Guest post by Alex Brannan.
Horror and comedy – the salty and sweet of genre categories. I feel much has already been made of the horror-comedy as a seemingly incompatible hybrid that nevertheless persists. Not only does it persist, it has lived a life nearly as long as the cinema itself. The playful supernatural fantasies of George Méliès and G.A. Smith at the turn of the 20th century witnessed the growth of early in-camera visual effects while dabbling in a light macabre. Edwin S. Porter’s series of comedy shorts featuring poor Uncle Josh saw the unlucky gentleman set upon by all manner of ghouls and demons.
In 1999, Noël Carroll wrote on the unlikely pairing of horror and humor, speculating that perhaps the horror-comedy goes back as far as the origins of the gothic, with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Carroll wrote that the apparently at-odds genres of horror and humor were more naturally aligned than one might think, as significant portions of horror and comedy rely on a similar “transgressive play” with normative boundaries. While the fear of bodily harm lies at the affective core of horror, that harm often comes from a monster whose very existence is predicated on the transgression of natural boundaries – e.g., a zombie is somehow both ambulatory and dead. The incongruity theory of humor, which posits that humor can derive from the juxtaposition of two unlike concepts or schemas, witnesses a similar transgression of acceptable behavior (minus the fear of horror).
It is difficult to deny that Shaun of the Dead is a prototypical horror-comedy. Edgar Wright situates the story firmly within the conventions of the zombie genre: a group of civilians band together in a desperate bid for survival and search for safety in a society suddenly torn asunder by a zombie plague. This horror foundation is used as a means to a punchline-driven end that is often firmly situated within the incongruity realm of comedy (for instance, when first encountering a zombie, Shaun and Ed carefully considering which records to use as projectiles is incongruous to the impending danger).
What sets Shaun of the Dead apart from other horror-comedies is that its genre composition is not dyadic. In fact, the film sticks its necrotic fingers in multiple generic pies. The first act establishes the slow onset of the zombie apocalypse, with the hapless Shaun (Simon Pegg) noticing peculiar goings-on as he moves through another day in his unfulfilling life. This first act also functions like the second act break in the standard romantic comedy, where the lesser-half of the relationship who just cannot get his ducks in a row finds himself out in the rain, the bouquet in his hands without a partner to gift it to (the flowers were for his mum, anyway). The motivation that moves the story into its second act involves, in part, Shaun’s love for his ex-girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) and desire to know that she is safe. More than a simple B-plot, the story is driven in large part by the romance.
Of course, Shaun of the Dead is also a buddy film. Far from being the competent law enforcement types or clashing odd-couple foils of buddy-film convention, though, Shaun and Ed (Nick Frost) are two shades of the same juvenile, incompetent hue. At the start of the film, Shaun is only slightly more adjusted to the working world than Ed, who spends the first day of the apocalypse in the same spot on the couch playing video games. Shaun, meanwhile, is caught in an entry-level 9-to-5 where he is by far the oldest employee at his position.
This dynamic speaks to the most inspired genre infusion present in Shaun of the Dead, that which propels the emotional core of the film. As the clever framing and expertly timed rule-of-three callbacks make comedy beats out of a horror-genre staple, Shaun’s character arc provides counterpoint emotional beats. These beats work so well because Shaun of the Dead functions as a bildungsroman, belated as it is due to Shaun’s arrested development. Shaun, 29, is only slightly more of an adult than Ed, but they live like college dormmates; as their white-collar flat mate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) tells Shaun, in reference to Ed’s laziness, “We’re not students anymore.” Shaun is not mature enough to face his oncoming thirties, get his life in order, and have a serious relationship with Liz. But, as the movie goes on, he finds his best friend’s immaturity to be equally unappealing.
It takes the introduction of the zombie apocalypse for Shaun to come to terms with the future that is in front of him. He organizes his priorities – “take care” of Phillip (Bill Nighy), grab mum, grab Liz, have a nice cold pint, etc. He has a heart-to-heart with his stepfather that allows him a cathartic release from the pains of his childhood. In the chaos of events, he finally introduces his girlfriend to his mother. And, in the end, he learns how to balance a stable adult life with the pub-crawling and video games. It takes the end of the world to get him there – if you wanted to be cute, you could say the zombie horde symbolizes the unavoidable pressures of the world forcing Shaun to grow up already – but Shaun, 29 or not, comes of age.
Shaun of the Dead, in terms of scripting and editing if nothing else, is one of the tighter comedies out there. There are a few moments of zombie carnage that do Tom Savini and George Romero proud. And the emotional heart beats like a drum, the mallet held proudly by Shaun in honor of all the beer-sipping doofuses who figure life out in their own time. Because dogs can look up.
 See, for a few examples: The Haunted Castle (Méliès, 1897), The Four Troublesome Heads (Méliès, 1898), The X-Ray Fiend (Smith, 1897).
 See: Uncle Josh in a Spooky Hotel (Porter, 1900), Uncle Josh’s Nightmare (Porter, 1900).
 Carroll, Noël, “Horror and Humor,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 57, no. 2 (1999): 145.
 Carroll, 157.
Alex Brannan is a Ph.D. student in the Media School at IU, and he previously earned an MA from the University of Texas-Austin. His research focuses on discourses of taste and film fandom on social media platforms. Occasionally, he writes about horror movies. He is never not in the mood to watch a John Carpenter film.