Shaun (Simon Pegg) is going nowhere in life. He’s a 29-year-old sales manager at a London electronics store populated by teenage employees who don’t respect him. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), tired of her beau’s adolescent slackerdom and penchant for wining and dining her at the unromantic Winchester Tavern, has unceremoniously dumped him. And his best friend and roommate Ed (Nick Frost) is a lazy slob who plays videogames all day long, doesn’t pay rent, regularly impersonates the orangutan from Every Which Way But Loose, and offers beneficial break-up advice like, ‘You know what we should do tomorrow? Keep drinking.’ Shaun, unmotivated and irresponsible, spends his dead-end days like a zombie. That is, until real zombies start showing up in his back yard.
In Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, zombie-smashing antics serve as backdrop for the maturation of couch potato Shaun, who learns to embrace accountability and responsibility during his journey to save Liz and his dear ol’ mum (Penelope Wilton) from the hordes of walking corpses infesting metropolitan London. With a cricket bat in hand and wise-cracking Ed at his side, Shaun embarks on his daring rescue mission with annoyed nonchalance, and his general disgust at having to do something, anything, besides sitting slack-jawed in front of the television is the comedic lifeblood of Wright’s tongue-in-cheek parody of zombie movie conventions and big-budget Hollywood moviemaking. Shooting for gut-busting humor instead of stomach-churning terror, the film is awash in absurdity. Shaun’s general catatonic demeanor causes him to miss the initial warning signs of London’s apocalyptic state of affairs, and, once he finally does grasp the situation’s severity, his reluctant heroism is tinged with irritability at being inconvenienced. When it comes time to destroy the monsters, Shaun does so with a blasé attitude that makes his gallantry less a stirring act of self-realization than a fart-infused, brain-squashing goof-off.
Wright (working from a screenplay written with star Pegg) knows his genre clichés, and his film’s amusing first half plays up Shaun and Ed’s obliviousness to the burgeoning madness around them by employing jolting scares during mundane scenes (e.g. Shaun being suddenly grabbed on the shoulder by… his insubordinate co-worker) and portentous camera zooms and lightening-quick edits for ordinary events such as Shaun answering the phone. Unlike the fleet, ferocious fiends of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, Shaun‘s creatures are of the slow, moaning George A. Romero variety, and their unaware sluggishness is the set-up for a silly sequence involving Shaun and his band of bickering survivors – including Liz’s argumentative friends David (Dylan Moran) and Dianne (Lucy Davis) – covertly passing through the zombie-filled streets by doing third-rate impersonations of their rejuvenated brethren. And as Shaun’s detested stepfather, Bill Nighy brings a straight-faced ludicrousness to a contrite deathbed confession of paternal love that culminates in a lesson about the dangers of utilizing a car’s backdoor child-safety locks.
Though the image of a hung-over Shaun stumbling into the TV room and yawning with zombie-like mannerisms is smirk-worthy, Shaun of the Dead‘s humor is eventually too self-consciously cute, too interested in winking at its audience while referencing Romero’s classics, for Shaun and company’s increasingly dire circumstances. A last-act scene in which the motley crew temporarily holes itself up in The Winchester is an awkward mix of actual suspense (how will they survive the encroaching menace?) and screwball humor (Shaun’s terrible aim with a rifle) that exemplifies the film’s uncomfortable marriage of moderate gore and sitcom silliness. Whereas the early scenes take a suitably droll perspective on the crisis – such as Shaun and Ed being too lazy to watch TV news reports long enough to learn what’s caused this outbreak of unholy resurrection – the film’s laid-back foolishness is ultimately replaced by strained one-liners, Shaun and Ed’s second-rate Laurel and Hardy routine, and lackadaisical plotting during the deflating climax involving Shaun’s evolution into adulthood. This cheeky tribute to iconic zombiefests is far from hellish, but in the end, Shaun of the Dead‘s splattering of scatological jokes and goofy gruesomeness never fully congeals.
Editor’s Note: This very funny film hits DVD full of extras, including casting sessions, outtakes, commentaries, animated ‘plot hole’ renditions, making-of tidbits, and an intriguing ‘flip-chart’ version of the film in which Pegg and Wright lead you through their pre-script draft of the film, written on a giant flip-chart. Check it out!
Blondes of the dead.