Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland are two movies that belong to a very specialized subgenre. Both movies are romantic, zombie, comedies. Which of the two is the best movie in this subgenre? This post will attempt to answer this very important aesthetic question. Shaun of the Dead is the first film of this subgenre and as far as I know Zombieland is the only the second film of this subgenre. Humor and zombies have been mixed together before Shaun of the Dead.
George Romero, who arguably started the modern zombie movie craze, as opposed to the prior voodoo zombie movies, with Night of the Living Dead had no comedic elements in his first film of the his long ongoing zombie series of films. Night of the Living Dead was just one scary film. I remember watching the film as a teenager in a theatre and children in the row in front of me were crying. Night of the Living Dead set a new standard for scary and semi-realistic splatter that was very different from the corny monster movies I grew up with prior to this film.
Night of the Living Dead is a black and white film but the fake blood is still scarier than the bright red blood of many modern horror films. This reminds me that the shower scene in the original Psycho is still one of the scariest horror scenes I have ever seen despite the black and white format. Perhaps our scariest dreams are in black and white and the surreal nature of black and white harkens to deeper fears than any realistic depiction of blood and violence could.
Romero did interject minor humorous elements to Dawn of the Dead but was much more satiric than humorous. Dawn of the Dead was in part a satire about mindless, and therefore zombie like, consumer culture. Romero’s fourth film Land of the Dead followed a similar pattern of satire and focused on government. Diary of the Dead, Romero’s latest film, satirized internet culture and Andy Warhol’s one minute of fame as a goal in contrast to goals of simple survival. Is satire humor? This is a question far beyond the scope of this post. I can say in general Romero’s films do not elicit much in the way of belly laughs and if there is humor then the humor is largely cerebral and will cause a cynical smile to appear on the face of most viewers rather than out and out laughs.
The Evil Dead series did have a fair amount of physical humor and the last movie in the series, Army of Darkness, is actually quite funny and perhaps because of this not nearly as scary as the first film in the series, The Evil Dead. This seems to be the dilemma of making a good zombie comedy. How do you make a film that is both scary and funny? Shaun of the Dead did manage to do this. Shaun of the Dead is scary. Shaun of the Dead is also a wonderful comment on romantic relationships. Did I mention that I am a big fan of Shaun of the Dead? How does Zombieland compare in these three categories?
Shaun, of Shaun of the Dead, has been dumped by his girlfriend, Liz, the day before the zombie outbreak. The reasons his girlfriend dumps Shaun’s sorry butt is that he is a loser. Not even a big time loser but the typical average loser we all meet every day. Shaun doesn’t take drugs or gamble. No the problem is that Shaun doesn’t do much of anything. His great crime is that he is a lazy sod, a little British English is appropriate here given the British setting of the film, who is in a dead end job and just goes to the pub on every single date and can’t even be bothered to make a proper appointment at the fish place, presumably a romantic restaurant, as opposed to the smoke and alcohol sodden Winchester Pub that is Shaun’s home away from home because he has no drive or imagination to do anything else. Shaun is as close to being a zombie a human can be.
There is a very clever plot structure where the pre-Z-Day day of Shaun has a parallel structure to the post-Z-Day of Shaun. Shaun has a largely mindless, boring day before the zombies show up and has the same day all over again and even a lot of the same dialogue but with zombies added to the mix. I can only imagine the hundreds of hours spent to create this delicate plot construction. The plot construction makes a message in of itself. This delicate plot construction absolutely does not exist in Zombieland but I don’t think this is such a relevant point except that some of us do watch zombie films again and again, I do not think and I am alone, and this plot structure gives something the viewer can discover over time.
Shaun manages to convince Liz to leave the relative safety of her apartment to go to the pub which is one of the worst places to sit out a zombie attack. The zombies energize Shaun and he becomes a zombie killing machine largely with his cricket bat. The Winchester Pub turns out to have a working Winchester and this is a big deal in England since there is gun control and you can’t just smash the window of a gun store to get some guns and ammo. Shaun’s go to the pub downtown filled with zombies strategy sucks but you can’t fault his strong right arm as he bashes zombies left and right. Shaun manages to get his whole party killed, including his best friend, but he gets the girl in the end so I suppose this is a happy ending. Z-Day is shorthand for zombie day. Z-Day is when the zombies show up.
Liz doesn’t need a lot of excitement post Z-Day since she got her fill of living on the edge on Z-Day. They live happily ever after. Oh, who are kidding? You just know that Liz dumps Shaun’s sorry butt a year after the events of Z-Day since Shaun is and always will be a loser who can’t grow and can’t move on. The ultimate evidence of this is that Shaun keeps his zombified best friend around to play video games with.
The overall satiric message of Shaun of the Dead is that we were practically zombies before Z-Day, Z-Day would give us a temporary rush of adrenaline and the day after Z-Day, nothing would change. I totally agree. This is a much deeper satiric message than some Romero hippy nonsense about consumer culture, government or the internet. Humans are lazy mindless sods regardless of temporary historical conditions that may temporarily energize them and this is the bigger problem and heck you might as well laugh and enjoy the show.
The romance of Zombieland centers on the virginity of Columbus. Columbus finally gets to stroke the hair of his hot female neighbor because she is in a state of shock after being attacked by a homeless man. The homeless man was a zombie and she turns into a zombie and tries to kill Columbus. Columbus has not had a lot of luck in the romance department.
Later, Columbus meets a pair of sisters. The sisters are con artists. The older sister is Wichita. Wichita is the object of the affections of Columbus. This romance is so poorly developed I do not even know where to begin. Wichita is a simplistic femme fatale. The characterization of Wichita is almost insulting to women.
Wichita is supposed to have some trust issues with men that preclude her from even displaying the most basic common sense. We are led to believe the two sisters are smart enough to be major con artists and wrap men around their little fingers with their feminine wiles but are not smart enough to realize they want to keep the muscle, the men, around for protection. Wichita is not even consistently an idiot.
The dialogue between Columbus and Wichita is forced, cliché and pure Hollywood. Wichita is just too hot for Columbus and maybe since he is practically the last man on Earth you might buy the hook up but barely. You never really believe the romance between Columbus and Wichita. The relationship is pure Hollywood were the loser everyman gets the hot chick. This is a type of wish fulfillment for the loser male audience and guarantees ticket sales. Some explanation of Wichita’s trust issues might have made her a more believable character but this is doubtful.
The younger sister, Little Rock, is even more one dimensional than Wichita. She is twelve and apparently smart to do, as mentioned, cons but she has never heard of Willie Nelson, Gandhi, or Bill Murray. I guess this level of ignorance is supposed to be funny. I didn’t laugh.
The sisters are supposed to be smart enough to get the drop on a super zombie killing machine, Tallahassee, played by Woody Harrelson, twice but dumb enough to believe an amusement park is free of zombies because of a rumor. The sisters are so stupid that they turn on all the lights and sounds of the amusement park at night! I guess the idea of scouting the amusement park during the day quietly is just too clever for a couple of dumb females. Predictably turning all the lights and sounds on attracts an army of zombies from miles around. The men must come to the rescue and Columbus gets the girl in the end because of his act of bravery which violates his rule about never being a hero. The women in Zombieland are furniture that have barely more characterization than the zombies. The women are objects created to make the fight scene in the amusement park happen.
I found the men in Zombieland believable and really liked the description of Columbus as a nerdy, neurotic, shut in that has survived because of his ticks. Woody Harrelson does a fantastic performance as a red neck zombie killing machine. Columbus and Tallahassee are a classic Hollywood odd couple that is predictable but works.
Shaun of the Dead clearly wins over Zombieland in the romance category!
There are major differences between the Shaun of the Dead zombies and the Zombieland zombies. The biggest difference is that the zombies in Shaun of the Dead are slow zombies. The zombies in Zombieland are fast zombies. Romero zombies are generally slow. They shamble and if you cannot outrun a Romero zombie then you need to stop going to McDonalds forever. The Shaun of the Dead zombies are even slower than the Romero zombies. I mean these guys just crawl. Snails are whizzing past the Shaun of the Dead zombies.
Fast zombies first gained prominence in 28 Days Later. There had been fast zombies in the horrible, atrocious, criminally liable, stupid, bad, stinky, remakes of the Romero zombie films, films that never should have happened, but no one really watched those films so they don’t count. 28 Days Later is a great film and in the top ten of zombie films of all time, the less said about the sequel the better, and the fast zombie introduced added something special to zombie films. I am Legend came after 28 Days Later and had even faster zombies that were also super strong and super agile. However, if you make the zombies too fast and too strong then you have to wonder how humans could survive at all.
I would like to make the following plot observation about fast zombies and slow zombies. Slow zombies allow the smart, but not necessarily physically fit, everyman to shine. Dealing with slow zombies is more about having steady nerves than being physically fit. You got to be in really good shape to handle fast zombies. How many cerebral but not necessarily fit heroes are out there? Grissom, of CSI: Las Vegas? Dr Who? Not many. As a smart, debatable, but not very fit, guy I like smart and less fit heroes. I think there are a lot of guys like me out there and if you are planning to write a zombie screen play, keep this in mind.
Slow zombies also allow a lot more dialogue! Shaun of the Dead characters have tons of time to yak and yak and fortunately the conversation is marvelous. Shaun would be dead in Zombieland. Shaun has a paunch and has not done anything more challenging than lift a pint of beer in years and would be easily caught by a fast zombie.
A big part of zombie lore is the ongoing argument about rules of survival. The apex of this sort of argument is the book The Zombie Survival Guide. Shaun of the Dead breaks just about every zombie survival rule for comedic effect. Shaun does not stay put as instructed by the government via television. Shaun abandons the more fortified, second story, and isolated position of the apartment of Liz for a less fortified, first story and exposed position in a pub downtown. Shaun wants love not survival and gets love at the expense of the survival of everyone on his team but this girlfriend.
Zombie rules of survival play a more prominent role in Zombieland than in Shaun of the Dead. The premise of Zombieland is that Columbus has developed a series of rules that have enabled him to survive and are referenced throughout the film. I find the rules that Columbus has created are funny but not very useful and will deal with this in a later post.
The zombies in both movies are not exactly Romero zombies. Zombieland zombies suffer from some sort of mad cow disease that was contracted by patient zero via a hamburger. In this regards the Zombieland zombies resemble the diseased zombies of 28 Days rather than a classic Romero zombie. This also means that body shots can work on Zombieland zombies. Also, if someone dies in Zombieland then they are not infected and they do not automatically become a zombie. The Shaun of the Dead zombies are slow but only destroying the zombie brain kills a Shaun of the Dead zombie. The origins of the Shaun of the Dead zombies are slightly mysterious but zombification appears to have some sort of scientific rather than supernatural cause. The zombies of both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland can apparently be fooled by acting like a zombie. In both cases zombies do not mess with zombies and human acting like a zombie can walk among the zombies safely. Bill Murray uses this trick to run around a zombie infested Hollywood. Shaun and his party use the fake zombie trick to temporarily get past a crowd of zombies. This is unlike the Romero zombies that have some sort of unerring instinct that allows them to tell if someone really is a zombie and cannot be fooled.
So which movie has better zombies? The zombies in Zombieland are scarier looking. The zombies in Shaun of the Dead are more interesting. In Shaun of the Dead we get a before and after look at the zombies. We see the zombies as humans the day before. The zombies in Shaun of the Dead are less generic and keep some of their human habits and this trait is later exploited by humans after Z-Day. The zombie kill of the day in Zombieland is also a lot of fun. This is a close one but I found the Shaun of the Dead zombies to be more entertaining.
This is the most difficult category to compare since humor is largely subjective. Shaun of the Dead as a film set in Great Britain, with British actors, and produced in Great Britain and reflects British humor. Zombieland is pure US style humor. There is more “wit” in Shaun of the Dead. I mean by wit, carefully constructed dialogue that leads to humor. In general, Shaun of the Dead is the more carefully constructed screenplay. I have no doubt ten times more energy and time went into the Shaun of the Dead screen play than the Zombieland screenplay.
Shaun of the Dead includes situational humor, physical humor, and deadpan irony. Most of the humor in Zombieland is just situational humor and verbal put downs. The range of humor is much narrower in Zombieland than in Shaun of the Dead. Bill Murray does an extended cameo as himself. Bill Murray is one of my favorite comedians but I didn’t find him that funny in this film. Shaun of the Dead wins in the comedy area as well.
Shaun of the Dead is superior in the area of romance, zombies and comedy. Shaun of the Dead is the better Rom-Zom-Com!