Debate Club: What's a better 'zombie' movie: 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead

Contributed by
Dec 28, 2017

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle both sides of the biggest arguments in pop culture.

In this installment, we've got zombies on the brain. Recently, there have been some terrific movies about the undead (or at least undead-ish), but what's the 21st century's greatest: 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead?

THE CASE FOR 28 DAYS LATER

A zombie movie has some key ingredients: a post-apocalyptic world, a distinctive tone, and, of course, zombies (okay, yeah, in this case, "infected"). On all three counts, director Danny Boyle's 2002 film is aces.

It's one thing to give us an emptied-out London, but 28 Days Later depicts a city that's utterly devastated — what's scariest about the place is just how quiet it is. As for tone, Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle nailed the look and feel of their movie brilliantly by making it look incredibly sh***y. (They shot on low-grade digital cameras; after all, when the world is ending, who needs pretty pictures?)

As for the zombies, they're absolutely frightening, running at breakneck speed in search of human flesh, a menacing wave of carnage that cannot be reasoned with. Written by Alex Garland, who would go on to make Ex Machina, 28 Days Later is a nightmare horror movie that uses this zombie plague as a metaphor for post-9/11 life and man's basic inhumanity to man.

The terror is everywhere in 28 Days Later. (Our heroes are no luckier once they stumble upon a seemingly safe compound filled with the uninfected.) And the movie hasn't gotten any bleaker over time — if anything, it still feels chillingly fresh.

 

THE CASE FOR SHAUN OF THE DEAD

Zombie movies are incredibly fun and scary and quite handy for whatever metaphors you want to hang on them, but it is important to remember that they are also incredibly self-contained and even a little archaic: After all, the strangest thing about every zombie movie is that no one in them seems to understand that they're in a zombie movie, or what zombies even are. One of the many strokes of brilliance in Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead is that the characters know what zombies are — even if they're afraid to say the actual word — and know exactly what to do when they come across one … even if that doesn't necessarily help them.

The endlessly fruitful, and really quite sad, joke of Shaun of the Dead is that it can be difficult, in a deadened, narcotized age, to tell the difference between a zombie and a regular person. In a way, the zombie apocalypse is the best thing to happen to our characters: It jolts them to life, and to action, to help them understand who they truly are. Also: Throw the Batman soundtrack, but never, ever throw Purple Rain.

 

THE CASE AGAINST 28 DAYS LATER

There's a slight self-satisfaction to 28 Days Later that, at times, can be a little off-putting: Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are times it can feel a little like Hipster Zombie Invasion. (Certainly the zombies seem to eat more than the people do.) It also, unlike most great zombie movies, throws us a rope at the end: You can convince yourself that everybody makes it out OK in this one.

There is no such hope in its underrated sequel 28 Weeks Later, which holds out little hope of salvation for its characters, or the planet. Also: It is kind of cheating to make the zombies so fast, isn't it? Are we sure they're even zombies? Or are they just poor sick people who run too fast for us to figure out how to cure them?

THE CASE AGAINST SHAUN OF THE DEAD

Shaun is a really funny, smart zombie riff. But in the end, it's more a sly goof on the genre than a new direction for it to go. In other words, to truly love what Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg concocted, you sorta need to be in on the joke — you've got to dig zombie movies and recognize the clichés that the filmmakers are sending up.

As a result, the film can't help but feel a bit limited. Like all parodies, no matter how inspired, Shaun just references past greatness — it's too busy ribbing the classics to be one itself. Which, of course, is part of the film's immense charm: Shaun and Ed are such slackers that it's impossible to imagine them breaking a sweat worrying about whether or not their movie is some sort of goofy masterpiece.

DECISION

In a perfect universe, these two films would make for a killer double feature: Start with 28 Days Later's brutally bleak worldview and then chase it with Shaun's nose-thumbing insolence. Because Shaun is so funny, it can be easy to forget how emotional it actually is. (When characters die in that movie, you really feel it.) But we're going with 28 Days Later, which is a game-changing zombie movie and a thriller so tense that you probably shouldn't watch it by yourself late at night. If the world's end is anything like it's depicted in Boyle's film, we'd prefer not to be one of the survivors.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.