Written by Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Reading through Shaun of the Dead, I quickly realized that this zombie story is much more about a series of relationships, with the zombies serving as a background metaphor. One of the consistent jokes in the script is a series of visual gags in which a character isn’t seeing the entire picture. These gags slowly start to add up to a theme: Shaun (and company) are wearing blinders, floating through life with little awareness of their surroundings or even of themselves.
Shaun (late twenties) is considered a slacker. He wouldn’t mind wasting away his life, drinking at his favorite pub, The Winchester, with his pal Ed. His girlfriend Liz, on the other hand, wants more from life. She gives him a light ultimatum in the first scene of the film, and by the end of the first act, Shaun has reinforced her concerns about him, so she breaks up with him. It’s not even until act 2 when the zombies become a problem. Up until then they are only hinted at, but Shaun’s awareness is so self-contained, despite the fact that he’s hardly aware of himself at all.
The script is 132 pages, perhaps just a little long for a movie of this length (100 minutes). In a zombie movie like this, you might expect the inciting incident to occur at around page 15, with act 2 beginning at around page 30. You might also expect the inciting incident to be the first instance of a zombie attack and the lock in (at the end of act 1), to be a commitment to surviving.
Instead, the first act deals entirely with Shaun’s listlessness, and the move into act 2 deals more with his plan to get his life back on track more than anything to do with the zombies. The walking dead are just another obstacle to winning back Liz.
My quick breakdown of the script is as follows:
Act 1 = page 1 – 30; Act 2A = page 30 – 53.5; Act 2B = page 53.5 – 89, ending with their arrival at the Winchester, completing the plan laid out at the beginning of act 2; Act 3 = page 90 – 132.
It’s an oddly structured film. One of the most famous sequences from this movie is the montage in which Shaun and Ed formulate the plan, ending with “…go to the pub and wait for this all to blow over.” They are essentially laying out what would normally be act 2, but this plan isn’t even discussed until page 53, well into the movie. I would’ve expected this plan to occur at around page 30, but instead the beginning of the second act deals more with the emotional fallout of Liz’s breakup with Shaun.
In a typical three act story there might be eight sequences. Each one differs slightly with a new plot point, forcing the character to focus on a new goal. In Shaun of the Dead, though, I had a hard time identifying these sequence breaks. In some ways, the inciting incident occurs in the very first scene, in the first few pages. Liz addresses Shaun’s laziness and gives him one last chance to make up for it. He promises to take her and his own life more seriously, starting with a reservation for the following night at a nice restaurant.
The rest of the first act is mostly about Shaun forgetting to make this reservation and dealing with the petty annoyances of his daily life, his job, his commute, his roommate Pete, his father in law, etc. It’s all about what Shaun can’t do, and thus the act is very passive. Finally Shaun gets dumped. The first plot point is Liz’s ultimatum, and the second one, 25+ pages later, is when she dumps him.
In Act 2, Ed comforts his friend. They continue to be completely unaware of the looming zombie apocalypse, but soon they learn all they need to know, helped by a couple of zombie attacks and the tv news. It’s on page 53 when they stop reacting and start acting. Shaun and Ed make their plan to save Shaun’s parents, then grab Liz before heading to the Winchester to wait for it all to blow over.
The next sequence starts when Philip, Shaun’s step dad, dies and quickly turns into a zombie, forcing them to abandon their car and head out on foot. It’s the first complication to their plan, but soon enough they are at The Winchester, thanks to a quick plan in which they simply pretend to be zombies and walk through a horde unscathed.
The journey to get to the Winchester is relatively brief. In a conventional script, you might expect the plan set up on page 30 to culminate on page 90. Here the plan is established on page 53 and culminates on page 89. Part of that is to highlight how simple the plan is, thus reinforcing the idea that Shaun is still kind of a screw up. One of the tag alongs, David, constantly criticizes his plan, wondering why they’d even go to a pub in such a situation.
Once they’re at the pub, they story is far from over. It’s a big spectacle of an act, with everyone’s flaws, jealousies, insecurities and anger coming out. The zombies slowly work their way into the pub, picking off the group one by one until only Shaun and Liz remain, waiting for certain death… before they’re rescued by a sudden military convoy.
Every time I watch this movie, I seem to forget about almost all of act 1. Pegg and Wright take their time to establish all the various relationships of the movie, but none of it really seems to matter. We know pretty quickly that Shaun is a screw up, Liz wants to break up with him, and Ed might be holding Shaun back. This is all established in an effective opening scene, as well as suggesting further relationships (Shaun’s mother, David and Di, etc.). Then the story kind of wanders, like Shaun, through a daily routine that won’t matter when the zombie apocalypse occurs.
At the same time, this story is about Shaun’s listlessness. His passive attitude towards life and subsequent leap into action once he’s motivated might be an elaborate joke, or it might be some kind of motivation letting us know what we’re all capable of. Or maybe it’s just a joke. I’ve heard plenty of people discuss what their zombie defense plan is, as if we can all turn into Rambo at the drop of a hat.
Shaun of the Dead is a funny read, even though most of the jokes are visual. Edgar Wright is known for his quick cuts, swoosh pans and affinity for a visual gag, and a lot of that translates on the page. He’ll often not refer to something in the scene until it becomes important or addressed. In doing so, he effectively directs our attention as a reader or a viewer. He knows what he wants us to look at and blocks out everything else until it can be revealed for the joke. Other movies, particularly zombie movies, might use this technique to heighten the suspense or fear. Wright and Pegg use it at the characters’ expense. Though a genre film, this story is about the characters who unexpectedly find themselves within a genre usually reserved for Rambo’s and Jason Stathams, not a late twenties man who works at an electronics store.