A film review by Craig J. Koban October 23, 2009

 

SHAUN OF THE DEAD j
j
j
½ 

5th Anniversary Retrospective Review

2004, R, 99 mins.

 

Shaun: Simon Pegg / Liz: Kate Ashfield / Ed: Nick Frost / Dianne: Lucy Davis / David: Dylan Moran / Mary: Nicola Cunningham / Clubber 1: Kier Mills / Clubber 2: Matt Jaynes

Directed by Edgar Wright / Written by Simon Pegg and Wright

In my very recent review of the frequently hilarious ZOMBIELAND I commented on my appreciation for how the film took one of the oldest and most often imitated movie monsters – flesh eating zombies – and used them primarily to make us laugh first and recoil in horror second.  There have been oh-so-many dry and regurgitated retreads of the basic zombie-infestation premise (original spawned by George A. Romero’s classic 1968 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the CITIZEN KANE of ghoul thrillers) that it borders on ad nauseum.   The more films I’ve seen with these humanity hungry beasties the less frightening they have become; the only logical point, I concluded, was to use them primarily for comedic purposes (zombies, after all, can be very funny). 

As much appreciation I had for the giddy and freakishly entertaining thrill ride that was ZOMBIELAND, it is not the finest example of using these staple cinematic monsters to amusing effect.  That honor would most certainly go to SHAUN OF THE DEAD, the 2004 film that served as a very obvious influence to the makers of ZOMBIELAND.  The brainchild of British actor/writer Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, SHAUN OF THE DEAD more than equals ZOMBIELAND's feverous laugh quotient, but where it succeeds even further is in how much slyer and sophisticated it is with its gags.  That sentiment, no doubt, could easily be attributed to how much finer the Brits are at both sardonic observational comedy alongside witty dialogue exchanges.   

Even finer is the fact that SHAUN OF THE DEAD should in no way be confused as a send-up or AIRPLANE-inspired spoof, nor is it ostensibly a grotesque parade of barbaric horror images.  It straddles a very tricky medium between those two hemispheres and, as a result, becomes something more wicked and clever.  There is a certain fanboy love and appreciation that Pegg and Wright have for their cinematic antecedents (which are as far ranging as the collective Romero zombie cannon, the EVIL DEAD films, and even to RESIDENT EVIL and New Age undead films like Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER) and, a surprising amount of the time, SHAUN OF THE DEAD is a rather well oiled and slick horror film with a legitimate gross out factor.  However, the film does not superficially focus just on horror, nor does it hone in just on laughs.  SHAUN OF THE DEAD is grotesque, scary, and brutal at times and, when it’s not, it’s also shrewdly humorous and spirited.  There is no cheapness to the overall approach: it does not pander to either comedy or horror aficionados, but rather appeases both sensibilities.  The makers respect the homogenized material to the point of geeky reverence.  

SHAUN OF THE DEAD is the first film in the amusingly labeled “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy” by Pegg and Wright (the second film was the hilarious HOT FUZZ, a homage/send-up of bloated Hollywood action films, and the third is the yet-to-be-released THE WORLD’S END).  Each of these films is connected to a Cornetto ice cream flavor and each of them  features a specific flavor (the use of three colors of Cornetto is also a cheeky reverence to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s THREE COLORS film trilogy).  SHAUN OF THE DEAD was inspired mostly by an episode called "ART” of the BBC television program SPACED (which featured Pegg and Wright’s involvement).  In the episode Pegg’s character becomes under the influence of an amphetamine (not to mention a zombie-centric Playstation video game that he is playing) and then begins to hallucinate that he is fighting off a zombie horde.  From this point Pegg and Wright – realizing their mutual appreciation for the horror works of Romero - began to conceptualize their own highly unique and fresh look at the undead horror genre. 

The overall comedic tone and visual style of SPACED would prove to be a huge influence on SHAUN OF THE DEAD.  Wright, who helmed 14 episodes of SPACED, used much of his highly frenetic and stylized (but not to the point of overt, eye raping, Michael Bay-ian overkill) imagery to conceive the visual pallet of SHAUN OF THE DEAD.  Even more similar is the fact that many of the SPACED series regulars (in terms of cast and crew) also returned for SHAUN (the main actors in particular are Pegg, Nick Frost, and Peter Serafinowicz). The film also benefited by having a relative who’s who in the pantheon of British comedians and actors, especially from such Brit sitcoms like BLACK BOOKS and THE OFFICE.   

The filming commenced entirely in London at Ealing Studios and also involved the production companies Working Title Films and StudioCanal.  Many of the exterior shots were created in and around North London (which becomes a colorful character itself in the film that consequently adds considerable flavor and charm to the film).  While in production working titles of the film reflected its kooky and subversive edge, like TEA TIME OF THE DEAD and DWIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  The production also became a labor of love for fans of SPACED too, as many of them were put to work as zombie extras during many sequences.

The freshness of the film originates principally from its character prerogative: Whereas past zombie entries like Romero’s high benchmark, DAWN OF THE DEAD, used zombies as a metaphor for consumerism run horrible afoul, SHAUN OF THE DEAD uses zombies almost as secondary elements in the film.  Pegg and Wright’s film is wall-to wall flesh eaters, to be sure, but these lumbering, salivating, and perpetually moaning creatures sort of reflect the equally slack-jawed demeanor of the film’s human Gen-X slackers.  Most normal characters in zombie films are in a state of feverous panic with the onset of the zombies looking to feast on them.  Hilariously, the twenty-something degenerates in SHAUN OF THE DEAD exist in such a pathetic state of monotonous daily routine that, when the zombies do appear, they are barely able to notice at first. 

Besides dealing with a looming global apocalypse of a zombie uprising that threatens to take over the world, Shaun (Pegg) lives a very typical and very lethargic existence.  He works by day at an Electronics store and by night he has no aspirations higher than to either hang out with his flatmate, Ed (Nick Frost, knee-slappingly uproarious) playing video games,  drinking at the local pubs, and/or unwinding with his semi-beleaguered girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield).  However quaint things appear for Shaun, things start to go south very quickly when Liz becomes furious with him for utterly botching a special dinner reservation and, as a result, starts to implant doubts in Shaun about the long-term viability of their relationship.  Liz has a feisty zeal to make something of her life, but Shaun is the polar opposite: He has no vast career goals and is unhealthily complacent with his semi-menial retail job and with spending much of his waking hours slumming away with Ed, whom is even more of an aimless and ambitious young man.   

Shaun is definitely not assisted by three things: (1) Liz’s flatmates, Diane (Lucy Davis) and David (the terrifically droll Dylan Moran) are reinforcing to her that Shaun cares more about pub life than he does a life with her, (2) Shaun's sometimes troublesome relationship with his mother and father (Penelope Wilton and the great Bill Nighy), and (3) yes, the upcoming zombie oblivion.  Beyond his issues with his folks, friends, and girlfriend, Shaun initially is completely oblivious to what is going on when zombies begin to litter London.  There is a virtuoso steady cam shot showing a deeply hungover Shaun going to work (which echoes a nearly identical tracking shot earlier in the film of him going to work on a previous day) that shows him all but ignoring all of the lurching and ravenous ghouls.  Shaun is so trapped within a depressed bubble of his own self-loathing and repetitive existence that – when the end of the known world appears to have started – he hardly bats an eye at it.   

However, Shaun does begin to wake up and sense something eerily wrong outside (especially when he and Ed find a female zombie in their back yard and start to pay attention to all of the overwhelming news coverage).  When Ed and Shaun do decide to venture outside to confront the zombie it leads to one of the film’s many outrageously funny sequences: Rummaging around for weapons (and realizing that, according to the news, you must hit zombies in certain ways to kill them) Shaun and Ed decide to use Shaun’s LP collection as Frisbee-like weapons (they have no problem chucking old Dire’s Strait albums at the monsters, but Prince’s "Purple Rain" is a definite no-no).  Realizing that records are horribly unreliable and non-lethal at killing these creatures, they then turn to cricket bats (much more effective). 

Soon after their initial confrontation, Shaun and Ed hatch a plan (in actuality, many plans are revealed in a very amusing montage that shows several possible courses of action) which involves the hapless pair collecting Shaun’s parents, Liz, David, and Diane and drive to the only possible and suitable refuge they perceive: the pub.  Now, the thought of the pub is certainly not the most appreciated choice for all others outside of Shaun and Ed: David at one point rowdily pleas to Liz, “How could you put faith in a man so spectacularly unreliable?  A man’s whose idea of a romantic spot and an impenetrable fortress are one ion the same thing?  This is a pub!  What are we going to do now?”  Ed deadpans back, “We could get a round in.”   

That, of course, is only a small sampling of the film’s juicy and hyper-clever and sharp verbal exchanges that permeate the film (which is also what makes it feel more ingeniously wry than ZOMBIELAND).  There is a frequently funny recurring word-gag involving the meaning and usage of “exacerbate,” as well as an absurdist argument between Shaun and Ed over the usage of the word “zombie" itself (“Don’t say the Z-word,” Shaun pleads, “because it’s ridiculous!”).  There are also two well timed jokes involving child safety locks in a car as well as a pub juke box that plays music on its random setting at highly inopportune times.   One moment is predominantly inspired when the human survivors study the movements and mannerisms of one captured zombie in order to more effectively “mix in” with them to elude becoming their next meal (watch for a perfectly executed shot of Shaun’s mother: Diane thinks her impression is spot on for its dour soullessness, but she actually is just sporting a normal confused look).  Perhaps one of the funniest exchanges occurs late in the film between Shaun and Liz.  “As Bertrand Russell once said, ‘The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.’ I think we can all appreciate the relevance of that now.”  Liz brazenly responds, "Was that on a beer mat?”  “Yeah,” Shaun dejectedly retorts, “A Guinness Extra Cold.” 

It’s because of those scathingly irreverent dialogue exchanges that make SHAUN OF THE DEAD rise well above the moniker of a low rent parody.  The film’s bitterly mischievous writing is also well tailored together with Wright’s boisterous and kinetic direction (there is a sort of limitless enthusiasm and spunk with Wright’s almost cavalier and reckless abandon that he flaunts at times).  Aside from its visual polish, SHAUN OF THE DEAD is also a huge conglomeration of spot-on references to movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games.  There are certainly tributes paid to many previous zombie horror films (most notably Romero’s DEAD trilogy, which it borrows heavily from in terms of the basic specifics of human survivors being trapped and defending themselves against zombies).  There are also abundant lines of dialogue and visual references and details that also recycle Romero’s zombie aesthetic (the opening Universal logo for SHAUN OF THE DEAD appropriates the same synthesizer music cues from DAWN OF THE DEAD).  Then there are the all-too-numerous pop culture shout-outs made throughout the film, ranging from the works of John Carpenter, James Cameron and Lucio Fulci and even to more interestingly incongruous films like THE DEER HUNTER (Pegg’s bandana-wearing Shaun looks copiously like Christopher Walken’s deranged Vietnam vet at one key point in the film). 

Again, it’s the film’s rich tapestry of reverence that makes the film feel richer than the average comic/thriller homage.  There is also more cleverness on display, especially for how Pegg and Wright wisely do not make the mistake of past zombie films by spending too much time of explaining how the zombies originated (it’s always better to not know where they come from; all we need to know is that they are here).  The performances are also of the utmost importance, and the Brit-exclusive cast astutely understands that the best way to garner huge laughs is by playing things as straight as possible; hamming it up to overzealous levels would have been far too obvious and measured.  The Abbott and Costello-esque pairing of Pegg and Frost is priceless.  I especially howled mostly at the way Frost’s Ed almost considers the zombie invasion as an annoying – and not all that menacing – hindrance in his daily pursuits of loafing around and doing as little as possible.  He’s just an unhealthily innocuous man-child that is having an off day, and the shocking casualness of his demeanor causes frequent laughter.  Bill Nighy gives the most flawlessly underplayed comedic performance in the film, most certainly at one point when it’s revealed that he has been bitten by a zombie and will most certainly become one of them.  He matter-of-factly reassures all of his shocked family members by quietly telling them that he’ll be okay because he ran some cold water over the wound.

When SHAUN OF THE DEAD was released in April of 2004 in the UK it was an immediate commercial and critical success.  Despite being released in only 607 UK theatres (a paltry number by the country’s standards) it nonetheless opened in eighth place at the box office.  It went on to earn $30 million worldwide when it was later released in the US to much acclaim and became the "it" cult film to see when it finally debuted on DVD.  The film’s highly ingenious fusion of comedy and horror has netted it even more auspicious honors over the years: Total Film Magazine rated it as the 49th greatest British Film of All-Time and, in 2005, it was rated the 3rd Greatest Comedy of All-Time by a Channel 4 poll.  Time Magazine even went further to champion it as one of the 25 finest horror films ever made.  Even better was that George A. Romero himself was so impressed and humbled by Pegg and Wright's unique handling of the underlining material (which he gave life to 35 years earlier) that he gave the film overwhelmingly positive recognition.  

For reasons I cannot fathom to this day, I never saw SHAUN OF THE DEAD back during its theatrical release in 2004, an egregious error that was corrected a few years ago.  Even though – after my most recent viewing of it – I still find SHAUN OF THE DEAD a tad on the long side (a complaint that I had of their follow-up comedy, HOT FUZZ) there is absolutely no denying that the film is significant enough for how well it managed to take a highly creative and distinctively fresh take on a sub-horror-genre that has seen far too many routine and perfunctory incarnations.  Even five years after its release, the one thing that really sticks out about the film is that it’s not played for witless camp value, nor does it take itself too literally.  Instead, Pegg and Wright both exalt and mock the trappings of zombie pulp fiction and, all throughout, their childlike eagerness and admiration for their movie predecessors shines through.   As a result, SHAUN OF THE DEAD still remains one of the freshest, most liberating, freewheeling, and derisively funny horror comedies of its recent kind.   

  H O M E