Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg will probably come as complete unknowns to the US audience, but they already achieved success in the UK with a short lived sitcom which has achieved a cult status amongst the 18 – 34 student group. While I never really got into the slightly surreal humour of that show, it’s give me great pleasure to announce that with Shaun Of The Dead, they have managed one of the most difficult tasks in filmmaking: A comedy horror that is at the same time, gruesome, touching, and just down right hilariously funny.
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a textbook Men Behaving Badly bloke. He is a twenty-nine year old sales clerk in an electrical store who still lives with his old college buddies; Ed (Nick Frost) the crude unemployed slob and Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) the uptight businessman. He tests the patience of his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) by failing to commit to their relationship fully and angers his creepy stepfather (a wonderfully weird Bill Nighy cameo) by failing to do anything to improve his lot in life.
So out of touch with the world is Shaun that despite visiting the local convenience store, spending the day at work, getting dumped by his girlfriend after one too many let downs and going out and getting completely blind drunk he, through a staggering display of bad timing and mindless daydreaming, fails to notice as the world around him rapidly collapses into a zombie ridden apocalypse in time honored tradition. When he and buddy Ed belatedly realize the predicament they are in, it is up to Shaun to try and rescue his friends and family from undead hell and prove himself worthy of the woman that he loves.
What separates Shaun of the Dead from the likes of Scary Movie and makes it twice as effective is the fact that it never resorts to cheap parody. These are people who genuinely have a love for the genre that George Romero and Lucio Fulchi created back in the 70s (look out for the blink-and-miss Fulchi’s Restaurant and Landis Supermarket references) and manage to poke fun at the absurdity of it all while still telling a story that is involving, surprisingly gory, at times very emotional and all things considered, far more realistic (or perhaps that should be easier to relate to) than Ving Rhames and that chick from Go running around touting serious firepower like badasses.
Simon Pegg gives us the best kind of character we can all root for in Shaun; the likeable loser. The guy who’s stuck in a rut but doesn’t seem to realize it enough to do anything about it; The guy who when finally given an opportunity to prove himself finds that nothing ever goes quite to plan.
The world Shaun finds himself in is trademark Romero; a bunch of disparate survivors dodging hoarding zombies, looking for a place, any place, to survive in the hope that they can simply ride the horror out. This is brilliantly played on throughout the movie. At one point as our group stalks back alleys looking for refuge they encounter another group, made up of almost exactly the same make up of character types. While the joke may be a fairly obvious one, the way it is handled is far better than anything the Wayans or Zuckers might have done.
As mentioned Pegg and Wright have created a world that revels in the absurdity of the zombie mythology and its clichés while never taking cheap shots at its source material. The average British guy doesn’t have an SP12 shotgun in his tool shed, so when attacked by killer zombies he makes do with the only things available – a spade… a cricket bat… his 80s vinyl collection! And when our unlikely hero finally does get his hands on a gun, he doesn’t suddenly become a badass crack shot like Hollywood’s ranks of supposed “everyman” heroes. The dispatching of zombies is more often a happy accident than a genuine strike. The undead are portrayed in their trademark brain-dead shuffler form rather than the super-steroid “zombies” of the Dawn of the Dead remake or 28 Days Later (which doesn’t escape a ribbing either with a subtle gag near the end of the movie) making for easy comedy foil in small numbers but still a formidable force en masse.
It’s hard to describe what it is about the humor in Shaun Of The Dead that makes it work, it’s cheeky rather than sarcastic, always winking at the audience. Still that doesn’t really do it justice. Visual gags and sly witty dialogue work together with the cast’s comic chemistry. Genuine British news and TV presenters revel in cameos as themselves as they bring the world news of spreading chaos (or not in some cases). Much of the humor can be rooted in very British aspects of daily life and pop culture, so I’m not sure how much of that would translate to US audiences. But enough of it is generic to let those few instances slide when considering the movie overall.
It’s not all laugh a minute though. A couple of the effects would make Savini proud and that is something even I did not expect from such a low key movie let alone a “comedy”. Be warned if you take a particularly squeamish date along. But for me, I can safely say that I enjoyed Shaun of the Dead more than I did the recent US remake of Dawn of the Dead. Sure the remake was OK, but it never really added anything new. It was just another well put together horror movie. Shaun… offers a respectful nod to its originators while putting a smile on the face of the audience. And hey, George Romero likes it.
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