Shannon Briggs and I are big fans of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Shaun of the Dead (2004). So we came together to discuss two of our favourite zombie films.
Gabby: I recently Shaun of the Dead as part of a Cornetto Trilogy in a beautiful cinema in London, The Prince Charles Cinema. It was such a treat to see it in such a great location and when I saw those films up on the big screen, I got even more out of them than I had before. I noticed little bits I hadn’t yet and I laughed with the other fans in the screen. I also now have a poster of their advertisement of the screening of the trilogy up on my wall, so it was a great night for me. Do you have any memorable viewing experiences of “Night” or “Shaun”?
Shannon: I was extremely lucky in my first viewing of “Night” in that I didn’t really know that much about it until I was like nine. It blew my mind! Seeing a zombie girl not much older than me stabbing her mom to death was and is an unnerving scene, like a lot of scenes in that film. “Shaun” caught my interest because I heard it was a “horror romantic comedy” and I really hadn’t seen any horror comedies at the time. The trailer also made it look like it was more of a slacker comedy and being a big Kevin Smith fan at the time, I felt I had to see it. “Shaun” turned out to be much more than that. It was the first DVD I immediately switched to the commentary track after viewing it.
“Shaun” was such a nice surprise because at the time, the cast was unknown to me and Edgar Wright’s direction caught my eye. Wright has proved himself a visionary director and I consider Simon Pegg and Nick Frost two of the best comic actors of this generation. I admire that while “Shaun”, like Romero’s “Dead” films, uses zombies as a metaphor; it’s a metaphor that isn’t dated…Immaturity.
Gabby: I heartily agree that Wright is a masterful director and story writer as well as Frost and Pegg excelling themselves in their performances. Shaun of the Dead is so full of small character beats it makes the film irresistibly re-watchable. Take that instance when Shaun is realising his mother is in trouble. There is comedy, horror and tragedy. We love these characters; we don’t want to see them turn into zombies. We want to spend more time with them. That to me is the sign of a brilliant movie. The themes that it deals with make it even more special and immaturity is definitely a major one.
Shannon: Yes! Edgar Wright puts so much thought in every scene, it demands to be watched over and over. I remember on Ebert & Roeper’s review of “Shaun” that Roeper really didn’t like the dark turn the third act took. I think it works because we’re expecting there to be a last minute change and everyone survives, that is not the case.
Gabby: I agree I think that there are clues the whole way through Shaun of the Dead that it is going to be, as Margo Channing would put it, a bumpy night, and it’s the same with “Night”.
What elements of Night of the Living Dead are the ones that still stand out to you?
Shannon: I remember the ending of “Night” really sticking with me (it seems to stick with everyone). I know casting Duane Jones wasn’t about his race but his acting ability and Romero didn’t intend it to have racial overtones, but how doesn’t it? Also, it shows that at the end of the world as we know it no matter how much we wish it was full of Bens, it’s more likely it’s overrun with Harrys.
Gabby: The end is so powerful you can’t help it staying with you. I do hope that there will always be a few Bens to balance out the Harrys of this world. Let’s dive into the racial undertones a bit. What impact do you think that vibe has on a modern audience?
Shannon: Well, what really works is that there isn’t any acknowledgement of Ben’s race. Again, I know that Romero didn’t write the character as African American. But I think coming off the Civil Rights movement and a lot of the turmoil going on at that time, it just struck a chord. Today, no matter how evolved we think we are about race, racism still exists. So I think it still strikes that chord now.
Gabby: I also think Duane Jones’ performance is such a rock for the film to be supported by. It has so many magic elements though; I still think there are still some brilliant images that are still haunting. It is wonderfully made. What is it about the two movies that earn them a place on your favourites?
Shannon: I know that “Night” can be extremely slow and other than Jones, the acting veers from naturalistic to extreme. However, Romero sets a perfect atmosphere of dread and hopelessness, and the deadness in the eyes of the zombies during their onslaught on the house is haunting. “Shaun” is the template for horror comedies. It pays respect to the genre it obviously loves but doesn’t let that define it. It’s silly and horrifying at the same time.
Gabby: Whilst on the subject of the zombies, what do you think they represent in “Night” and “Shaun” retrospectively? Do you think that both Wright and Romero use zombies in an effective manner to comment on humanity?
Shannon: The zombies in “Night” seem to me to represent a lot of things…revolution, paranoia among others as there was so much turmoil going on at that time. In “Shaun”, the zombies represent us going through life as brain-dead as they are. Shaun’s obliviousness as he walks over the zombie threat to get a Cornetto for a hangover cure is one of the funnier scenes. But really, are we really that different staring at the screens of our electronics?
Gabby: I think you are right that in “Night” it is more open to debate as what they represent. In Shaun it explores how we are mindlessly wandering and that connects with the theme of immaturity. I think commitment is one of the strongest things Shaun picks up from his experience. He is no longer going to stare his life away. He is willing to go to great lengths to commit to keeping his gang together, those he loves and those he comes to understand. I think that is present in “Night” as well. That sense of what type of person you are when the situation gets really tough. Maybe so many reject Barbara as she is what we don’t want to be, inactive.
“Night” practically invented the modern movie zombie. What kind of legacy do you think it has left? Do you think that “Shaun” has left an impact also on the zombie film? It seems that since “Shaun”, we don’t get many straight zombie films. It is either comedy or turned into a virus problem.
Shannon: Every zombie movie has the DNA of “Night” inside them. One of the most popular comic books and highest rated television shows, “The Walking Dead”, owes a huge debt to “Night”. After “Shaun” became such a cult hit, there have been several zombie movies that tried to be comedies. I think it’s a testament to the creative genius of “Shaun” that I can name a small handful of them that are even decent.
Shannon: It started the whole “fast zombie vs. slow zombie” nerd battle! Seriously, Danny Boyle did a bang up job of filming the “zombies”. The way they are edited makes them appear to come out of nowhere and they are pissed off as well! That lends a certain unpredictability that was refreshing to see.
I think the cast is all around excellent, especially Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris. The protagonists, Jim and Selena, become two different people at the end of the movie then what they are at the beginning. Jim is interesting in how much daddy issues he has. He spends most of the film searching for a patriarchal figure, and ends up becoming one. I know the third act is considered the weakest part, but John Murphy’s “In a House-In a Heartbeat” score in that third act is one of the things I love about it.
Gabby: Even though the film doesn’t approach the brilliance of Shaun and Night, 28 days later does have those performances and themes that make it very interesting to watch. One theme that speaks to me is that reflection of humanity. Like Night of the Living dead and Shaun of the dead, 28 days Later explores this idea that humanity is corrupt and falls into as monstrous behaviours as the zombies. But I think what you have picked up on is the humanity is also capable of great acts of love, such as Jim finding that figure of fatherhood within him. I think that zombie films can also offer quite a lot of hope for those that do stand up and fight for their humanity. Do you think that the zombie is here to stay?
Shannon: I think the zombie is riding high in a big way right now. My wife and I, as are a lot of people, are fans of The Walking Dead. But I think there is a backlash in that zombies are so main-stream right now that a segment of the horror community is sick of seeing them everywhere. It reminds me of the rise of Slashers in the late ’90s because of the success of Scream. The Walking Dead will eventually end and the zombie will go back in the shadows. But as long as there are talented people behind it in all forms of media, the zombie will never die.