Shaun of the Dead
For my screenwriting class, I needed to analyze the first 10 minutes of a movie. I was going to go with something traditional, like say When Harry Met Sally, which has a well-known solid beginning, but after a friend suggested it, perhaps jokingly, my brain kept returning to Shaun of the Dead—a perhaps lesser known movie but one that I love. As a zombie flick, it technically falls in the genres of Horror (though, while violent, it’s honestly not a bit scary) and Comedy. At its core, it’s a love story and quite a hilarious one at that. Not your traditional RomCom, it’s more of a Zom-Rom-Com.
Shaun of the Dead is a great movie from start to finish and all of the promises which the movie sets out to fulfill are set up perfectly in its first 10 minutes. What makes the beginning of Shaun of the Dead work so well is that in just 10 or so minutes we meet and thoroughly get to know all of our main characters, in particular our protagonist Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) while the conflicts are introduced, layered and begin to really build on and play off of one another.
The movie opens at the Winchester, a bar that Shaun frequents and which later becomes an important spot in the film. Shaun and his girlfriend Liz are seated across from each other. Liz is basically in the process of breaking up with Shaun because she feels neglected and because they never get time alone. Shaun’s friend Ed is there, as usual, playing a video game and swearing up a storm in the background and Liz’s two friends are there, too, backing her up and reinforcing everything Liz claims is wrong with Shaun—in particular that he seems to have no ambition, he’s lazy, forgetful, hasn’t yet introduced Liz to his mom and, of course, there’s Ed who is crude and always there and who no one, but Shaun, seems to like. Shaun convinces Liz that he will try harder. He promises to take her out for a special anniversary dinner (but later forgets to make the reservation). Liz agrees to give Shaun and their relationship one more chance.
Despite the fact that Shaun is painted as a loser, he’s also a likeable, loveable, nice guy (he buys flowers for his mom and even gives his spare change to a homeless guy). But life isn’t going so well for him. In addition to his romantic issues and his codependent best friend issues, his roommate is a jerk, he works a dead-end job and he hates his step-dad Philip.
Meanwhile, there is a zombie apocalypse brewing but no one, including Shaun, notices because they are all simply sleepwalking through their own mundane lives. The movie is basically telling us to wake up and appreciate our lives instead of walking around like zombies.
We can’t help but like Shaun and root for him. It’s easy to predict his character arc, too. We want him to man up, win back Liz, kill the zombies and save his family, his friends and the world. While this isn’t all covered in the first 10 minutes, Liz eventually dumps Shaun and he vows to get his life back on track—but he will have to battle the zombies to make that happen. With Ed by his side, Shaun sets out to rescue Liz and his mom (and everyone else, too).
If I could change one thing about the first 10 minutes of the film it would be to get the first big zombie moment in there somehow. While I think the movie does an exceptional job of building toward it and dripping in hints along the way (like the guy eating the pigeon and people starting to get sick and more and more zombified), I don’t see why there couldn’t be a bit more. That said; just the fact that we know it’s a zombie movie makes it so we know they’re coming so the fact that they don’t necessarily show up sooner still works. If anything it allows for more fake-out, made-you-jump, edge-of-our-seats type moments, too, which I love. And all of that build-up increases our adrenaline and adds to the moment when the zombies ultimately appear. On that note, I love the details and all the foreshadowing the writer uses to set the tone along the way. There’s never a doubt in our minds that something is going to happen, it’s just a matter of when.
Also, I might increase the emotion between Shaun and Liz—maybe even add in a memory or a brief flashback to a time when things were better between them. Though I’m not sure it’s necessary to the story or to either or their individual character arcs, I would have liked to get a tad more romance and emotion in there. While it becomes clear later in the movie just how much Liz means to him, I wanted a bit more.
But even without addressing my minor nitpicks, I still love this movie. And with its exceptional characters and conflicts (of the undead, real life and relationship varieties), Shaun of the Dead sets up everything we need to know about the story right from the start. By all accounts the movie has a great beginning. In just 10-12 minutes, we are entertained, engaged and pulled deep into the story as well as inspired to really care about what happens next.
If you want to watch the first 13 minutes of the movie, it’s free here: