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by Karma Waltonen

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In the last entry, I discussed the zeitgeist as captured by SHAUN OF THE DEAD, noting that I was presenting a paper on the film for THE APOCALYPSE AND ITS DISCONTENTS conference in London (see the last column for a brief summary of the film). Zeitgeist means "spirit of the age." Some, for example, have noted that the 1980s in America was the "me" decade, symbolized by selfishness and greed. WALL STREET captured that zeitgeist well.

One of the ways to think about zeitgeist in a film with monsters is to think about what the monsters represent, since zeitgeist is usually about what we fear and what we value in a particular time and place. Zombies are an interesting metaphor. Like other monsters, they change based on the zeitgeist of their society. Thus, the original zombie is a human who is under the spell of another—who is forced to work against his or her will. This was a literalization of the fear of slavery in a time and place where slavery was a huge issue (the zombie myth is traced primarily back to Haiti, which is, to my knowledge, the only nation that ever had a successful slave insurrection; they got their freedom from their masters and from their French colonizers). Our zombies represent other issues, other fears.

At the conference, I discussed how the film is primarily about the concept of change. Of course, on one level, there is the fear of changing into a zombie. Shaun is also apparently resistant to personal change, as he doesn't alter Ed's position in his life, despite the problems Ed's presence causes in his relationship with his girlfriend, Liz, and his roommate, Pete. Shaun works at a job he doesn't enjoy, despite his belief that he wants to do other things (a much younger co-worker challenges, "when?"). Liz and Shaun end up at the same old pub night after night, despite Liz's fears that she'll grow old there. Shaun must be reminded to make an uncomfortable bi-monthly visit to his mother, because he has refused to change his relationship with his stepfather since he was a petulant twelve-year-old.

At the beginning of the film, Shaun promises that "things'll change." However, the next day is strikingly like the one before it. In fact, Shaun is so completely caught up in wandering through his world in a zombie-like state that he misses the signs of the zombie apocalypse for over a day. When Liz breaks up with Shaun for breaking his promise, Ed can only state, ironically, that "it's not the end of the world."

Shaun decides he must go to see his mother,
get Liz back, and sort his life out. Even after he is attacked by the dead, his plan doesn't change. Shaun decides to take charge, to kill his stepfather if his stepfather "changes," to rescue Liz and thus the relationship, and to then curl up with a pint "and wait for all this to blow over." In the course of the day, things don't go according to plan, but Shaun is able to rid himself of his stepfather, get Liz back, and get his life back on track.


After showing the film, I always ask my students if Shaun has really changed. The vast majority of them think that he has, since he accepts his stepfather, takes charge, and installs Liz as his true primary relationship partner (instead of Ed).

This is an arguable point at best. Take, for example, the reconciliation with his stepfather. For 17 years, Shaun has insisted that Philip is his stepfather, not his father. He is relatively eager to kill Philip after Philip is bitten, though he can't actually confront him when the time comes. He continues to be snippy with Philip, until Philip, dying, has a monologue in which he tells Shaun he's always loved him and wanted the best for him. Shaun is moved and finally accepts Philip as his father. However, it took the man dying in front of him to move Shaun. Even when Philip had been bitten and asked to bury the hatchet, Shaun remained stubborn. Although Shaun accepts Philip when it's too late, he has not changed into the kind of man who would be forgiving and accepting without an extreme amount of prompting.

Similarly, it takes an extreme threat, like zombies, to get Shaun out of his rut. He won't schedule a holiday with Liz, or even an anniversary celebration, or even a night at "the place that does all the fish," but when it's life or death, he'll make a plan. It should be noted, however, that his "idea of a romantic nightspot and an impenetrable fortress are the same thing," i.e. they just end up at the pub for the night again.

Although Shaun could be said to have grown up over the course of the film through putting Ed in his proper place as sidekick rather than partner, Shaun is still passive in making this happen. At one point in the film, Shaun explains to Ed that Ed is a burden (it takes Ed endangering all of their lives (again) to make him snap). Yet Ed must actually come to the same realization and must insist upon being left behind—Shaun isn't ready to do it, literally or figuratively. Liz is able to move in with Shaun because all of the other
roommates are done away with; Ed moves into his proper place—the shed—only because he is extraordinarily unfit to be in the house.

Over and over again, this masterful example of narrative economy (in which no line and no shot is wasted) underscores the tension between stagnation and change. This is done primarily through the doubling that occurs in the movie.

All of the actors seen in the opening, in which the populace of London is shown to be already zombified by dead-end jobs, public transit, and music and phone devices, return as actual zombies. Shaun has two walks to the store—identical in almost every way—except for zombie-related changes he doesn't notice and his choice to have diet coke instead of regular after his second vow to change.

Several lines are repeated in the film, but it's repetition with a difference, since the meaning of "he's not my dad," "surviving," "leave him alone," "you've got red on you," and "I am not laughing" shift significantly in meaning. In other words, the lines stay the same, but they change. For example, in the beginning of the film, Shaun prompts Ed on where to shoot zombies and when to reload in a video game. This dialogue is repeated later, with Ed prompting Shaun, as Shaun ineffectively deals with real-life (pardon the pun) zombies.

To truly determine whether Shaun has changed, we must consider the symbolism of the end of the film.

Right after Shaun and Liz are saved by Yvonne, Shaun's ex-roommate, we see what's on the television on the six-month anniversary of z-day. Shaun enters the room, stumbling and yawning as he had in the beginning of the film (in a way reminiscent of zombies) and he discusses the day with Liz. They'll be having tea, reading the Sundays, having a roast, hitting the pub, and vegging out in front of the telly. Shaun goes out into the shed to play video games with Ed while Liz puts the kettle on.

Too much is familiar; too much is the same. One of the most significant changes, in fact, is that Shaun will be taking sugar in his tea, something he hasn't done since the 1980s. Thus, even though we might be tempted to read him as more mature, in some ways, he's reverting to childhood.

Many of my students come to see Shaun's change as temporary at best over the course of our discussion. However, when I ask them if society has changed, they are quick to say no.

Although we only get a quick glimpse of this society via the television, it is clear that the world has not been altered by the
apocalypse. Again, doubling is used to make the point clear. The opening credits of the film show Londoners at work, including an old man pushing trolleys in a parking lot. At the end, we see a former young man (Noel), shuffling along like an old man. His blood lust contained by a chain, he has become a compliant "ideal" worker "in the service industry." (Note the shift back to the older meaning of Zombie, although the fear has been removed.)

The shows we see on the television are the same ones we saw when Shaun was demonstrating televisions at work—news, an odd obstacle course game show, and TRISHA (a British form of JERRY SPRINGER). The contestants on the game show have now been replaced by zombies, who are driven by a dangled piece of meat. Trisha's guest is the same woman from the beginning, but she is now speaking about how she continues to live with her zombie husband, to the disgust of the guests.

Shaun's inability to change is not necessarily because of any personal fault: he is a part of his society. The inhabitants of this society are already zombified. Yet even if we fear this change, we can be reassured that as individuals and as a society, we won't have to change, even in the face of the end of the world.

Years ago, after the events of September 11th, I was told that the world would never be the same. Satire was dead. We would never again be ignorant about international politics. We would not be divided along party lines. We would never again have our news dominated by the whims of badly-behaving celebrities. Every aspect of our lives would be different.

I am a cynical person, so I didn't believe any of that. One of our greatest strengths as a species is that we are exceptionally adaptable. Satire resumed. Ignorant people remained ignorant, unaware, and willing to stereotype all of the foreigners they mistrusted before the tragedy anyway. Party lines reappeared immediately, as one party decided that to disagree was to side with the terrorists and continued to use fear as its main mode of persuasion. Our celebrities went to rehab and we stumbled along after them.

Thus, SHAUN OF THE DEAD captures perfectly our peculiar relationship to change. We know we should change—that we should go down to the gym, that we should know more, that we should quit smoking, that we should be awake and aware, that we should, as Liz says, "want to live a little." We know we should, but we know we won't. It's not the end of the world, at least if we still have our tea and telly.

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Comedies with Dr. Karma
Every other Wednesday

Dr. Karma discusses all things comic, from the classics to what may become classics. Laugh with, but not at, her, please.

Other Columns
Other columns by Karma Waltonen:

Goodbye -- Dr. Karma

The Dictator and Dark Shadows

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A Touch of Cult

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Karma Waltonen
Dr. Karma is a silly, nerdy know-it-all, but in a good way. She brings all her overeducation to discuss that which truly matters: comedy. As some famous guy once said: “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.” Or something like that.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Karma Waltonen by clicking here.

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