So, yea, ok. Me, a Christian, reviewing the movie “Shaun of the Dead.” I admit its a little odd. Even my personality objects- I don’t like ‘horror’ movies. Or blood and guts movies, either, though I’ll make an exception for military movies like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. But yea. I saw this movie while overseas in England, visiting a friend I knew from the Internet. I knew even then that eventually I’d be writing this. Having now seen it a second time, here is the ‘review.’
One wonders how you could make a more hilarious version of Dawn of the Dead, since it was already funny (though it didn’t mean to be) but they did it. What struck me about this movie, though, is how certain themes percolated up that were so…. well, Christian. What I mean by that is that I believe the best explanation for them is Christianity. Certainly, I do not think atheism, secular humanism, or reductionism can explain them. To explain that, I should talk about some of those themes.
In the movie, the main character, Shaun, is a pathetic loser of a man who gets no respect from his friends or those who answer to him at work. His life seems to be filled with zilch, and when his girlfriend breaks up with him because she wants to ‘do something with her life’ he doesn’t know what she means. The bulk of the beginning centers around Shaun and his friend, Ed’s, connection to the dull British pub they frequent, called the “Wilderness.” The girlfriend wants more, Shaun is unsure there really is anything more.
Some ‘disease’ strikes the world and people become zombies: dead people come back to life and have a little post-death urge for snacking on living people, and if they get a bite out of a person, they’ll become a zombie, too. The only way to defeat the cycle is to “cut off the head or destroy the brain.” Somewhere in this, Shaun develops a strong urge to go and save his girlfriend, who incidentally broke up with him the night before.
The movie subtly offers the view that this zombie situation is simply a freak thing of nature, and a religious interpretation is hinted at but ‘officially denied by the British government.’ All in all, the movie might seem like a simple comedy-horror flick if it weren’t for the fact that it cannot avoid bringing up issues of manliness, courage, loyalty, and even faith.
Shaun’s step-dad, having been bitten, wins Shaun’s respect after seventeen years, by telling him “Sometimes a man just has to stand up and do what needs to be done” and a little later “I always knew you had it in you, but I wanted to help you be tough.” Something like that. It’s interesting to watch Shaun discover that he is dangerous and tough. Not only his girlfriend finds Shaun suddenly of more worthy of attention, but his girlfriend’s girlfriend gradually becomes more abrasive to one of the other men in the show who ‘bravely’ asserts he is a pacifist.
He asserts he is a pacifist, but of course we can tell the man is a coward, and this becomes evident to the women before it does to the men. What kind of worldview can sustain the view that courage is a truly noble trait, that it is something that is morally good? How can something like self-sacrifice be consistent with evolutionary theory, for example (if you’re dead, its hard pass on your genes)? The so-called ‘altruism’ problem has remained and many bright evolutionists have tried to tackle it. However, the idea that it is good and proper to stand up and face danger and even dish out some violence of your own for the ones that you love- and even the ones you don’t (Shaun doesn’t exactly like the ‘pacifist’) is one of those lesser known virtues that comes up out of the Christian scriptures.
For example, we might remember the story of David and Goliath. Not only does the young David stand up against the giant while the entire Israeli army watch, he brings extra stones to take care of Goliath’s brothers, too. There is Elijah against all of the prophets of Baal. There is Abraham chasing down the kings that captured his nephew, Lot. Abraham would be met by the king and priest of Salem (means ‘peace’), a town that would eventually be called Jerusalem. These are men, but even women get in on the action, for example Deborah.
It is so easy to dismiss violence as an evil, or a necessary evil, but it is something that lurks in the hearts of everyone, and especially men, that something ought to be stood up to. In fact, men really dig that, and when the chips are down, women dig that men dig that. Now, there are a lot of men that might quibble with me on some of this, as it is a generalization, but I think the entertainment industry is cementing my position by continuing to make movies like Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, and yes, even Shaun of the Dead.
You see, many people who talk about Christianity and the ‘Gospel’ end the Gospel message at ‘Jesus saved you.’ But he didn’t just ‘save’ you. He said in one place that he came to give us life, and give it to the fullest. People are empowered to live bravely. Jesus was not a wuss boy. Jesus took a stick to the people in the temple- twice. The magnificence of Jesus’ act on the cross was that he was a man, a thoroughly masculine and studly man, who nonetheless submitted himself to people who couldn’t hold a candle to him. His sacrifice is meaningful because he could have resisted- and succeeded.
SOTD has the characters in an environment where the moral calculations are quite simple, really. The zombies are zombies. They are soulless. Even Shaun’s mom, when she finally becomes Zombiefied is no longer Shaun’s ‘mom.’ Thus, when Shaun discovers that he is not some mere cog in society, but a virile, potent, Man (boo-ya!), it is only a matter of seeing the zombie and beaning the zombie (“cut off the head, or destroy the brain”). I know that I’d like to see myself as potent and courageous and noble, but the menaces around me rarely rise to the level of requiring decapitation and even in cases where they might, I know already that it will be another living person I’m dealing with. That certainly makes the situation a little different.
Indeed, it says something about the character of humans that even in situations of warfare, the actual act of killing someone is a hard moral decision. The accounts of soldiers who struggled with this often end up with this conclusion: “Either I kill them, or they kill me.” Questions of good and evil tend to get put aside in such situations, and in the raw analysis, this seems to be the best one’s got. Added to this, you will hear that people have cited that they are also fighting and killing to protect and save their immediate brothers in arms.
There is a scene in the last episode of The Band of Brothers where captured German soldiers are being addressed by their officer. “Proud to serve with you, die with you, etc” is the message. The members of the 101st Airborne survey this situation and realize that these German soldiers were really very much like them. True, Nazism was a terrible thing and those who really held to Nazi ideals and carried them out made the moral calculation easy enough, but most German soldiers weren’t Nazis at all. They were no more ‘evil’ than the 101st. Indeed, the curious thing is that both groups on either side here could have been perfectly God-fearing Christians but still compelled to do their duty, if only for the reason ‘kill or be killed.’
It may seem like the heights of absurdity to posit that there could be anything at all noble in two bands of devout Christians battling each other to the death, but that’s not really where I’m going with this. The point is that there is something built into all of us, and men in particular, that drives us to stand up against our fears and exert our very being for and against something.
The problem that SOTD exposes is that there is, in general, nothing in our daily lives that is really worth standing up for or against in that way, leaving us to… well… wither. There is nothing to test men, and so we see men turning to greed, material wealth, sex, and other destructive outlets that nonetheless appeal to our raw manhood. This is a problem that I suppose we don’t want to be solved. Maybe we ought to import some zombies. 😉
In the end, Shaun gets the girl, but it isn’t Shaun the wuss panzy. It’s Shaun that has gone through the trial by ordeal- and for that matter, the girl has discovered that being a girl does not mean being ‘soft’ either. I am convinced that Christianity contains the best explanation for all of this and why even though I abhor horror movies and blood and guts, I feel compelled to suggest this movie.