by Steve Habrat
Before the summer of 2003, the zombie genre had largely remained dead and buried. There was a sluggish 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead here and the final Italian effort Dellamorte Dellamore there, but the zombies seemed content to rest six feet under. In 2002, we caught a glimpse of the undead in the futuristic action-thriller Resident Evil, a film that was unexpectedly fun despite the fact that it was based around a video game and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. In 2003, zombies—or should I say INFECTED people—came back in a big way. Danny Boyle’s grim indie 28 Days Later re-ignited interest in the apocalyptic subgenre and the craze grew ever stronger with the spring 2004 release of the Dawn of the Dead remake. With the zombie craze re-established, the fall of 2004 saw the release of British director Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, a written-in-blood loveletter to George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy, some of the early Italian releases like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, and, yes, Boyle’s gritty reimagining of the genre. Down-to-earth, warm, hilarious, and tense in all the right places, Shaun of the Dead is without question one of the strongest modern zombie movies and it ranks up there as one of the best undead films ever made. Oh, and it also happens to be a romantic comedy, which means your girlfriend might like it too.
Shaun of the Dead introduces us to Shaun (played by Simon Pegg), whose life seems to be stuck in a rut. He works a dead end job as an electronics salesman at Foree Electric, he loathes his stepfather, Phillip (played by Bill Nighy), he constantly quarrels with his roommate, Pete (played by Peter Serafinowicz), over their lazy best friend Ed, who shacks up on their couch and refuses to get a job, and he wants to spend every night sipping pints in a local pub called the Winchester. To make things worse, Shaun is loosing his girlfriend, Liz (played by Kate Ashfield), who wishes that Shaun would do more with his life. After Shaun forgets to book a table at a fancy restaurant for their anniversary, Liz decides to call it quits with Shaun because he just can’t seem to grow up and take on responsibility. Devastated, Shaun and Ed retreat to the Winchester to drown their sorrows in a couple pints and shots, but the next day, the two awake to discover that mankind has been wiped out and the cannibalistic undead roam the streets. Hungover and terrified, Shaun and Ed begin devising a plot to round up Liz, her roommates, David (played by Dylan Moran) and Dianne (played by Lucy Davis), and Shaun’s mother, Barbara (played by Penelope Wilton), in an attempt to show Liz that he is a responsible adult. The plan is to hold up in the Winchester until the whole thing blows over, but as they begin their trek to the pub, they realize that the situation outside is a lot more dangerous than they had anticipated.
The early scenes of Shaun of the Dead are absolutely hilarious and brimming with social commentary. The opening credits find ordinary citizens shuffling through their daily lives with a blank stare frozen on their faces, rooted in monotonous routines. Even Shaun is stuck in a mundane ritual as he shuffles out of bed like a zombie, throws on his work clothes, and sulks obliviously down to the local market where he picks up sodas and ice cream to munch on while he plays video games with Ed. Funny enough, Ed is the one that reminds Shaun that he can’t jump into a game because he has to go to work. Shaun is so blind to his surroundings that when the zombie apocalypse does finally hit, he has absolutely no idea that it is happening until Ed calmly tells him that there’s a girl in their garden. From here on out, the film falls back on the blind leading the blind. Shaun and Ed are clueless over how to deal with the situation they find themselves in. They think that throwing records like Frisbees at the zombies that have stumbled into their back yard (the movie’s best and funniest sequence) is a good idea and they hilariously believe that they will be able to shack up in a pub and sip pints while the undead pound away outside. These early scenes show that Pegg and Wright, who penned the script, both fully understand that Romero’s Dead trilogy had a lot more on its mind that just blood and guts.
While there are plenty of smarts to be found in the depiction of daily life, which clearly Pegg and Wright detest, the film also gets by on some witty references to other zombie movies. Early on we get a nod to Lucio Fulci, Ken Foree, who was the star of Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, a sly nod to the 1984 cosmic zombie movie Night of the Comet, a hilarious spin on the “we’re coming to get you, Barbara” line from Night of the Living Dead, and charming use of Goblin’s score from Dawn of the Dead. There is also a blink-and-you-miss-it tribute to Boyle’s 28 Days Later near the end of the film. While Wright and Pegg are eager to pay tribute to the zombie movie greats, they create a unique offering to the genre. The film is also a hilarious slacker-stoner comedy and a touching romantic comedy that finds us rooting for the romance to rekindle between Liz and Shaun. By the end of the film, Wright has scrubbed away most of the laughs in favor for the typical gut munching and closed-off claustrophobia that made horror fans fall in love with the zombie genre in the first place. The final sequence has powerful emotional blows, a quick visual gag to break the tension, and then a final siege that finds our heroes realistically trying to work their way around a firearm. The scene is all the better because we truly want every single one of these characters to make it out alive, but when the zombies start trying to claw their way in, our stomach twists into knots and we know that won’t happen.
The characters of Shaun of the Dead are all brilliantly written and beautifully played by a handful of very talented British actors. Pegg is a revelation as Shaun, who still gets a belly laugh out of a good fart joke. He shares several touching moments with the stoner Ed, who seems to have grown roots to the couch and super glued an XBOX controller to his fingertips. Ashfield is sweet and tightly wound as Liz, who thinks that there is a lot more out there for her than simply wasting away at the Winchester. Moran is a geeky puke as David, who pines for Liz even though she sees him as just a friend, and Davis tries to be mediator as Dianne. Nighy is stern discipline as Phillip, Shaun’s no-nonsense stepfather who is given one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie. Serafinowicz is wildly unlikable as Pete, Shaun’s fed-up flat mate and Wilton is naïve as Shaun’s lovable mother Barbara. Amazingly, Wright gets us to like even the most detestable characters and he almost drives us to tears when the cannibals seeking human flesh bite a few of them. Overall, Shaun of the Dead dares to take on quite a bit and it could have been crushed under the heavy load it attempts to lift. It is bound and determined to take on several different genres at once and it does it with shocking ease. It is an inventive, poignant, hilarious, and creepy zombie movie that has even earned praise from the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. You’ll want to watch this movie again and again.
Shaun of the Dead is available on Blu-ray and DVD.