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Shaun of the Dead Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007

Image Though claimed by many to be a spoof of zombie movies, “Shaun of the Dead” is really something more unusual. A spoof is like, say, “Scary Movie,” where scenes from other movies are repeated/altered as parodies. The zombies in “Shaun of the Dead” are played absolutely straight—they’re genuine menaces. It’s the human beings who are funny, often very funny. It is, however, partly a parody of modern-day romantic comedies; some have dubbed it the first “romzomcom”—romantic zombie comedy. But what’s important isn’t which category the movie belongs in, but that it’s done with intelligence, a lot of wit and plenty of slapstick. The young cast, mostly unknowns to people this side of the Atlantic, really gets into the film and has great fun with the story and each other. If you doubt this, just listen to the commentary track by most of the leading actors; it’s incoherent and unilluminating, but it’s clearly the sound of people having a good time while remembering one.

Shaun (Simon Pegg) shares a flat in a London suburb with uptight Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), who’s bloody good and tired of the constant presence of obese, slovenly and crude Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun’s best chum and perpetual freeloader. At the Winchester, their favorite pub, Shaun and Ed get together with Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), plus her roommate Dianne (Lucy Davis) and her boyfriend David (Dylan Moran), who has no more use for Shaun than Pete does for Ed. Besides, we—if no one else—can see that he’s really in love with Liz. But she doesn’t notice; she’s too busy breaking up with Shaun, which sort of brings his world down, but not entirely.

The next morning, Shaun staggers from his flat to the nearest convenience store. He hasn’t been paying much attention to the plentiful headlines telling of a mysterious, spreading disaster, and he doesn’t notice that his local streets are now filled with the walking dead. But he and Ed do find one in their back yard, and are good and horrified when she’s impaled by a pipe, then gets up and comes after them again—even though they can see right through her torso. Shaun hasn’t been doing too well in life, but the advent of hordes of the walking dead provides a confidence-building, bracing experience for him. After they battle off a couple of other zombies—including Pete—they race over to the home of Shaun’s mother (Penelope Wilson) and stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy). As they pile into Philip’s beloved Jaguar, he’s bitten by a zombie. After they race to Liz’s and stuff the car with her, Dianne and David (plus mum), Philip zombies out and they have to abandon the car.

Trying to think of a place to barricade themselves and wait until things return to normal, the best Shaun can come up with is the Winchester, largely because of the eponymous rifle hanging over the bar. Things reach a climax as zombies attack the pub, gradually reducing the number of Shaun’s little band.

The movie is so rich in well-placed jokes and other inventive elements that it takes a couple of viewings to catch them all. For example, almost everyone we see in the opening few minutes returns later as a zombie. Shaun makes two staggers from his flat to the convenience store, each one shot in one long unbroken take; SteadiCam strikes again. There are quick references to other movies (a radio voice announces that the crisis is NOT due to infected monkeys—“28 Days Later”). There are quick slam-bam cuts imitating similar sequences from both James Cameron and Sam Raimi movies—but in those, it’s the hero putting together weapons; here, it’s merely Shaun brushing his teeth. In the pub Simon blazes away with that rifle at the walking dead in a “first person shooter” shot like from a video game. Though the title was obviously inspired by George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” and the zombies here are Romero-like—they shamble, they moan, they eat flesh—Romero’s films are not the prime targets.

Director Edgar Wright keeps things moving very fast, especially after the zombies make their appearance. He even changes things to deadly serious after everyone arrives at the pub—this is a tricky thing to try, but he largely brings it off. The ending, however, is protracted, and ultimately the weakest part of the film; you become impatient waiting for things to just get wrapped up already.

The cast is sharp and lively; Lucy Davis is fun as an actress who really gets off on instructing her companions how to be convincing zombies. Dylan Moran’s character is unappealing, but Moran plays him well. Kate Ashfield is winningly spunky, and both Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton, as the oldest characters, are satisfyingly dull (him) and chipper and motherly (her). Nick Frost is amiably sloppy as Ed, a born slob, but the role is pretty much one-note—though he plays that note well.

But the movie rests largely on Simon Pegg’s shoulders. Well-known in the UK for his roles in the TV series “Hippies” and “Spaced,” he’s largely unknown over here—or at least he was until “Shaun of the Dead” (and then “Hot Fuzz”) was released. Now he’s scheduled to play a young Scottie in the next “Star Trek” movie. One of the extras features him and director Wright flipping a large chart—what they created before co-writing the script—and Pegg is so radically different from Shaun that it’s almost amazing.

The HD DVD image is satisfyingly movie-like, though the blacks are a bit soft. You can see smaller details, like the backyard zombie’s guts sucking back into her belly, that you might not even notice on the big screen. The image is sharp throughout; it’s not a high-definition showcase, but it’s an honest piece of work.

The disc is crammed with extras. There’s that fun but somewhat empty commentary track by the actors, and a much more interesting one with Pegg and Edgar Wright (who declares he wants to have more commentary tracks than the “Lord of the Rings” movies). It’s clear that both Pegg and Wright are devoted fans of horror movies, zombie movies in particular; they drop knowing asides both on and off camera.

One long section headed “Raw Meat” is divided into several smaller sections, forming a fairly elaborate making-of featurette. There’s “Simon Pegg’s Video Diary”—he kept a camera on the set (it was shot at famous Ealing Studios), occasionally cornering someone for a few words, though Nick Frost usually manages to dodge him. It’s not especially surprising to learn that Pegg and Frost really were roommates for several years, with a relationship much like that of Shaun and Ed in the movie.

There’s a group of “casting tapes,” the audition tapes of the movie’s leading actors. It might have been interesting to see the tapes of actors who didn’t make the final cut, but it’s easy to understand the reluctance to show those. A special effects comparison section shows scenes before, during and after effects were added, but it’s a little too brisk, making it hard to follow. A series of makeup tests are not very informative, but they’re often amusing, as actors go from shambling, moaning zombies to their own personalities, giggling over being the walking dead.

A “Zombie Gallery” features photos, a comic strip of the story from the magazine “2000 AD,” and various poster designs. The movie often features TV shows, usually solemn anchormen, but, toward the end, goofy brief shots of how the British public has come to deal with the walking dead. A section here features those sequences at full length.

“Missing bits” includes a sequence with Peter Serafinowicz in his best scene from the movie, only here (for airplanes and TV showings) he uses the word “funky” instead of what he says in the film. One interesting section is called “Plot Holes;” it’s three comic strips explaining what happened to some of the characters when they were engaged in off-screen adventures. There’s a section of interesting extended scenes, with optional commentary by Pegg and the director.

“Shaun of the Dead” is great fun, largely because it isn’t a labored spoof of scene after scene from previous—and better—movies. It doesn’t really work as a takeoff on romantic films, since real zombie movies can have background plots similar to those here. But as a zomcom—there’s none better. It was an instant cult classic on its release, and is here preserved in a crisp, handsome print, on a disc with lots of extras, some of them well above average for this kind of thing.

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