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|
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|
|Yvonne and her counterpart group.|
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.