In the screwball comedy, zombie film, Shaun of the Dead, Shaun is a slacker. With his also slacker best friend, Ed, beside him, he’s not going anywhere fast, whether we’re talking up the ladder of success or simply across the street to get a drink. This over-comfortableness with his inaction leads his girlfriend, Liz, to break up with him. She wants an adult relationship; he would rather hang out at the pub or play video games. However, through the responsibilities he is faced with, Shaun grows into something more than the loser he is always seen as, moves past the confines of the slacker label always placed on him. Despite the claims of Lynn Pifer’s article, “Slacker Bites Back: Shaun of the Dead Finds New Life for Deadbeats,” I believe that Shaun did experience character growth and development during the film, the trials he undergoes transforming him into a more appreciative, mature person.
In Pifer’s article, it is stated, “This film changes the standard romantic comedy plot from ‘boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl again’ to ‘boy loses girl he used to have/boy gets girl back and also gets to keep the slacker life that once repulsed her’” (173). This though, seems to be an oversimplification of the emotional development in the film. Shaun’s goal in the film is not to return to his slacker-lifestyle, is not to remain an irresponsible, leach-like member of society. Rather, his goal is to save his family and friends and through that, he is able to step out of the deadbeat life he was before trapped in.
Shaun’s most immediate of decisions, to take power, to assume control in the wake of the disaster, automatically elevates him above the casual slacker. Pifer writes, “His first instinct is to save everyone he loves” (173). Stereotypically, a slacker is someone who feeds off society, refuses to take responsibility for his or herself. In this context, a slacker would be someone who simply follows along, lets everyone else make the decisions and consequently, lets everyone else take the blame when something goes wrong.
This though, is not what Shaun does. He wants so desperately to save everyone that he is willing to risk his life, is willing to take the lives of others into his hands in order to keep them safe. By taking control, he becomes responsible for all of the people he loves, a huge step away from the classic mentality of responsibility-avoidance. He even blames himself when most of his friends and family are eaten by zombies. Instead of passing the blame off on the zombies or on the people themselves, he accepts it, despite the fact that most of it is not his fault, is not something he could have controlled.
This is not siphoning off of a society; this is taking responsibility for a society and the failures that occur within it. Often times, it is the other characters that lead to their own deaths. For example, David’s attitude, his unwillingness to work with the rest of the group, leads to a dysfunctional atmosphere and as a result, their makeshift society falls apart. Yet, Shaun stills feels that the deaths are his fault, that he should have stopped them. Therefore, by simply making the decision to take over the group and by keeping this power when it would have been easier to hand it over to David, Shaun develops past the stereotypical slacker and starts on the pathway to heroism.
In addition to this, a lot of Shaun’s character development is in his appreciation of his life and the people within it. As people begin to die, Shaun begins to realize how he had taken so many of his friends and family members for granted and as a result, starts to develop a greater gratitude for all those he loves.
One of the first examples of this comes in the form of Shaun’s stepfather, Philip. Prior to the zombie takeover, Shaun and Philip have a rather tumultuous relationship. Shaun refuses to refer to him as his father, is even willing to bludgeon him when he fears he has been infected. All through his childhood, Philip was hard on him and as a result, Shaun only saw him as a man with no business replacing his father.
However, Philip is bitten by a zombie as they escape from his house, becoming the first casualty of the group Shaun has collected. Right before he dies, Shaun and he have a brief conversation in the car, Philip relaying his final words to his “son.” It is revealed why Philip was always so hard on Shaun growing up, that he wanted him to be tough, to be able to handle the world. The truth that he has always loved Shaun comes out near his final breath. As a result, Shaun is left to mourn him and the relationship they could have had had they understood each other better.
Another example of this is seen in the loss of Ed. Throughout the film, Ed is seen by all as a loser, deadweight. He spends most of his time on the couch playing video games, drinking instead of cleaning. People continually warn Shaun against him, saying that he is only holding Shaun back. Right when things in the film seem to be at their worst, Shaun gets into a fight with Ed and like everyone else, says that Ed has been holding him back, dragging him down. In this moment, it seems that he agrees with everyone else, that there has always been a part of him that has doubted Ed’s worth as a friend.
However, when the time comes that only three of them are left - Shaun, Ed, and Liz - Ed decides to stay behind in order to save Shaun and Liz. He is injured and would have had to be carried the rest of the way. Because of that, he says that his trying to escape, saving himself, would only hold Shaun and Liz back, lessen their chances of survival. “I only hold you back.” He essentially sacrifices himself for them, taking on the zombies coming in through the ceiling with nothing more than a nearly empty gun.
Through this, Shaun is left with the realization that there is more to his friend than just a screw-up. He apologizes for shouting at him before, even tells him that he loves him.
In the final moments of his relationship with each person that he watches die, he is also exposed to their value. He sees how there is more to them than he had ever thought before, love within his stepfather and heroism within his best friend. Because of this, he comes to appreciate them more than he ever had before, grieving for their deaths.
Further, at the end of the film, Pifer claims that Shaun has returned to his loser lifestyle, that nothing much has changed in his attitude or his outlook on life. This idea is counteracted first on a superficial level. The apartment he is living in is clean and he’s sharing it with his girlfriend. In addition to this, as argued above, Shaun has reached a place where he is able to appreciate the people around him, the life he leads. Despite the fact that he is doing the same things that he has always done, we see that he actually smiles at the end, as Pifer says, “…smiles sincerely for the first time in the entire film” (173). This is significant in displaying the change that he has undergone. Early in the film, he seemed unhappy with himself and the life he was leading. There was a disconnect there, as if he knew he should be doing more than he was but at the same time, couldn’t because it was against his nature as a slacker.
In this final scene of the film though, we see that Shaun has somewhat come to terms with his life and who he wants to be. He gets to keep his childhood best friend, the part of him represented by that, and he also gets to keep his girlfriend. It’s more about an alignment of his two halves than it is a regression back to his slacker-self, as Pifer argues.
It must also be acknowledged that his acceptance of himself is a testament to the change that has taken place in Liz. At the beginning of the film, she was unhappy with the calm lifestyle she had. She wanted excitement, wanted to do something different than just go to the pub night after night. By the conclusion of the film though, she too, has gained an appreciation of the life she once lived. She has realized that maybe calm and predictable isn’t as terrible as she had once made it out to be. It becomes an appreciation of the small things, accepting that maybe we don’t all have to be extraordinary in order to be happy, don’t even have to be particularly active. She just needs Shaun, the man who helped to get her through the zombie apocalypse, the man that, through Shaun’s growth as a character and his determination to save them all, she has come to develop a deeper appreciation of.
Because she has come to accept a simpler life, has come to appreciate what she has and has stopped longing for something else, she has undergone a similar change to Shaun, enabling them both to be comfortable in their newfound lives.
As seen, several of the characters in Shaun of the Dead undergo character development, moving beyond the label of slacker and possibly onto that of hero. Liz manages to appreciate and accept her life, whatever it may be. She realizes that the most important thing is to be around the people – or person – she loves since in a moment, that person can be gone. Ed, while still maintaining his childish, slacker-like status, even becomes a hero. By sacrificing himself so that his friends can live, he too is given another dimension, becomes something more than just a loser.
Finally, Shaun becomes the hero. Though he isn’t able to save everyone, he tried to do something which is more than he had ever done before. As Liz states, “You did something. That’s what counts.” In Shaun’s case, his attempt to save the people he loves not only turn him into a more responsible member of society, but also into a more appreciative one. With the family he still has, he is able to create a life for himself, one that he can be proud of, that aligns with who is his. Because of this, Pifer’s article, though containing several true points, does not fully explore the truth behind Shaun’s internal development. He doesn’t regress, does not spend all of his time attempting to remain a slacker. Rather, he spends all of his time attempting to save the people he loves, removing himself from his loser lifestyle and establishing himself as a hero.