An exceptional mixture of horror, biting British humour and reverence for zombie cinema, Shaun of the Dead is a total gas, winningly written and directed by the guys behind cult TV show Spaced. We’ve seen horror spoofs done before, most notably the full-on farce of the Scary Movie franchise, but Shaun is a different animal, and simply calling it a parody would undersell the craftsmanship on offer here. Not a one-joke spoof, the film is more of a loving ode to the walking dead genre created by George A. Romero, taking its horror elements and story with sincerity while also providing plenty of huge belly-laughs amid the vicious violence. It’s a much-needed reminder about how fun zombies can be, and the fact that it’s delivered via boundlessly energetic and skilful filmmaking is the icing on top.
A 29-year-old slacker from London, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is unmotivated to do anything, satisfied to work a dead-end job while constantly drowning his boredom in beer, much to the disgust of his frustrated girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). Fed up with Shaun’s unfulfilled promises and reluctance to get his life in order, Liz dumps him, prompting the broken man to go on a drunken bender with his slob best mate Ed (Nick Frost). Awakening with a hangover the following morning, Shaun and Ed grow to realise that the country is in the midst of a zombie outbreak. Although the media advises everyone to stay inside their homes, Shaun becomes determined to finally do something. Shaun and Ed begin fighting their way through town to rescue Liz, her best friends, and Shaun’s parents, aiming to take shelter in the local pub until the zombie apocalypse blows over.
Whereas most parody films amount to a series of meaningless sketches supported by a flimsy plot, Shaun of the Dead tells a fully-rounded narrative, allocating time between the big jokes and major set-pieces to focus on character interaction and tension-building. Co-written by Pegg and director Edgar Wright, the beauty of the movie is that it presents the zombie genre with tremendous respect and veneration, while also playing the expected story beats with earnestness and joyfully poking fun at the genre’s clichés. Furthermore, Shaun re-introduces zombies in the old-fashioned mould; they moan and move slowly, essentially representing the antithesis of the creatures from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. The zombies are fairly easy to kill here, too, leading to delightful sequences of zombie bashing involving innovative uses of Queen music, vinyl records and sports equipment. Added to this, in the vein of Romero’s endeavours, Shaun largely avoids exploring the cause of the outbreak. Wright and Pegg simply set up the wonderfully quirky characters and let the craziness play out; the bigger picture is irrelevant amid the pure fun the picture dishes up.
For horror geeks, Shaun of the Dead is a dream come true. Wright and Pegg do love their zombie cinema, packing the script with references to genre classics like Dawn of the Dead and Braindead (there’s even a sly dig against 28 Days Later). Fans of Spaced will also appreciate the film, as it has references to the show and appearances from cast members. Shaun of the Dead‘s comedy is not in your face like American films; the humour is understated, and if you don’t pay attention then you might actually miss the gags. If you give Shaun your full attention, however, you’ll be able to appreciate the superb screenwriting, as there isn’t a pointless line of dialogue during the picture’s 95-minute duration. Added to this, Wright does not baulk from graphic violence, staging vicious zombie attacks and a number of gruesome moments towards the end. This does lead to a few tonality issues, but Wright fast recovers for a climax that brings the house down. Although Wright was somewhat inexperienced in the realm of feature-film directing at this stage in his career, his filmmaking is flawless, with attractive cinematography and competently-staged set-pieces.
Going above and beyond the call of duty, Wright one-ups the usual standard for the genre by introducing characters that we can genuinely care about. Each character has a distinct personality, and they’re all hapless and flawed, allowing us to relate to them. Watching Shaun and the others bicker and squabble is funny, yet such scenes are convincingly played as well. Leading the cast is Pegg, harnessing his wonderful comic gift to play the titular Shaun. Pegg never seems to be in on the joke; he plays it straight, making the absurdity of his lines and actions all the more amusing. Likewise, Frost is a riot, a scene-stealing supporting presence armed with one-liners and quirks guaranteed to have viewers rolling on the ground in fits of laughter. The rest of the cast is great as well, including Dylan Moran who very much goes against type by playing a bit of a douchebag.
Romero’s zombie classics carried some sort of subtext, and Shaun of the Dead retains this vital aspect of the genre while simultaneously creating golden comedy through the social commentary. Wright posits that, in this day and age, humankind are already a collection of zombies, stuck in their ways and doing very little in the way of living. As a matter of fact, when London is taken over by the walking dead, Shaun and Ed are too hung over to even notice, as nothing seems out of the ordinary to them. Brilliant. Romero, incidentally, has stated that he loves this film, even inviting Pegg and Wright to cameo in his 2005 project Land of the Dead. In short, Shaun of the Dead is a masterpiece. Even those who don’t like horror will enjoy this film due to its comedic undertones.