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Non-Review Review: Shaun of the Dead

Welcome to the m0vie blog’s zombie week! It’s a week of zombie-related movie discussions and reviews as we come up to Halloween, to celebrate the launch of Frank Darbont’s The Walking Dead on AMC on Halloween night. So be sure to check back all week, as we’ll be running posts on the living dead.

Ah, facing down a herd of zombies with nothing but a Cricket Bat. Is there a more British response possible to the fall of civilisation?

And that's my cue...

Shaun of the Dead describes itself as a “zom rom com”, and it’s an apt description – it’s arguably the same subgenre which Zombieland, for example belongs to. However, what fundamentally defines the movie – and what makes it so hugely appealing – is its resounding Britishness. This isn’t some sort of patriotic nonsense, just a witty observation about how that little island would probably respond to a pending zombie apocalypse – you just carry on, really. A character bitten by a zombie claims not to have told anyone because, “I don’t want to cause a fuss.” Earlier on, another victim dismisses his potential infection, “I’m alright. I ran it under a cold tap.” Every single one of Shaun’s plans to survive the fact that the dead are rising ends with the eternally optimistic line, “and wait for all this to blow over.”

One of the movie’s recurring gags is to observe how blissfully little would change when the flesh-eating hordes shuffle along in search of prey. Two of the most iconic shots in the film follow Shaun as he takes a trip to the shop – juxtaposing the dull, half-interested walk before anything has gone awry with the dull, half-interested walk after everything has literally gone to hell. “How are you doing?” an old friend asks Shaun twice (once randomly before the crisis and again as they both lead two bunches of characters trying to make their way through the disaster). Both times Shaun replies, “Surviving.”

If Romero’s Dawn the Dead contrasts the day-to-day activities of the living with the actions of their reanimated corpses (who are driven to the shopping centre because of how important it was to them), Shaun of the Dead suggests that sometimes we go through our day-to-day lives with as much independent thought as a zombie (in fact, the opening credits, choreographed to Ghost Town draw a series of witty parallels which suggest that we wouldn’t be able to spot a zombie apocalypse if it happened). It’s a repeated joke at how oblivious everyone is to things in the background of shots which should be key indicators that things have gone horribly wrong – a stumbling drunk, an army convoy, new reports about strange goings-on. It’s funny to watch this so soon after rewatching Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead – the very first zombie introduced is shown in the background of the shot at the graveyard (unnoticed by the primary characters and, initially, by the viewer). I suspect that Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright watched the film and decided that something about that introductory moment ran particularly true – how oblivious we are to things happening around us out of focus.

In fairness, Wright and Pegg are honest about the debt that they owe to Romero and his film. In what is becoming a director’s trademark (with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World opening with a 32-bit Universal logo), Wright opens the film with a Romero-esque sound effect over the Universal logo. News reports in the background allude to a satellite that “unexpectedly reentered Earth’s atmosphere”, in reference to the cause of the plague in the original film. In fact the movie takes great pleasure in dismissing the idea that “rage infected monkeys” might be responsible.

In fact, the exact advice from Dawn of the Dead is used when suggesting how to disable the creatures. They can be stopped by “removing the head or destroying the brain.” The characters themselves are fondly aware of the clichés of zombie movies. When one character breaks zombie-movie decorum by actually uttering the word “zombie”, his colleague is aghast. “The z-word,” Shaun instructs his close friend Ed, “don’t say it.”

Dead cool...

What’s remarkable is that, underneath all the fun that the cast and crew are having with the genre aspect of the production, the film is actually a startlingly good romantic comedy. A lot of movies in that genre like to credit themselves with being quirky, but this certainly qualifies. Though it shouldn’t be a surprise to fans of Spaced, the sit-com which initially united Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the movie deals really well and honestly with the complexities of grown-up relationships (and just how immature they can be).

Wright confirms that he’s a formidable talent here. There are wonderfully impressive shots of characters doing various things that are incredibly minor, but delivered with such awesome over-the-top in-your-face-itude that Michael Bay himself would blush. More than that, Wright has a remarkable gift for scene composition – he’s able to perfectly orchestrate his shots so that the audience always sees what he wants them to see – while maintaining the distinction between foreground and background. It’s difficult to keep an audience’s attention focused on multiple layers of a scene, but Wright does it with enough skill and confidence that he makes it look easy.

His cast is top notch, a real “who’s who” of British comedic talent. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have a natural chemistry together, and their routine helps the film stay reasonably grounded even with everything going on. Bill Nighy, Dylan Moran and Penelope Wilton all have key supporting roles which each handles brilliantly. I have to admit I’m disappointed that Moran’s career hasn’t picked up dramatically – between this and Black Books, he should be an iconic screen presence at this stage. Watch out for a tiny supporting role from Pegg’s Spaced co-star Jessica Hynes (and also cameos from Matt Lucas – from Alice in Wonderland – and Martin Freeman – the new Hobbit).

All in all, Shaun of the Dead is a wonderful little movie which displays genuine affection for the genre that it is mocking (as well as fundamental understanding which is so frequently lacking in parodies these days). It’s a wonderfully well-made film which is just dripping with dry British wit – from the use of a pub as a fortress in contrast to an American shopping mall, or the response from the office of the Prime Minister on the suggestion that this is some form of divine retribution (“Downing Street is refusing to be drawn into a religious debate”). It’s telling that Wright and Pegg have seen their stars rise sharply in the aftermath of this particular film – it’s certainly well-earned.

3 Responses

  1. What’s incredible about this movie is how well it’s stood up to the test of time. As such an “it” movie thanks to how the trends have been going, you’d think that it would show its age quickly – but it can still stand up to Zombieland, and has just as much to say about the state of the world as Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Edgar Wright did the right thing in this film, not playing up the full scope of his abilities right away – he played things a little low key compared to Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim meaning there’s always more more to look forward to with every subsequent film.

    • Yep, although hopefully he’s also learning a bite – that way it seems less disingenuous than “holding back” and also means that there’s really no limit. I also think that Scott Pilgrim was just so different from Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead which – while distinct do feel very similar – that I think Wright demonstrated quite a considerable range.

      • Yeah, it remains to be seen if he can be as chamleonic as Danny Boyle, but there can be no doubt that Edgar Wright has a mastery of the visual language of film – which he uses for full comedic effect without a trace of pretentiousness.

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