This episode we’re looking at SHAUN OF THE DEAD, the great zombie comedy written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright and directed by Edgar Wright.
But first, an announcement: we’re moving to biweekly episodes. Sorry, folks, but an episode a week is too tough a schedule for me to keep at. I have to go over to doing an episode every two weeks. Because there are other things in my life, you know!
Anyway, here’s the links for this episode:
And here’s the script of the episode:
Hi, I’m Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where every episode we do a deep dive into a movie or TV show. And to go along with this analysis, I publish a chart of the story we’re covering on the storylanes.com website, a chart I produced while preparing the episode. You don’t need to look at that chart – the podcast is standalone. But if you’re interested in diving a little deeper, check it out at storylanes.com.
This week we’re doing SHAUN OF THE DEAD, the 2004 zombie comedy written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright and directed by Edgar Wright. It stars Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, and Nick Frost, and it makes me laugh.
As usual, this podcast assumes you’ve seen the movie. There will be spoilers. And there won’t be detailed explanations of plot points. So if you listen to this without knowing the movie, you’re out of luck: the movie will be spoiled for you, and you may not understand what I’m talking about. It’s basically the worst of all worlds. So go watch SHAUN OF THE DEAD if you want to listen to this podcast. It’s a funny movie, and relatively low-gore for a zombie movie.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD is the story of Shaun, a guy who is just going through the motions of his life when the zombie apocalypse hits. At first, he doesn’t even notice that the living dead are wandering the streets of London, given how bland things are for him normally. But eventually he notices, and rises to the occasion, discovering his inner zombie-killing warrior.
There’s some interesting things to look at in the structure of this movie. It doesn’t much follow our standard story models. In fact, there’s things about this movie that bring into question the idea of acts and how best to identify them.
But we’ll also look at how the film adds humor to almost every scene: even when things look dire, they’re also funny. This will give me a chance to pontificate about my theories of humor, and why horror and comedy often work so well together.
So it’s going to be a fun episode, with lots of good stuff to dive into. And as usual, let’s start with characters. Why exactly are these the perfect characters for us to accompany in a humorous trip into the zombie apocalypse?
The key thing to note about these characters is just how utterly mundane they are. There really isn’t anything that distinguishes these people, that makes them suitable to be heroes in a zombie apocalypse. Which, of course, is the source of much of the comedy in this movie. This is a movie about how utterly normal people face the zombie apocalypse, and how little it changes them.
Okay, there might be one exception to my “utterly mundane” comment about these characters, and that’s Shaun. It turns out that Shaun has something in him, something that causes him to step up and provide leadership in the crisis. At his core, he has a certain ability to keep calm and carry on.
Though it’s fairly deeply hidden. We wouldn’t think it to look at him. On the surface, Shaun is a bit of a schlub. A good guy, but one in a deep rut. His life is a matter of going to his dead-end job, hanging out with his buddy Ed, and going to his favorite pub, the Winchester, with his girlfriend Liz. He once had bigger dreams, but he’s given them up. Well, somewhat bigger. We get a couple references to how Shaun no longer DJ’s. (And no offense to DJ’s, but that seems like a fairly low-effort creative project, one that requires less talent or practice than playing a musical instrument.)
Shaun is, by and large, a disappointment to the people around him. Liz wants a little more out of life – really, just a chance to go out to dinner at a real restaurant without being surrounded by the gang. And Shaun’s mom Barbara deserves the occasional bouquet of flowers for Mother’s Day. But Shaun struggles to provide these simple things – he can’t manage to get reservations for a decent restaurant, and he only remembers to bring a late bouquet when reminded by his step-dad Philip.
Still, he’s a decent fellow. He cares about the people in his life and he makes an effort to care for them. He’s just a guy who is awfully deep in his rut.
There is one key thing we should note about Shaun, however. Although he steps up in the crisis and is better suited than most of these characters to dealing with the apocalypse, we’re definitely grading on a curve here. He screws up in some fundamental ways, like when he thinks he’s led the zombies away and given them the slip but it turns out that they followed him back. And also, even his plans in the apocalypse aren’t all that different from his daily rut: his idea of a great plan is to get his gang together and hang out at the Winchester. Which, as it turns out, doesn’t turn out all that well. Of the group, only Shaun and Liz survive.
Shaun’s best friend Ed is one of those goofball man-children that show up in a lot of comedies. He’s quick with a fart joke, never takes offense, and has a real talent for enjoying his life – his only talent, really. Someone who doesn’t take anything seriously. And someone whose inability to take things seriously adds humor and levity to this movie. Ed doesn’t even get all that upset when he’s bitten by a zombie – he still makes fart jokes in the face of his impending death. And when he becomes a zombie, he’s still a guy that Shaun hangs out with.
Liz, Shaun’s girlfriend, also seems fairly conventional. There’s not a huge amount that makes her stand out as a character. She wants more out of life than Shaun will provide, but even then it’s not much. A dinner out. A chance to spend some time with Shaun without Ed around. And she is fairly good in the crisis. Not as good as Shaun, perhaps. But better than anyone else in this film.
Liz’s friends David and Dianne are comic types. David is a stuffy buffoon, self-involved, and with a crush on Liz that sets up some good comic conflict between him and Shaun. Dianne doesn’t register too strongly, except that her background as an actor is the source of some laughs.
Barbara, Shaun’s mom, is an exaggerated self-denying sweet woman who, again, is funny in how she under-reacts to the crisis. And her husband Philip is a bit grumpy and stuffy, but turns out to have his heart in the right place.
So, an utterly mundane set of characters. And that’s the point of this movie – we see how completely normal people who are not particularly suited to an apocalypse respond to one. And they respond by very much being themselves, with all their normal petty bickerings, their standard responses to life, and their limited imaginations.
With the characters in place, let’s look at the story structure.
First thing to note: this is an unusually long script. The screenplay runs 130 pages, where usually screenplays don’t go above 120. This is especially noteworthy because the film itself is only an hour and forty minutes. So clearly this is a violation of the page-per-minute rule of thumb.
The main reason for that is that this film is full of dialogue. Even when there’s action, characters are usually talking, giving a steady-stream of humorous conversation. And dialogue pages usually go faster – thus this script runs long.
Beyond that, this script has a non-standard structure, with a couple of interesting points and some unusually long scenes. In fact, the climactic scene when the zombies swarm the Winchester goes on for 19 pages, by far the longest scene in any of the films I’ve analyzed to date. We’ll get to that one, but it provides some interesting points to analyze, given that it’s longer than most sequences.
This is another of those films that starts with a teaser. But this one doesn’t start with a big action set-piece. It’s a conversation at the Winchester that introduces the main characters, Shawn, Liz, Ed, David, and Dianne, as well as the Winchester itself. It does this in a humorous scene in which Liz complains about the rut that they are in.
This particular scene, however, is almost entirely dialogue. And it goes on for five and a half pages – a long time for a scene. But at the end of it, we know these characters and know the basic conflicts between them.
We then drop into a title sequence. And one that is described in detail in the script, something that is fairly unusual. This title sequence shows a series of people plodding through life, already half-zombies. It does a lot to setup the humor of the film, as well as establishing the theme.
It’s nice to see the title sequence already thought out. A good example for the screenwriter: a title sequence can provide a little more canvas on which to tell your story.
After the titles starts act one. And as usual, act one is all about setup. And there’s hints of the coming zombie apocalypse, but no actual zombies yet.
There’s four major sequences in this first act. The first is Shaun at home, where we see his home life, living with Ed and Pete. Then Shaun goes to work, and we get a view of his worklife as a clerk at an electronics store.
Then comes a sequence in which Liz breaks up with Shaun. This serves as one of the inciting incidents of the movie. When Liz dumps Shaun, she breaks his pattern. It sets him on the emotional journey in which he has to step up and show himself worthy of her.
Of course, this is only one of the inciting incidents. The other key plotline is the zombie apocalypse. But there isn’t one particular incident that kicks that off – throughout this setup act, we see signs that zombies are coming. Sirens constantly wail in the background. The occasional zombie roams the streets of London. We never see a patient zero of the zombie apocalypse – it just sort of seeps its way into the story.
Finally, there’s a sequence in which Shaun and Ed go out drinking, and Ed consoles Shaun for the loss of Liz. And then we’re done with the setup act.
On a personal note: I love this act. As a zombie film connoisseur, this is the only example I can think of where we see this particular moment of the zombie apocalypse. Things are starting to go south, but nobody really notices it. And there’s some of the funniest stuff in the movie here, where zombies appear but Shaun doesn’t recognize them as such.
And it feels very real, especially as I sit here, sheltering in place during the Covid pandemic. I look back to January and February of this year, when the news started coming out of the pandemic, but I largely ignored it and went about my day-to-day life. Given that experience, I expect that if individual zombies started popping up in my neighborhood, I’d be just as oblivious as Shaun is here.
Anyway, at the end of act one, Shaun falls into a drunken rest. He next wakes up in a brand new day and a brand new act. And we’re now in act two.
As I’ve explained before, there’s a lot of different ways that you can identify act breaks. In my mind, from here on out the acts in SHAUN OF THE DEAD are largely distinguished by their setting. In this thinking, Act Two all takes place in or around Shaun’s house, where he lives with Ed and Pete, act three is on the road, and act four is in the Winchester.
Act one is where Shaun first encounters zombies. Right in his living room and his backyard. It is where he first kills a zombie, and where he settles on a plan for how to deal with this strange new world where he finds himself.
There’s two major sequences. In the first, Shaun and Ed meet their first zombies, as a pair shows up in their backyard. They have their first fumbling attempts to dispatch the walking dead, and those attempts are amusingly ineffective. Then they find their niche, as Shaun seizes on the cricket bat that he’ll use for much of the movie. Two zombies down, and the zombie apocalypse is on.
So they need to figure out what to do. And the next sequence shows them settling on a plan and taking the first steps to implement it. And their plan is, basically, to gather their loved ones and head to the Winchester. Which is, of course, what they’d do even if there weren’t a zombie apocalypse.
And now we’re in what I think of as act three. And just as act two was associated with Shaun’s house, act three is the road trip in which Shaun gathers his loved ones and sets off to the Winchester.
First he and Ed get on the road. Their goal in this sequence is to get Barbara, Shaun’s mom. They succeed in this, though Philip, Barbara’s husband, has been bitten by a zombie and is getting sick.
Next Shaun has to get Liz. So they head off to Liz’s apartment and pick up her and her apartment mates, David and Dianne.
And now they have to get to the Winchester. There’s some hijinks on the way, and Philip dies and becomes a zombie. But they finally get there, and the act ends, an act that was defined by this physical journey from Shaun’s house to the Winchester, with stops to pick up Barbara, Liz, and their various hangers on.
It’s a nice clean act. Three sequences, which is fairly standard for an act. Pick up Barbara. Pick up Liz. Get to the Winchester.
And now, the next act of the film is all at the Winchester. There is a brief sequence in which the others wait for Shaun to return from distracting the zombies. Then a sequence where they are pretty much just filling the time. And then finally the climactic sequence in which Barbara dies, the zombies swarm the Winchester, and only Shaun and Liz escape unbit.
Trying to look at this in structural terms, this is a confusing act. By location and time, it feels like one continuous act. But there’s definitely a shift in tone, pace, and feel when Barbara dies. This is the first time someone we really care about dies, and it hits Shaun and us hard. Barbara is an endearing character, and her death makes us sad.
More to the point, Barbara’s death leads to a dramatic escalation of the conflict between David and Shaun, climaxing in David trying to shoot Shaun. And that leads directly to the zombies swarming the Winchester and the climactic zombie-apocalypse scene that follows.
So should the climax, after Barbara dies, count as a separate act? It’s hard to say that it should, given that there’s no jump in time or space. In fact, the shift here takes place in the middle of a scene, that 19 page monster of a scene. So if this is a separate act, the act break is in the middle of a scene. Which is certainly unusual.
Anyway, now they’re out of the Winchester, and things are good. And we flash-forward six months to see what happens next.
Here’s something we haven’t seen before. Because I think of that flash-forward period as a postscript. It’s not quite a full act – it’s less than three pages long. But it doesn’t feel like part of the previous act. The setting, tone, and time is much different. So I think it stands by itself.
This is the first time we’ve seen what I’d call a postscript: a short sequence that tells us what happens after the major events of the body of the film.
So, overall, there’s a couple of odd structural elements here. There are acts that are clearly identifiable by their settings. But we have that weird fourth act, which is unified in time and place but which feels like there’s a shift in tone and tempo, a shift that suggests that maybe it should be considered a different act. And if we don’t view it as separate acts, then this movie doesn’t have a climactic act, but rather a climax that is part of a larger act.
And, of course, there’s a separate teaser and postscript, which are key to understanding the entire story. And one scene that is 19 pages long, a giant monster of a scene.
Whew, pretty strange! So what’s the solution? How should we break this beast into acts?
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter all that much. In a movie without intermissions, act breaks are just conceptual blocks that we use to try to make sense of the story structure. And it’s perfectly fair to view the story through different lenses, and to therefore think of it as having separate act breaks.
If we view this story through the lens of what feels like separate acts, we must say that is has four acts, a teaser, and a postscript. But if we view it through a lens of growing and escalating tension, we’d probably end up with something like traditional three-act structure, though still with that teaser and postscript.
One thing that I wonder: how did Wright and Pegg think of the structure of this film as they wrote it? I suspect they did not think in terms of acts, but rather in terms of settings and levels of tension. That’s certainly how the film reads.
It’s an interesting note for the screenwriter. Again, story should trump all. So create the story and let others worry about acts. Acts can be useful tools to use to construct story, but they are not indispensable.
So let’s take a moment to think about three-act structure. I’ve noted the inciting incident, Liz dumping Shaun. And I’ve noted the break into act two, when Shaun goes to bed in a world where he can happily ignore signs of zombies and he wakes up in the zombie apocalypse.
There really isn’t much of a midpoint in this film, if we mean by that some distinct event that causes the film to veer into a more serious mode. Oh, we could point to a couple moments where the action pivots or there is a rise in tension. But they aren’t major pivots, like in a movie like ALIEN. No, these moments are things like Shaun and Ed deciding to go rescue Barbara and Liz, a moment that happens on page 55 of this 130 page script.
A second escalation point is when Philip dies, which happens on page 70. It’s a dramatic moment, especially as it comes with a reconciliation between Shaun and Philip. But it doesn’t really change the course of the movie. Before Philip died, they were struggling to get to the Winchester. After he dies, they struggle to get to the Winchester.
Then we have the turn into act three, and this is a confusing one. From a three-act structure standpoint, it would probably be the escalation of pace and tension that happens when Barbara dies on page 114. Which is right in the middle of that 19 page scene, which started on page 103.
And, of course, three-act structure doesn’t have any provisions for a teaser or a postscript.
So all in all, I’d have to say that three-act structure largely fails us here. I think this is a fairly clear example of a film that should probably not be viewed through the lens of three-act structure.
Save the Cat also feels a little out of place. All the save-the-cat beats are mostly here, though the opening and closing images don’t tell us much about Shaun’s voyage. Well, not the opening image: the closing image actually does – the closing image is Shaun sitting in the shed playing a video game with zombie Ed, an image that tells us that Shaun hasn’t changed, not really.
There are other twists on the save-the-cat beats. For example, the theme is never explicitly stated. But it’s conveyed through visuals.
I’d say that one of the themes of this movie is that we’re all basically just going through the paces of our lives, that we’re all zombies of a sort. And that is visually expressed in the title sequence, where we see living people trudging along like zombies. And that takes place on page 5, perfect placement according to Save the Cat.
The debate also comes out a little differently in this movie, though to determine what the debate is, we have to settle on one of our two possible inciting incidents. If the inciting incident is Liz dumping Shaun, then the debate is Shaun’s night at the Winchester with Ed, where he gets drunk and complains about Liz. But if the inciting incident is the emergence of zombies, then the debate is Shaun’s not recognizing that the zombies are coming. In essence, it is not Shaun trying to decide whether or not to take action: it’s Shaun not even noticing that there’s any action to take.
We can also point to a couple of low points for Shaun. Either could be viewed as his dark night of the soul and all is lost moments. The first is when he realizes that the zombies followed him back to the Winchester and are swarming right outside. The second is when Barbara dies. Two low points for the price of one! What a deal!
But more seriously, I think the thing to note there is that there’s something inherently dramatic in having a protagonist have a bad moment. And it’s fine having more than one such moment in a film. Just because Save the Cat says there should be one moment doesn’t mean that’s gospel – feel free to dump on your protagonist as often as you want!
And that’s Save the Cat.
Similarly, most of the Hero’s Journey beats are here. But not in the usual way.
From a Hero’s Journey perspective, the Call to Adventure would definitely be the appearance of zombies. And the Refusal of the Call would be Shaun not noticing them. Which, again, is an interesting way to refuse the call. And one that works quite well in a comedy like this.
So screenwriter note: consider having your protagonist not notice the inciting incident. The tension between the protagonist going through his normal day and the world slowly changing around him can be funny, as it is here.
The rest of the Hero’s Journey beats are fairly standard. See the Storylanes analysis of the script for details on this and Save the Cat. That’s at storylanes.com.
And now, the theme!
I think there’s actually two themes of this movie. The first is that people in our modern world are a little zombie-like. There really is little difference, when the zombies emerge, between pre-zombie people and the zombies themselves. The film mines a lot of humor out of that, how Shaun doesn’t even realize the zombie apocalypse is well underway the first time he leaves the house in act two.
But that’s a theme that is mostly present for the first part of the movie, but that largely falls away later on. (Though we see glimpses of it at the end. When Shaun first appears in the postscript, he behaves like a zombie, shambling down the corridor and yawning like a zombie. And most of all, at the end Ed is now a zombie who still plays video games with Shaun.) It’s a curious choice. You could imagine the film mining a lot of humor from zombies acting like people. Of course, that’s been done in other films, so perhaps Pegg and Wright didn’t want to copy them. Still, this is a theme that sets up a lot of the humor in acts one and early in act two, but then falls by the wayside.
Which leads to the second theme. And that’s that people are pretty much who they are even in the face of calamity. When the zombie apocalypse comes, these people pretty much behave the way they did before. Ed is still a goofball who doesn’t take anything seriously and who tells fart jokes even as he’s dying. Shaun’s mom is a quiet doesn’t-want-to-be-a-bother type, even after she’s bitten by a zombie. David still has a bug up his butt about Shaun. Liz is still uptight. And Shaun, well, Shaun’s idea of the perfect hideout is still the Winchester. As David describes him, Shaun is: “A man whose idea of a romantic nightspot and an impenetrable fortress are the same thing.” People don’t change in this movie.
From this perspective, there’s an interesting change from the screenplay to the movie. In the postscript part of the screenplay, we see a poster on the wall that advertises that Shaun is DJing again. The implication is that he regained some of his mojo by fighting zombies. He did change, if only in a small way.
But that is left out of the film. So instead, the film doubles down on Shaun not changing. It’s an interesting example of how a minor change in the final film results in an entirely different message in the film.
Based on what we see in the postscript, the world did not change at all due to zombies. From the glimpses we see on TV, everything is back to normal. It’s just that zombies are incorporated into the same old world. Zombies are now used for cheap labor. Zombies appear as props on TV shows, whether goofball competition shows or tell-all talk shows. The world is pretty much just the way it is.
Now in this podcast, I’ve been using the term zombie apocalypse. But in some ways, it doesn’t apply here. This isn’t the zombie apocalypse: this is a one-time zombie outbreak that leaves no real impact on the world. Again, this is something I don’t think I’ve seen in any other zombie movies. It’s kind of refreshing. And, I suppose, a message of hope: even the zombie apocalypse will eventually pass and leave the world back as it was before.
To this point, note that when Liz tells Shaun what they are going to do that day, she says, “Right. We have a cup of tea. Then we go get the Sundays; head down The Phoenix for a roast; veg out in the pub for a bit; then wander back, watch a bit of telly and go to bed.“ It’s exactly what they would have done before the apocalypse.
In fact, we see here pretty much the only lasting change to any character. Before things went south, Liz was not content with being in a rut. But it’s amazing what living through an apocalypse will do to one’s perspective: at the end, she seems perfectly happy with an evening where the highlight is hanging around the Winchester.
So, the themes here are that people are generally not that different than zombies, and things don’t change. Which are actually pretty good themes for a comedy.
And now we get to the heart of the matter: an examination of the ways in which SHAUN OF THE DEAD exemplifies comedy. Which gets us into a whole lot of theory about comedy.
So let me start off with a digression: what is Joe’s theory of comedy? And I can’t claim that this is only mine. Honestly, after all this time, I can’t remember what the seeds of it were. Maybe it’s mine. Maybe I stole it from somewhere. I can’t remember.
I believe that laughter is a way that we humans deal when two frames of reference conflict. If something doesn’t go as we expect in a great big way, we often laugh. So take that old joke: what’s black and white and red all over? A Newspaper!
That joke works because, in the question, we hear the word “red” in the context of “black and white.” So we think it means the color red. But in the answer, we find out that “red” in the question is meant as r-e-a-d read, and people read a Newspaper all over, so it’s read all over. The humor comes from the sudden shift in context and frame of reference, from a frame of reference that emphasizes color to one that is about reading a newspaper.
Of course, there’s another way that humans deal with the unexpected and surprising shifts in context. And that’s fear. If things are suddenly not what we expect, and as a result we feel in danger, then we feel fear. But if things are suddenly not what we expect, but we do not feel in danger, then we will laugh.
So, comedy is fear without danger, and fear is humor with danger. And so there is a close relationship between comedy and horror, and so horror-comedy can work really well. You can use the same setups, and often even the same punchlines, in both comedy and horror. But if there is no danger, people laugh. And if there’s enough danger, they’ll cower under their seats.
So what is the comedy in SHAUN OF THE DEAD? I think there are a few major sources of humor in this movie.
The first is in the ways that these characters respond to a zombie apocalypse. I expect that most people who watch SHAUN OF THE DEAD have seen at least one zombie movie before. And they are aware of the standard zombie movie tropes.
Those tropes usually involve hardened warriors who are grimly focused on the challenge of surviving in a zombie apocalypse. But that’s not SHAUN OF THE DEAD. In SHAUN OF THE DEAD, there is nothing hardened about these characters. They’re just normal people trying to cope. And when we see them respond in a normal way to zombies, and not in some super-human warrior style, we laugh because it’s not what we’re used to in this kind of film.
The other thing these people do is that they lose sight of the crisis at hand. Ed plays a video game when there’s a zombie hoard at the door. David gets ready to storm out of the room in a huff even though it means storming out into the land of the living dead. Barbara doesn’t want to be a bother, even when she’s dying of a zombie-bite. There’s humor in all of these reactions, in people being unwilling or unable to be or do anything other than what they are even in the most extreme of circumstances.
It’s a contrast of frames of reference. People are still behaving in the frame of reference of normal polite society even when the word is coming to an end. And that’s funny.
Of course, there’s also humor here in looking at two things that seem much different and finding underlying similarities. We usually think of living people and zombies as two different things, but the movie points out several similarities. Which is also funny.
Of course, there’s also other sources of humor in the film, the kinds of humor one would expect in any comedy. Ed’s funny because he is so outrageous, and that means because he behaves in ways that we would not expect from anyone, like in his early fart joke. His behavior conflicts with our mental frame of reference that defines normal behavior. Similarly, Shaun’s constant obsession with going to the Winchester under any circumstances is funny even before the zombies show up, because you’d expect him to know better after Liz specifically asks to go somewhere else.
But these things get even funnier when they appear as post zombie callbacks. So when Ed uses the same fart joke near the end of the film after he has been bitten, it’s twice as funny: first, because we heard it before, so it’s familiar. But second, because it is so utterly out of place for this context: Ed is dying and he responds with a fart joke.
So note the two uses of the joke, at the beginning and at the end.
PUT THE FART JOKES HERE.
Similarly, when Shaun wants to go to the Winchester to sit out the zombie apocalypse, it gets even funnier, both from familiarity but also because we now see it in a new context.
I put a lane in the Storylanes analysis that points out the sources of comedy in any particular scene. But note, this is only the central humor in the scene. There’s also plenty of other jokes sprinkled throughout the film.
And while it goes beyond the scope of script analysis, we should also note that there are several jokes in the way the film is shot and edited. The film is constantly using horror movie cinematic tropes and then undercutting them by having normal things appear. So, for example, in the first act Shaun closes his medicine cabinet only to see Pete his flat-mate revealed. It’s a standard horror trope, the sudden reveal in a window. But it’s only Pete, a normal guy.
Though it’s called back later, when the same thing happens after Pete’s a zombie. But it’s still funny, because we saw it once with Pete still alive, so Pete now being a zombie is a shift in context, and thus humorous.
Phew! They say nothing is as un-funny as the explanation of a joke. I hope I didn’t ruin the humor in SHAUN OF THE DEAD for you by analyzing it!
Now let’s move on the screenwriting lessons. Here’s three screenwriting lessons from SHAUN OF THE DEAD.
One, when writing a comedy, know where the funny comes from. That doesn’t just mean scene by scene, though that’s important too. It’s good to have an overall central comic theme that you can turn to throughout the film. In fact, it doesn’t hurt to have more than one of them. And the undercutting of movie tropes are a great source of comedy. See how SHAUN OF THE DEAD has the two major comic motifs: the interchangeability of living humans and zombies, and the way that people will continue to be their same old petty selves even in the face of a zombie apocalypse. And how both of these are made funnier by all that we know of zombie movies. These are comic wells that SHAUN OF THE DEAD keeps going to, and they never run dry.
Two, note just how much comedy there is in this movie. Look at the Storylanes analysis. Almost every scene has some humor in it. Even the dramatic or tragic scenes like Barbara’s death has comic touches. If you’re going to make a comedy, make it funny throughout. Dramatic twists are fine, maybe even necessary. But they should come with some laughs, even if only sad ones.
Three, the screenplay goes hand-in-hand with the direction. Good direction enhances a screenplay. This isn’t just a lesson for the screenwriter, of course. But if you really want your screenplay to fly, get a terrific director attached. (And spoiler: I think Edgar Wright is an amazing director – he’s one of my favorite living directors. Just watch SHAUN OF THE DEAD – and there’s things here I didn’t even mention in the podcast, things like some of the amazing transitions between shots, with motivated wipes and other editing tricks that you rarely see in modern films but that worked amazingly well here. Which, of course, involved the editor – heck, let’s expand this takeaway to say just make sure you have the best team you have for your movie. A screenplay is nice, but it’s not enough!)
So that’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD. As usual, I hope you enjoyed this episode, and learned something from it. If you want to see the Storylanes chart for this film, check it out at storylanes.com.
Next week, we’re going back to the 80’s. And since it’s back to the 80’s, it will be BACK TO THE FUTURE, that terrific Michael J. Fox science fiction comedy.
Until then, this is Joe Dzikiewicz of the Storylanes podcast. Check us out at storylanes.com. Talk at you later!