What ‘Shaun of the Dead’ Teaches Us About Relationships

By  · Published on April 9th, 2014

On the 10th anniversary of Shaun of the Dead opening in UK theaters, let’s talk about love. Not just the love we have for Edgar Wright’s 2004 zom-rom-com but the love that is explored in the rom-com side of that genre-splicing equation. Forget the zed word. Pretend there’s no zombies in the movie at all. They drive the plot but they’re not really relevant to the story, which is of a relationship on the rocks and the obstacles in its way of succeeding. The zombie element only exacerbates (a word I genuinely learned from this movie) the situation, heightening the tension and increasing the difficulty level while also providing a mechanism through which the main characters are able to more easily get over their relationship hurdles.

I use the term “difficulty level” because, in a way, Shaun of the Dead is like a romance video game where different bosses have to be defeated in order for Shaun (Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the script with Wright) to win back his princess, Liz (Kate Ashfield). Wright would, of course, later do the same thing very literally in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and here not all the “bosses” are in fact adversarial obstacles, at least not before they’re turned into undead monsters. The two most advanced stages of the game, for instance, involve Shaun’s mum and best mate. And if you’re a grown man in a serious relationship, maybe even marriage, you should identify with just how tough those stages are – or, hopefully, were.

But in real life relationships are not games and they’re not hindered nor helped by the presence of zombies. So let’s look to the core of what’s going on in Shaun of the Dead and find out how it can instruct us on the path toward a successful, happy and hardship-free romance. Okay, maybe not hardship-free. Let’s be realistic, here.

The simple story told in the movie is that Liz dumps Shaun on their anniversary and the next day he has to get her back. To do so, zombies or no zombies, he has to achieve the following:

1. Get over his step-daddy issues and make nice with Phillip (Bill Nighy) — All guys need a father figure who can serve as the role model for their own potential as husband and parent. Shaun has never accepted Phillip as either a dad or a person from whom he can learn how to be a man. It’s a shame this has to happen as his step-dad is dying (such is the morbid case for each of these steps), but the heart-to-heart between Shaun and Phillip, even as brief and basic as it is, is a preliminary leap in the right direction for the former. Part of the progress is from Phillip’s court, of course, admitting how hard it was filling in as Shaun’s new father, confessing that he always loved him and wanted to serve as someone to look up to and ultimately giving him encouragement to do well. Then, Shaun had to accept all that, learn from it and be motivated. Interestingly enough, Phillip is only one of three persons in this step-by-step lesson that Shaun doesn’t need to entirely defeat.

2. Cut the apron strings – Once Shaun has dealt with his step-dad, it’s time to deal with his mommy issues. He doesn’t seem to have any major problems in his relationship with his mother (Penelope Wilton); she doesn’t baby him, other than still calling him “Pickle,” and as far as we see he doesn’t depend on her for much. The apron strings are fairly loose if not already severed. But there is still something going on in the way he’s kept Liz from meeting Barbara (or is it the other way around?). Maybe it’s that he likes to feel like a kid around his mum and doesn’t want Liz to see that. Regardless, he has to let go of her and let Liz fill the role of being the main woman in his life – not that this means she’ll be a maternal substitute, necessarily, but the two can’t have equal ground in his life either. It’s a hard thing for any man to do this, especially if it also entails shooting mum in the head – but at least he can be sure his issues there are not going to come back.

3. Eliminate romantic competitors – Jealousy can ruin any good relationship, even if that feeling is unfounded and only stemming from the fact that another man is in love with your partner. Liz doesn’t want David (Dylan Moran), but that doesn’t matter. He wants her, so he has to go. Besides, he’s always been a negative part of social situations since he dislikes Shaun out of his own jealousy. Shaun has stood up to David before – it wasn’t easy because they’ve never been cordial to each other – but the last time he gets Liz and David’s girlfriend, Dianne (Lucy Davis) to join him. David’s a twat, and fortunately he eventually gets fucked when his embarrassment over the revelation of his true feelings tears him apart, and then he’s literally torn apart, too.

4. Get rid of her gal pals – Couples don’t need to be friendless, far from it, but they do need to do things just the two of them most of the time once a relationship becomes serious. That means not hanging out at the pub with respective besties. Hers is easier to eliminate from the crowdedness of their social circumstance, if only because she leaves of her own volition to chase after her disemboweled boyfriend (and later eat his leg – according to an animated deleted scene). The fact that she’s alive in the end means the women’s friendship can still exist, just maybe not as close. Dianne is also Liz’s flatmate, which is also important in that couples need to break free of living with others in order to, first, each be comfortable by himself or herself and, then, eventually live with each other.

5. Stop living like he’s in a dorm – Furthering the flatmate issue, Shaun has two of them to break free from. First up is Pete (Pete Serafinowicz), who probably should have moved out and on his own already anyway. And he takes down the second, Ed (Nick Frost), with him by turning him into a fellow zombie. I’ve never quite figured out the analogical significance there, except that it metaphorically aligns the two characters who are also literally aligned as being of in part the same type of obstacle.

6. Break up with his bromantic buddy – This is the most difficult of all the stages, so it naturally is dealt with at the climax, which it shares with the overwhelming wave of zombies flooding the Winchester. As is illustrated in the header image above, intentionally of course, Ed comes between Shaun and Liz. He always has to be around, and he’s pulling Shaun back by being a negative influence as far as his maturity goes. Ed is not only a flatmate and best mate, he’s a representation of Shaun’s grasp at youth and freedom, which is keeping him from properly growing up, committing and being focused on Liz and their relationship as partners. He doesn’t have to be completely separated from Shaun’s life, though, and so like Dianne he’s not totally eliminated. He’s only restrained and given some distance by being moved out to the shed, where Shaun can still occasionally make time for dude time and minimal video game play.

7. Prove his maturity, strength, courage, compassion, commitment and initiative – Throughout the movie, while dealing with the previous steps, Shaun grows as a person and displays all the traits that indicate he’s an adult and ready for love. And maybe this is where the zombies sort of needed to be around to push him even more toward being a real man, but a more realistic crisis could have done the same. In a way, the breakup itself was that crisis. For many, being dumped is like the end of the world, so in the movie it’s aligned with a more literal kind of end of the world. Shaun could have either let himself be defeated by these apocalyptic crises, or he could man up and over come them. And of course, he did the latter. That’s probably the most important lesson for any of you attempting to enter or maintain or reclaim a relationship: be a hero, figuratively or literally, and let it happen because you deserve it.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.