[Ed. note: I've been pretty lax about the movie reviews lately, so I'm going to try and make up for lost time over the next few entries. FYI, I'll be talking about films I've seen over the course of the last month. I mention this only because I don't want you to think I've spent the last three days sitting in a darkened theater. Not that that's a bad way to spend one's time, of course...]
I must be honest before beginning this review: prior to Shaun of the Dead, I'd only seen one other zombie movie in my whole life, namely the seminal Night of the Living Dead. I suppose you could count Sam Raimi's delirious Evil Dead trilogy, which has certain similarities to "traditional" zombie flicks, but if you're rigidly defining the genre as "armies of shuffling corpses moaning for 'braaaaaaaiiiiiiinnnnnnsssssssss' and getting shot in the head," well, then, there's only ever been the one. Nevertheless, I feel quite secure in proclaiming Shaun to be, as The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy would say, the best zombie movie... EVER! Certainly it's the funniest film I've seen in a good long time. And, in an odd way, it's the most touching, too.
Here's the set-up: our hero Shaun is a 29-year-old slacker who works a dead-end job at the local appliance store and lives with his slobby childhood chum Ed. Ed's the sort of guy who has no ambitions, a poor sense of hygiene, and, in Shaun's words, "not a lot of friends." He gets by making the occasional drug deal, but only sells enough weed to keep the electricity on so he can keep playing his videogames. Shaun is stuck in a deep rut consisting of little else than his unfulfilling work and evenings at his and Ed's favorite pub, the Winchester. Shaun's girlfriend, Liz, however, wants something more out of life than another evening of swilling beer and listening to Ed's obnoxious jokes. When Shaun manages to screw up their plans for an Ed-free evening at a nice restaurant, Liz dumps him and Shaun responds as all men do under those circumstances: he drinks the night away and wakes up feeling like the walking dead. The only thing is, he's not the only one in that condition. As he stumbles to the neighborhood Kwik-E-Mart to get a morning pick-me-up, he's oblivious to the chaos around him. The dead have risen and are intent on eating the flesh of the living, and now this lovably clueless ne'er-do-well is the only thing standing between Liz, Ed, Shaun's mum, and Liz's friends Di and David, and the grisly fate that awaits them all.
The thing that's so great about Shaun of the Dead is that it functions as an effective horror/zombie movie, with all the gore and shocks you might expect from that genre, but it's also a send-up of zombie movies and a surprisingly moving human story as well. Shaun's efforts to round up his assorted loved ones and find some place of safety for them can easily be read as metaphors for the baby-steps of a delayed adolescent moving toward adulthood. Scenes in which he comes to terms with his stepfather, his mother, and Ed himself are unexpectedly emotional -- especially the bit with Ed. I won't spoil it for you, other than to say I've never seen a fart joke that makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. (For the record, I've seen very few fart jokes that even make me want to laugh, so this one is especially remarkable...)
This is a British movie, mostly filmed in a London suburb by the look of it, but the characters and their situations are instantly familiar to any American audience, and as characters in an ostensible horror film go, they're very well developed. Simon Pegg turns in a wonderful performance as Shaun, moving from the zombie-like fog of a young man going nowhere fast to brash man-of-action to scared-and-doomed would-be victim and, finally, to well-rounded grown-up. Nick Frost as Ed and Kate Ashfield as Liz have less of an arc to follow, but are both quite strong in their roles.
Pegg co-wrote the film with director Edgar Wright, and their script references just about every zombie-movie motif that you can think of: vague news reports about a falling satellite? Check. A fairly long build-up in which you're not quite sure if the shambling extras in the background are undead or just dull-eyed suburbanites? Yep. Television newscasters trying to get a handle on the chaos sweeping the countyside? Uh-huh. Disturbing scenes of zombies feasting on their still-human victims? Definitely -- although they're not quite as disturbing as they probably would've been in a more straight-forward horror film. What about scared survivors holed up in a isolated building with the corpse-armies scratching at the windows? Oh yeah... but the joke is that Shaun and Ed chose their beloved Winchester pub in which to make their final stand.
That's a good example of how Shaun subverts the rules of the zombie movie. Everything you expect from a zombie flick is in there: the flesh-eating, the toxic bites, the only method to dispatch the undead (shooting/bashing them in the head), the interpersonal conflicts among the remaining humans, but Pegg and Wright use the rules either to make jokes or advance Shaun's personal story. It's a brilliant exercise in adapting the conventions of genre to make something new, a zombie movie that is not completely nihilistic, amoral, and hopeless. What makes it work is that it focuses more on Shaun and his friends than on the zombies. Instead of a movie about a zombie attack, it's more like a movie about this Shaun guy that just happens to have zombies in it.
Oh, and it's really damn funny, too. My sides were aching during the sequence when Shaun and Ed gradually start to figure out what's going on through their encounter with a zombie-girl in their garden (at first, they think she's just really, really drunk and mistake her attack on Shaun as a clumsy attempt at making a pass). Later, they try to fend off an attacking pair by throwing record albums at their heads, but first they have to argue over which records should be saved and which can be used as ammo (the first pressing of Purple Rain is off-limits, but the Dire Straits album is fair game). And the series of gags at the very end of the movie had me in tears, seriously. I can't recommend this movie highly enough, even to those who normally would no sooner go to a zombie flick than a walk into a dingy 70s-era porno theater filled with grubby men in rain coats.
Given that it's a low-budget foreign film, Shaun of the Dead is not in wide release -- it's currently playing a single theater in Salt Lake, the Century 16. But keep your eyes open for it. It's worth going out of your way for.Posted by jason at October 8, 2004 04:29 PM