Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Bio Zombie

Zombie High

Zombie Lake

Forever Evil

Shaun of the Dead

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Our rating: four LAVA® motion lamps.

Collecting zombies: a more challenging
hobby than collecting butterflies.
Shaun (Simon Pegg) has problems. He’s British. He’s 29 years old. He works as a low level manager at an electronics store. His girlfriend thinks he lacks the romantic soul that she desires in a man, and his flatmates don’t get along.

Oh, and the recently dead have come back to life to devour the living.

Trying to predict the box office success of a film that crosses genres as Shaun of the Dead does is always dicey. Will horror film fans embrace it for its use of the zombie subgenre as the theater for a romantic comedy? Will the followers of the Working Title studio (the British film house that produces off-kilter love stories like The Tall Guy and Four Weddings and a Funeral) see past the facade of decaying flesh to the smartly humorous boy-woos-girl story beneath? The picture caters to both sets of viewers while subtly mocking them at the same time – in ways we think they'll appreciate, should they be persuaded to purchase tickets in the first place.

A few too many hours spent
with Warcraft III.
The picture should be an easier sell to the horror buffs, as the title, trailer, and poster all feature the movie's undead aspects prominently. Those viewers will instantly recognize Ed (Nick Frost), rotund best friend to the titular Shaun, as one of their own: a video-game addicted layabout whose interests lie in things electronic, entertaining, and, well – chemical. Liz (Kate Ashfield), Shaun's girlfriend, wants more time with Shaun outside of Ed's favorite pub. Shaun, recognizing the imminent retreat of his love life, honestly tries to accommodate her. The complicated facets of our hero's haphazard life, however – including his clingy mother (Penelope Wilton), her taciturn second husband (Bill Nighy, who previously turned in a fair performance as one of the living dead in Love, Actually), and the fact that Shaun himself is a creature of habit -- work against him to drive a extra-pointy wedge right down the middle of the relationship.

"Oh thank God. I thought Coupling
might have been on."
At this point in a review of a zombie movie, one might be tempted to say "then things get really bad." They do, of course – flesh-eating zombies quickly become the dominant inhabitants of Shaun's little town, and he finds himself fighting for his life alongside friends and family – but the zombie plot exists alongside the basic conflict between Shaun, his slovenly best friend, and Shaun's erstwhile girlfriend. Shaun of the Dead isn’t the first zombie movie to try to incorporate a bit of sweet romance; Peter Jackson’s Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive) did it back in 1992. Braindead overwhelmed the amour (and indeed any plot at all) with a torrent of mind-boggling gore, but Shaun of the Dead balances treacle and butchery while avoiding the camp that could have ruined the picture easily.

"Important dart safety tip:
stand behind the line
during your opponent's turn."
As a zombie movie, Shaun of the Dead doesn’t break any new ground – from above or below. Look to films like 28 Days Later for new spins on the walking dead, because Shaun and his friends inhabit an amalgam of zombie cinema’s greatest hits. The crisis that causes the zombification of the recently dead is never explained, though a radio report mentions a space probe making an early entry into the atmosphere, as in Night of the Living Dead (1968). There are sieges and blue-faced crowds as in Dawn of the Dead, and there is even a particularly juicy death taken from Day of the Dead. The cinematography, complete with sudden jarring zooms and cuts, will take some back to the day they first saw Army of Darkness. This is where the Zombie Army will be most satisfied; most if not all of the grandpappy revenant flicks are given their due.

Please refrain from any
"boom stick" references.
Fans of British-made film and television won't be disappointed either. There's Nighy of course, and Liz's friend Dianne (Lucy Davis) is instantly recognizable from the BBC hit series The Office. Dianne's boyfriend David is played by Dylan Moran, who held the role of the wonderfully surly bookshop proprietor from Black's Books and was also Rufus the Thief in Notting Hill. (Moran's Books co-star Tasmin Greig makes a brief cameo as well.) Pegg and Frost were prominent players in the British TV series Spaced, which was directed by Edgar Wright, the co-writer and director of Shaun of the Dead. Yes, it's a small country with an incestuous film industry, but they always seem to have a leg up on the rest of the world when it comes to character-driven motion pictures. Why else would American networks keep adapting their TV shows so slavishly? The fact that they can even work in a musical number with choreographed pool-cue blows to a zombie's skull further speaks to the superiority of the British cinematic mind. (We figure their cooking is the trade-off.)

What made us smile most of all, however, was the efficient (one might say British) way the film reminds the audience that this is really a story about one man and the kind of person he wants to be. Pegg and Wright know that the thrill in watching a hero succeed is inversely proportional to the height of his starting point in the story. Accordingly, they've set Shaun's starting point pretty darn low. It's not always clear that he's meant to succeed (his wisdom seems to come mostly from beer coasters), but it's a pleasure to watch him struggle against the zombie hordes towards the sort of life he wants for himself and for Liz. If only he didn't find Ed's fart jokes so hilarious.

Own it!

Review date: 09/22/2004

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