Monday, April 8, 2013

Bringing Up Zombie: Screwball Comedy and the Undead

A country in chaos. Nightmarish throngs of bloodthirsty undead. A desperate group of survivors fighting for their lives, against zombies and one another. Blood, destruction, and… laughs?

Edgar Wright’s 2004 film Shaun of the Dead has all of these, combining conventions of the beloved zombie-horror genre with hilarious dialogue and situations descended from the tradition of 1940s Screwball Comedy. Much like Some Like It Hot, Shaun of the Dead doesn’t fit into the category of “pure” screwball. Besides obviously being outside the time frame of the golden age of screwball comedy (30s and 40s), Shaun of the Dead lacks many key screwball elements. Still, ties to screwball can definitely be seen.

In its broadest sense, “screwball comedy” in the 30s and 40s meant a comedy that was unpredictable (like a “screwball” pitch in baseball). By that definition, Shaun of the Dead is very much in the spirit of screwball, because its comedy comes from the unpredictability of blending of two genres.

Though it doesn’t have the witty banter and oddball characters generally associated with screwball comedy, Shaun of the Dead does have its romantic storyline in common with many screwballs. The divorce-remarriage storyline was made popular by screwballs like The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday, and  can be seen in Shaun of the Dead as well, in the plot thread of Shaun’s breakup and reconciliation with his girlfriend.
divorce at the beginning of The Philadelphia Story
In addition to elements of romantic comedy, the plot of Shaun of the Dead follows the conventions of the zombie movie genre in many ways. Warning signs of the oncoming epidemic, a group of survivors that is gradually built up and then killed off, TV reports, and a climactic siege of some sort of stronghold are all tropes of the zombie genre. By building on a framework of well-known conventions, the filmmakers were able to twist our expectations for comedic effect.

An example of this is the use of the news. In traditional zombie movies, the news is the source of exposition—what the zombies are, how they came to be, and how to deal with them. In Shaun of the Dead, however, the TV becomes a joke. Shaun’s channel skimming skips over all the important information about the onset and cause of the epidemic, and even when he and his friend to hear the official advice, they ignore it.

the news in Night of the Living Dead
Stylistically, the film also plays with our expectations and mixes zombie conventions with screwball comedy. At times, the style is that of exaggerated horror, with terrifying sound design accompanying innocuous and mundane actions. At other times, dialogue is used for comedy in a very screwball-esque way. Quotes like “You’ve got red on you,” and Shaun’s repeated exchange with Yvonne become comedic motifs that build throughout the film (much in the same way “type O blood” is used in Some Like It Hot), often put in terrifying contexts for heightened humor. Because the film works so well in both genres, the audience’s two sets of expectations can be played against one another, making for very strong comedy.
Yvonne and her counterpart group.
One aspect of early constituents of the screwball genre that would seem to set Shaun of the Dead apart is the theme of money and class issues. During the Depression, when the genre was first picking up steam, screwball comedies often focused on socioeconomic factors as the obstacle between romantic leads, with working-class characters dropped into the world of the wealthy. While Shaun of the Dead has no trace of the stark rich-poor dichotomy explored in early screwballs, money does play a role. As Lynne Pifer points out in her essay “Slacker Bites Back: Shaun of the Dead Finds New Life for Deadbeats,” it is the pressure to get a job and buy into the capitalistic system of endless work that turns middle-class suburbanites into figurative zombies. By being a slacker, Pifer argues, Shaun defies the societal pressure to let mindless work consume him.

A similar theme can be seen in the 1938 screwball You Can’t Take It With You, in which an eccentric family defies the greedy corporate tycoon—symbol of capitalism—who is trying to buy their house. The lesson is that it isn’t worth it to waste your life for money. I’m not sure I agree with all of Pifer’s argument, but her interpretation definitely connects Shaun of the Dead to screwball comedy in a way that might not be obvious at first.

The reason Shaun of the Dead is funny and memorable isn’t because it’s unlike anything we've seen before. It’s because it plays with things we have seen, combining two familiar genres into something unique and surprising.


  1. Clarify: None.

    Value: I think you do a really good job covering your topic and giving enough examples.

    I also like the pictures you've chosen.

    I like the last thought and how nicely it wraps it all up.

    Concern: None.

    Clarify: None

  2. Clarify: None. A nice, clear, easy-to-read post.

    Value: You do a great job of analyzing both genres and providing examples. You also do a good job by then explaining how exactly the genres intertwine and play off of each other.

    Concerns: Not really any major concerns except for that I disagree that Shaun of the Dead doesn't contain witty banter. I think it does right from the very first scene with all of the characters spitting rapid fire dialogue at each other.

    Suggestions: None.

  3. Clarify: Nothing, this was clear and to the point.
    Value: I really like that you included a fair amount of examples and this is a really good well rounded post.
    Concerns: Um I really have none.
    Suggestions: None either.