Originally post at suite101 on 12/10/08, can now be found Xomba.
The use of hyper-real sound more common to action movies, to accompany everyday actions creates tension and humour that adds to the film’s knowingly referential nature.
Contrast of Image and Sound
During the early stages of the film, before the dead rise, while Shaun continues his bland everyday life, the contrast between actions and accompanying sounds is pronounced. The sound effects for Shaun’s routine as he prepares for work are beefed up to belie the fact that he’s clearly operating on auto-pilot, cupboards open with dramatic whooshes, toast is spread with a heroic crunching swipe.
Outside, all Shaun’s actions come with a dramatic soundtrack, stumbling on a curb produces a sound like running into a wall, change given to a homeless man tinkles brightly. The sounds of the rest of the world are distant and muted, robotic, repetitive and unnoticed. Standard procedure would be to have normal life accompanied by normal sounds and then boost and enhance everything once the dead rise.
Instead here, normal life is accompanied by powerful exciting sounds, and amid all the carnage it is the little mundane sounds that are most powerfully emphasised. Notably in one scene David flicks the fuse switches repeatedly in panic, zombies groan as they try to break down the door behind him but by way of habituation their sound has faded like traffic noise in our – and his – ears.
What we hear loud and clear over the music is the sound of the switches, the focus of the scene and its humour. That is ultimately the main purpose of sound in this film, subtle sound cues directing the audience to which part of the hybrid genre of the film they are about to experience. This is, after all, a film after which, the slap of leather on willow will never hold quite the same connotations.
Sound Aware Writers and Director
Like many films that make good use of sound, Shaun of the Dead, benefits from having writers and a director who are aware of the importance of sound. Director, Edgar Wright, even tells the story of a test screening with a rough cut of the film minus some of the sound effects, and how it made him realise how important the sound was to many of the jokes.
The music element of the soundtrack is laden with references to the zombie genre, from the opening use of the Dawn of the Dead (Romero, 1978), through to numerous appropriately titled popular songs. It would have been easy to keep the soundtrack references to musical ones, but there are dozens of subtle little aural references in terms of effects, which add nicely to the overall impact.
Nigel Heath’s Sound Mix Adds Impact
The film also makes good use of its surround sound, not only does this assist the creation of an aggressive mix for the battle scenes and general undead carnage, there are also some nice moments where passing zombies can be heard groaning and moaning round different speakers as the camera moves. Especially useful for those: ‘it’s behind you’ moments.
Aggressive though the mix can sometimes be, dialogue is kept clean and clear, which, given the high density of verbal gags and cultural references keeping the dialogue unsullied by the surrounding cacophony is particularly important.