Spoof Vs. Satire: Or, Romance Among The Zombies

shaun1.jpgI can't help but feel I should bring up a few points about spoofs and satires in the wake of the release of Hot Fuzz and the renewed interest in its predecessor, Shaun of the Dead. It wasn't until I read an interview with Simon Pegg in which he said that "the word spoof must never be applicable to what we do" that it even occurred to me that some people might consider the films to be spoofs. I need to actually repeat that, emphatically: That some people might classify these films as spoofs never occurred to me at all. Not once. Why? Because a spoof is an extended joke, and often a weak one, at the expense of the original film or genre that came before it. Films like Airplane, Hot Shots, and the execrable Scary Movie series exemplify the form in that they are nothing more than 90-minute riffs on the respective films/scenes that inspired them, and often do nothing more than re-create specific moments from the earlier movies to get a laugh instead of actually creating a new joke. But Shaun/Fuzz are different precisely because while certain — in fact, many — moments are inspired by earlier films, the scenes also stand on their own in the new film. For instance, toward the end of Hot Fuzz, when Danny (Nick Frost) refuses to shoot a criminal he loves and instead fires his gun into the air while yelling, the setup is a direct nod to the sweaty Keanu-Swayze relationship in Point Break. Except the scene isn't completely a nod to the earlier film. Danny and Nick (Pegg) had already bonded while watching Point Break, so Danny's firing into the air wasn't a spoof of Point Break; it was a callback to the fact that Danny and Nick had watched the movie, and Danny had expressed his desire to actually live that scene. When Danny acts it out, it's a completely organic moment in the film. That's the other way Edgar Wright's films aren't spoofs: They have plots. No one watching Airplane thinks the plane is actually going to crash, or that anyone will actually "die" within the film's constructed universe. That's part of what makes Scary Movie so pointless, in addition to its stupefying masturbatory humor. It's ostensibly a film about a killer, but no one viewing the film is ever in danger of believing that the characters are actually progressing through a connected series of events; it's just 90 minutes of bad puns and clunky restagings of real films. Nobody labeled Scream as a spoof, because it was a legitimate thriller that happily played with the genre conventions that had made its existence possible. Similarly, Shaun of the Dead is a top-notch zombie movie because it never for a moment pretends that the zombies aren't real; despite the loving humor injected throughout, the plot takes itself seriously. The characters' lives are threatened by their circumstances, and several good guys get hurt along the way. That sense of legitimacy, of reality, is what makes the film so entertaining: There's a chance that Shaun and Liz might not actually wind up together, which makes us care about them the way we could never care about one of the gruff caricatures in some low-level spoof. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz wouldn't exist without their forebears, but they also don't need them to survive. They're great films in their own right, and that's something a spoof can never be.