to let go of them. And of course your girlfriend’s friends are only there as a courtesy… really, when it comes down to it, it’s your mom, your best friend, and your girlfriend. But suppose you had to lose one or two of them… which order?
In Shaun of the Dead, the title character doesn’t articulate any of these desires or preferences (and good thing; he’d be too pathetic for words if he did), but they just seem to happen somehow. This is another through-line for the Cornetto Trilogy: the supernatural or unreal elements always seem to correspond to a repressed psychological desire of the central character. This is a major element of Wright’s Scott Pilgrim adaptation, a film that is essentially a videogame-themed externalization of relationship anxiety, and I have seen several people on the internet use this to reach the conclusion that various Wright films take place “inside the protagonist’s head,” particularly The World’s End. But Wright’s not especially concerned with Charlie Kaufmanisms, and this tendency of his worlds to mirror his main characters’ psychological states can more helpfully be understood as a demonstration of why we need these forms of entertainment in the first place. People like Shaun may or may not be happier in a world with a zombie apocalypse, but they are definitely happier in a world with zombie movies. Why is Shaun the only one with a plan, the best zombie-killer of his group, and the person that everyone trusts with the gun despite him being a terrible shot? Because that is the promise of the genre.
The genre’s other promise is the slow, inevitable destruction of whatever bulwarks its heroes erect against chaos, and what makes Shaun of the Dead a true zombie movie rather than an Airplane-esque send-up is the way the movie slowly, inevitably demolishes the wish-fulfillment fantasy on which the genre is based. Let’s face it: most of the anonymous people you wouldn’t blink at turning into undead shells have nothing to do with how you feel oppressed and overwhelmed by the world. Oh sure, there might be a few people who are rude to you in person, someone who says nasty things on the internet, but those are brief, largely unimportant interactions in the larger picture. You might imagine a larger force out there, of people who discriminate against you or judge you or don’t give you a fair shake, but in general you run into those people in your imagination far more frequently than you do anywhere else. And aside from your own imagination, your biggest oppressors are the people around you: you don’t feel satisfied with your job because you see your friends with better ones, you don’t feel like an adult because you still can’t identify with your parents, you don’t do right by your girlfriend because you’re intimidated by her, or don’t think you’re good enough for her, or are constantly afraid she is going to leave you. It’s the people you care about who create these feelings in you; they’re the oppressors, so they’re the people who ultimately have to go.
This isn’t a coded message Wright and Pegg smuggled into the film or a “hidden meaning” in my understanding of the word. They may well not have realized that this interpretation was likely or possible. Possibly it’s not: David and Diane die after Shaun’s mum, so clearly the film doesn’t follow the progression in a completely straightforward manner. But in breaking down the zombie genre to its essentials, they’ve created a story in which the central character gradually matures as the people around him (all of whom, pre-zombie, spend most of their screen time reminding him how he doesn’t measure up) are bitten and killed. By reenacting the standard movements of the zombie film (the person who hides a bite! The desperate last stand!) with a modicum of self-awareness, they’ve laid bare the foundations on which the genre rests.
The minor characters in Shaun of the Dead all reveal something about themselves just before they die, usually something that casts their relationship to Shaun in a different light than we’ve previously seen. Shaun’s stepfather was strict with him, but only because he felt Shaun needed the push, and loved his adopted son enough to let that son hate him, so long as it helped him become a man. His mother was not being distant or passive-aggressive all those times she told Shaun that she just wanted him to be happy – that really was the only thing she ever wanted for him. David and Diane might have been constant reminders of how Shaun was failing as a boyfriend in particular and an adult in general, but he was a constant reminder that their relationship was a sham built as much on convenience and inertia as any aspect of Shaun’s life. And though Ed may seem like a millstone dragging Shaun down into the ocean of perpetual adolescence, the big guy ends up being loyal to Shaun beyond all reason.
What happens, in these characters’ final moments, is that Shaun learns to see them as fully three-dimensional people rather than constant reminders of his own failures. It’s only right as they leave him that he realizes everything else they represented. At the near-end of the movie, with just Liz and him left, he realizes that he just wasn’t good enough to make it, even in this movie-fantasy analogy for his feelings of societal oppression. Society dragged him down in real life, and then it turned to zombies and dragged him down again. He tried to fight it, but ended up destroying nearly all the people who cared about him. The problem wasn’t out there; it was in himself. He and Liz briefly consider a murder-suicide pact, but decide instead that, though outnumbered and outgunned, they’re going to face the chaos together. It is with that decision, and its supreme acceptance, that they are finally saved.
Flash forward a few weeks. The new world isn’t that different from the old- Shaun is cleaned up, and the coffee table in his living room is free of beer, but he’s still got a basic routine. He hasn’t defeated conformity, any more than society has destroyed all its zombies, instead he’s reached a sort of uneasy coexistence with it. Turns out you don’t have to fight a hopeless battle against the great invisible forces challenging your right to self-actualization: you can just step ’round them in the street, change the channel when they show up on TV, and limit your time with them when you feel like indulging in some mindless activity yourself. If you feel them breathing down your neck, give them a sharp rap on the knuckles and put a controller in their hands.