Face-Off: The Return of the Living Dead vs. Shaun of the Dead

July 4th marked the thirty-fourth anniversary of the ultimate American fireworks show - the dropping of a nuke on a U.S. city to eradicate a zombie outbreak. At least, that's the true story director Dan O'Bannon's 1985 horror-comedy zombie classic THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD claimed to be telling. To mark the anniversary of that film's events, this week's Face-Off puts RETURN up against another beloved zombie horror-comedy, Edgar Wright's 2004 film SHAUN OF THE DEAD... which never claims to be anything other than purely fictional. Which of these films strikes the better balance of horror, comedy, and the walking dead? Let's find out:
The humor in Dan O'Bannon's THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is a glorious mixture of absurdity and hysteria. When I would watch this film as a young kid, I didn't realize just how amusing it was meant to be, but as the years went by and the number of viewings rose, I came to realize that it's hilarious. The comedy of hysteria is one of my favorite brands of comedy - when characters deliver lines that might not seem funny out of context, but are made funny by the intensity of the situation they're spoken in and by the level of panic the characters are at. The characters in RETURN are operating with very heightened emotions, and the things they say to each other crack me up.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD is primarily a comedy, following 29-year-old Shaun (Simon Pegg), who has been enjoying an extended adolescence, as he tries to figure out how to carry on an adult relationship. Then zombies show up. The screenplay written by Pegg and director Edgar Wright is full of amusing dialogue, Pegg and co-star Nick Frost have a great comedic chemistry with each other, and the more familiar you are with the zombie classics that preceded this one, the more humor you'll find in the way the characters deal with the walking dead. This is a really funny movie... and as clever as it is overall, the moment that makes me laugh the most is a simple sight gag of Shaun falling over a fence.
Perfectly blended with the humor of RETURN is a wonderful, EC Comics style ghoulish spookshow horror. The zombies that rise from their graves are disgusting, rotten and filthy, and even though they're involved in some of the laughs, they're often terrifying - unstoppable, relentless in their pursuit of human brains to munch on. There are creepy lines and situations, and shots that are total nightmare fuel.
The horror is harder to find in this horror-comedy, as the zombies in it are not particularly frightening. Viewers might jump when a zombie makes an unexpected appearance, but that's minor. Things do get more intense during the finale, when the surviving characters find that their hideout is no longer safe. As zombies flood in around the characters, SHAUN OF THE DEAD finally starts to get a bit horrific.
The original plans for RETURN were to make something much more like a Romero DEAD movie, but Dan O'Bannon had such respect for Romero that he chose to make his zombie film as different from his predecessor's work as possible. That respect is quite obvious in the finished film, which uses a simplified version of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's zombie outbreak as back story to set up its own zombie outbreak. It's said that Romero drew inspiration from a real event when he was making NIGHT, and misplaced evidence of that real event is what gets the dead rising from their grave in this film.
Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg clearly had a deep love for the films of Romero, as the movie they made almost feels like a fan film tribute to the master of horror / zombie pioneer. Like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, this film is filled with news reports about the zombie outbreak, there's a nod to NIGHT's potential explanation for the outbreak with a subtle reference to a space probe re-entering the atmosphere, a character is named Barbara apparently just so they could have the line "We're coming to get you, Barbara." DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD get some love in here as well.
While Romero added a new definition to the word "zombie" with his walking dead creations, it's O'Bannon who came up with the idea that zombies eat brains. Romero's zombies would consume any body part and any organ you have, they weren't so picky. RETURN's zombies run, and are the most effectively scary running zombies ever. They're also incredibly hard to stop; a shot to the brain won't do it. If you chop them into pieces, the pieces will keep moving. You have to completely destroy them.
These zombies follow the rules of Romero, slowly shambling across the screen, but the tone of the film is too light for them to come off as being much of a threat until the climax. Their vacant, sad expressions are said to make them look like "a drunk who lost a bet", and a person can walk right by them simply by tricking them into thinking you're a zombie as well - all it takes is an awkward stride and some moaning. The swing of a cricket bat is also an effective way to get past them.
THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD features one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, being packed with awesome punk and psychobilly songs from the likes of The Cramps, 45 Grave, Roky Erickson, SSQ, and more, not to mention a great theme. One of the most popular songs says "it's party time", and with its horrific atmosphere, hilarious lines, and frequent music cues, this movie is a party itself.
I love that Wright chose to include a couple music cues from Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD on his film's soundtrack, those being a Goblin track and the unforgettable piece of library music "The Gonk". Aside from the tribute music, there's also a memorable moment involving a drunken performance of a Duran Duran song, and a fun zombie fight scene set to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now".
SHAUN OF THE DEAD is a fantastic movie, but it's nearly impossible to compete with THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. In every one of these categories, that film proved to be as tough as the zombies that are in it, so SHAUN could only manage one win and a tie. SHAUN is a great comedy with Romero faithful zombies, but RETURN is a great comedy, a great horror movie, and has its own unique brand of zombies that work perfectly for the movie O'Bannon was making - and, as the director intended, they don't tread on Romero's territory.

Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or do you think SHAUN OF THE DEAD is the better horror-comedy zombie movie? Share your thoughts on these films in the comment section below. If you have suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can contact me at [email protected].



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