Shaun of the Dead
Director : Edgar Wright
Screenplay : Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Simon Pegg (Shaun), Kate Ashfield (Liz), Nick Frost (Ed), Lucy Davis (Dianne), Dylan Moran (David), Bill Nighy (Philip), Penelope Wilton (Barbara)
George A. Romero has given the British zombie parody Shaun of the Dead a ringing endorsement and even invited cowriter and star Simon Pegg to play a cameo role in his upcoming Land of the Dead (the third sequel to 1968's Night of the Living Dead). In a way, I'm surprised since Shaun pretty much puts the last nail in the coffin of lumbering zombies as anything other than comical, thus calling into question Romero's decision to make a fourth Dead film.
However, zombies have certainly been spoofed before to various degrees, from outright splatstick like Peter Jackson's Braindead (1992), to the more the more ironic humor of Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead (1985). Shaun of the Dead has much more in common with the latter kind of comedy, as it works hard to find a delicate balancing act between generating tension and humorously subverting it, often in the blink of an eye.
The title character, played by Pegg, is a lovable, ale-soaked slacker who doesn't quite understand why his long-suffering girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), is getting tired of hanging out with him at the same corner pub night after night. Shaun's best friend, Ed (Nick Frost), is an even bigger slacker than he is. Shaun can at least lay claim to steady employment (even though his job as an appliance store salesman is shared by a bunch of teenagers). Ed, on the other hand, is an unemployed, unkempt, overweight slob who mooches off Shaun and his exasperated roommate and spends all day playing videogames on the couch.
Shaun of the Dead's best joke is that, when the zombie apocalypse takes place and the north end of London is taken over by the living dead, Shaun and Ed are too hung over to even notice. In fact, Shaun is pretty much a zombie himself, lumbering drearily from his bed down to the corner store to get a healthy breakfast of Diet Coke and an ice cream cone, all the while oblivious to the flesh-eating zombies all around him.
Of course, once he does clue in to what's going on, Shaun grabs onto the situation as an avenue for him to be proactive and impress Liz, who finally dumped him the night before. Wielding a cricket club, Shaun fends off the increasing hoards of the living dead as he and Ed set out on a mission to rescue Liz, her two roommates (Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran), and Shaun's blissfully cheery mum (Penelope Wilton).
Director and cowriter Edgar Wright (who worked with Pegg on the British slacker sitcom Spaced) sustains an almost unfathomable marriage of horror, comedy, and dramatic pathos throughout the film, throwing in good doses of explicit gore to balance the silliness of the characters' behaviors. There isn't nearly as much gore as in Jackson's Braindead or Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films, but there is one gut-cruncher moment that goes seamlessly from shock to hilarity as the victim is torn apart and the survivors, without missing a beat, use his disembodied legs to beat back the zombies.
Wright is also wise to take his time in the movie's opening moments, allowing the characters to come into their own (however shallow they may be) before throwing them into the zombie maelstrom. We actually grow to care about Shaun and his motley bunch of survivors, which leads to more than a few moments of genuine dramatic effectiveness that almost overwhelm the film's comedy. However, true to its comic intentions, despite the seemingly apocalyptic nature of the narrative's arc, Pegg and Wright manage to find a final coda that slaps an amusingly (and socially satirical) happy ending onto the story, one that shows us just how fine the line is between actually being a zombie and just acting like one.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © 2004 Focus Features