Shaun of the Dead and the return of critically-acclaimed horror
Friend of Fanattik, Oli Hancock, recently spotted BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra’s film critic, Ali Plumb, tweeting about our Cornetto Trilogy art prints and it left him pondering… will the current global pandemic lead to a resurgence of critically-acclaimed horror films? We told him to ponder away, so he did!
I very rarely remember the first time I saw a film. I can generally remember if I saw it at the cinema, but which cinema and who I was with gets lost to memory.
With Shaun of the Dead, not only can I remember where I was, I can pinpoint the exact date; Friday 27th August 2004. A 19-year-old me, along with friends Robin and Kate, had just watched Green Day on the main stage at Leeds festival, and then headed over to the cinema tent. They were showing a new intriguing-sounding ‘Rom-Zom-Com’ that had been in cinemas a few months earlier, so we thought we’d check it out. Cue ninety-nine minutes of laughter, heartbreak, fear, nervousness, and pure, unadulterated joy.
Being able to relate to the situations and characters is the key to the success of the entire Cornetto Trilogy, and Shaun has this in spades. Who among us hasn’t disliked their partner’s friends, or tried to win them back after a break-up, or got stuck in a rut of going to the same places doing the same things? Shaun’s loyalty to Ed, his determination to win Liz back, his bravery when faced with a zombie onslaught are all qualities we would envision in ourselves.
Whilst not strictly a horror, its nods to the genre are abundant; from Psycho to the Evil Dead, from the Invasion of the Body Snatchers to 28 Days Later, and most of all, George A. Romero’s zombie films (Romero was so impressed with the film that he asked Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg to cameo in Land of the Dead). At the point of its release, horror was not a genre that was particularly well received. There were some anomalies before it (the aforementioned 28 Days Later, the excellent The Others, the extremely low budget Blair Witch Project), but by and large, you have to look to the 80s for great out and out horrors (keep your eyes out for a future blog about the perfection of John Carpenter’s The Thing).
So, what was it about the genre that caused it to essentially skip the 90s? If the 70s was the decade of the gritty film-school auteurs, and the 80s was the decade of high concept and video nasties, what was the 90s? Well one thing that changed was the development of CGI. In 1991, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day was released, bringing with the liquid metal morphing of Robert Patrick’s T-1000, the likes of which we had never seen before. Two years later we were treated to Jurassic Park with its combination of animatronics, puppets, and computers creating realistic (to our eyes) looking dinosaurs. In fact, a recent re-watch of the film confirmed that the effects still stand-up today, 27 years later.
This boom in the advancements of computers and graphics meant filmmakers were clambering over themselves to make their ‘visions’ which had previously been impossible to create. CGI caused the most impossible ideas to become a reality. And while this produced some all-time stone-cold classics, the traditionally low-budget horror film with in-camera effects took a back seat.
That’s not to say that there were no horror films in the 90s, but it was mainly comedy versions (The Frighteners), teen movies (I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty), or both (Scream). It’s hard to say that any of the horrors released in the 90s were greats of the genre, in the way we saw before and after the decade.
Times were good in the 90s. Economies were doing well, people were making money, and the housing market saw a huge boom. The film-making of the decade reflects this, with extraordinary people being put in extraordinary (CGI-laden) circumstances (hello Independence Day and Armageddon) showing that complete escapism was what we craved for. Horror has always worked best when it was as realistic as possible, with realistic characters in realistic situations. The scares come from the fact that you could be the character being terrorised. The recent success Blumhouse Productions has had with this formula enforces this, with their low-budget but big-scare style of films (Jordan Peele’s Get Out picking up four Oscar nominations is unprecedented).
But does this account for Shaun of the Dead’s success? In 2004, zombie films were on their way back. 28 Days Later had been a couple of years earlier, and The Walking Dead comic had been published (although it wouldn’t be turned into a TV show for another six years). Did it reflect the times we were going through at that point? 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, and then the 2003 invasion of Iraq put people on the edge. Were we afraid of also being invaded? The original zombie films in the 50s and 60s were a reflection of the fear at the time of being invaded by Communism and the Soviets, so it stands to reason that the resurgence of zombies should be for a similar cause.
Do filmmakers look to horror during worrying times and go for high-budget bombastic escapism during the good times? The evidence certainly suggests so.