By Jason Adams
AS SHAUN of the Dead begins you know it’s about zombies. “A romantic comedy. With zombies” to be exact. What you don’t know is, who’s alive and who’s dead.
Our protagonist Shaun is wedged into a comfortably numb routine of retail work and nights at the local. He staggers and groans through the day, dimly becoming aware of the personal and societal crashes just ahead.
The zombie movie tradition contains radical critiques of modern capitalism. They often contain explicit concerns about enslavement, human-made apocalypse, genetic experimentation and war-the evil super corporation illegally experimenting on humans and building soldiers who don’t question orders is an infamous cliche.
One implicit metaphor of zombies-made explicit in Ramero’s 1979 classic Dawn of the Dead-strikes at the heart of everyday life under capitalism. Here the survivors hole up in a shopping mall where zombies shamble up and down escalators, banging on shop windows like desperate bargain hunters, accompanied by sprightly muzak. We are the zombies, trapped in a consumer hell we’re not even conscious of.
Zombie as alienated worker
The recent remake of Dawn of the Dead, while still set in the mall, raises another idea: a society where every other person is your enemy will destroy itself, literally by us humans consuming each other. It’s the ultimate “war of all against all.”
Shaun goes beyond the “mindless consumer” metaphor to have some sharp digs at the whole empty round. The ill feeling that as we stumble through the day’s routine-the bus, the brainless job, the happy dream of beer and pokies-that we’re only half alive, that real life is elsewhere, is pretty much universal.
In Shaun of the Dead, we all recognise the slack looks we give each other, listening to petty lectures from the supervisor, or enjoying the marvels of modern transport.
Here the zombie is us as alienated worker: no real control over ourselves, slaves to alien forces and the basest habits. Working for a wage, the activity that consumes the bulk of our time, energy and life, is the one activity we have the least say in, the least control over.
Through it we’re are robbed of our real human nature as creative, conscious, self-directed animals. We’re most dead when we should be the most alive.
As the zombie menace is quashed and life returns to half-life (a happy ending of sorts) the thin line between life and death is made plain. The “mobile deceased” are given jobs in retail, appear on game shows and Shaun’s (dead) best friend plays video games in the back shed.
Coming out of this movie into a shopping mall was quite disconcerting. A great film-and funny ‘cos it’s true.
— Look for Shaun of the Dead on video or DVD in the new year.