Shaun of the Dead (United Kingdom, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Shaun of the Dead is a spoof, but at the same time, it's a semi-serious horror movie. It's also an homage to George Romero's Dead series (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead) and a societal commentary. Admittedly, with so many choices on the menu, director Edgar Wright cooks some of them better than others. But the bottom line is simple: Shaun of the Dead may not be consistently scary (in fact, it's almost never scary), but it is consistently funny (if you have a slightly warped sense of humor) and never loses its audience.

Perhaps the best way to describe the film's comedy is to call it "British humor." Don't expect a gag-a-minute affair like Scary Movie, or a TV sit-com approach. Shaun of the Dead's niche is much closer to the one occupied by Evil Dead 2 (and its sequel, Army of Darkness) and Tremors. Those movies understood what makes a good horror movie, then had some fun with the premise, neither taking it too seriously nor utilizing contempt in its ridicule. In order to make a truly effective parody of a genre (or, in this case, a specific sub-genre), it is first necessary to have a heartfelt appreciation for the serious efforts that exist. Shaun of the Dead isn't camp. It's not a movie that's unintentionally laughable. This is supposed to be funny, but I wonder if much of the comedy will be lost on those who haven't spent a fair amount of time watching screen zombies.

Twenty-something Shaun (Simon Pegg) is stuck in a state of arrested development. His idea of a perfect evening is to get home from work and unwind at the local pub in the company of his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), and his flat-mate/best friend, Ed (Nick Frost). For Shaun and Ed, this is the good life. But Liz is fed up. She wants to do something different, and when Shaun messes up a dinner reservation and suggests going instead to the pub, she has had it with their relationship. Luckily for Shaun, his chance at redemption is just around the corner with the arrival of "Z-Day" (as in "Zombie-Day").

Once the undead first appear, Shaun and Ed are so oblivious to what's going on, they don't realize anything is amiss. When a female zombie wanders into their back garden, they think she's drunk. Later, when it becomes clear that something is very wrong, they attempt to use old LPs like Frisbees to decapitate her. After this encounter, Shaun and Ed formulate a plan: collect Liz and Shaun's mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), then hole up in the pub until it's all over. Along the way, they collect a few other refugees: Liz's flatmates, David (Dylan Moran) and Dianne (Lucy Davis), and Barbara's husband, Philip (Bill Nighy). Philip has a nasty zombie bite, but he thinks it will be okay, because he has run it under cold water.

Dawn of the Dead used the zombies as metaphors for consumers. In Shaun of the Dead, the shuffling, slack-jawed creatures are stand-ins for those of us who have become so desensitized to life that we're existing in a vacuum of routine. In terms of character arc, Shaun of the Dead is about Shaun's freeing himself from the cycle. Of course, it takes a zombie invasion for this to happen. If the dead had stayed in their graves, he would still be playing video games with Ed and bemoaning Liz's defection to a more energetic lifestyle.

There were times when, while watching George Romero's zombie movies, I had to stifle laughter. Cheesy moments abound, although die-hards will deny this. Wright reproduces many of those instances here, but with a difference. In the Dead movies, we're laughing at the film. In Shaun, we're laughing with the director. I won't pretend that Shaun of the Dead is the be-all and end-all of horror comedies. It has plenty of problems, not the least of which is that the horror elements are largely unconvincing (although there is plenty of gore). While there are numerous opportunities to laugh, the movie doesn't always go for the easy joke. Wright wants us to like and identify with Shaun, and there are two things that facilitate this aim: a few surprisingly poignant scenes and a solid "everyman" performance by lead actor (and co-screenwriter) Simon Pegg that elevates Shaun above the level of a caricature. Shaun of the Dead is a movie that one might not expect to work at first glance, but, for those who don't mind a little laughter with their zombies (or perhaps it should be the other way around), this is an unusual source of entertainment.

Shaun of the Dead (United Kingdom, 2004)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2004-09-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1