Originally written in October 2004.
I have seen the best comedy and the best horror movie so far in 2004. Guess what? They're the same film.
Simply put, I loved virtually every frame of Shaun of the Dead. Possessed of a crackling British wit and sharp social commentary, it simultaneously gets big laughs and is a credible entry in the recently revived zombie subgenre.
Many horror films these days play more like comedies, but in those cases we're usually laughing at the movie. In Shaun of the Dead, we're laughing with it.
Shaun draws heavily on George Romero's famous zombie trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead), but with an obvious respect. Co-writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (Wright also directed, and Pegg stars as Shaun) have said Shaun is intended to be a companion piece to Romero's films. Its zombies are not the new-fangled corpses-on-speed of 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake. The undead here are of the moaning, shuffling variety, conveniently dispatched by a well-placed blow to the head.
The monsters themselves are not particularly interesting, and the filmmakers know this. So until the final showdown, the zombies are little more than an afterthought. Instead, the focus is on Shaun, a 29-year-old appliance salesman from the London suburbs. For him, life is lounging about his flat watching TV or playing video games with his best friend, the slovenly Ed (Nick Frost), having drinks at the local pub, and little else. Each morning, it's the same routine, he straggles out of bed, dons his white shirt and red tie, and walks across the street to get a Coke from a convenience store, passing the same homeless man, tripping on the same curb. He literally doesn't notice the death and destruction around him until it reaches his own backyard. Somehow he has a girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), but she dumps him just before the mayhem begins.
When Shaun and Ed finally wake up to the terror in the streets, they quickly formulate a plan: retrieve Liz and Shaun's mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), and barricade themselves inside an impenetrable fortress—in other words, the pub. Along the way, they're also saddled with Shaun's stepfather, Philip (Bill Nighy) and Liz's flatmates, Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran).
The plot follows the simple zombie movie pattern, yet never feels formulaic. There is always something interesting happening. I don't want to spoil the jokes, so I'll only say that much of the humor arises from satire. While Romero equates zombies with consumerism, Pegg and Wright, creators of the sitcom Spaced, a British cult hit, take the metaphor even further. Shaun and Ed have become such victims of modern life and their own lack of ambition that they have already become zombies themselves. I don't think it's for lack of imagination or an editing decision that the source of the zombie plague is never revealed.
Whenever we become just a little too comfortable with the comedy, we're reminded Shaun is a horror movie with a healthy dose of blood and gore. It's grislier than I expected, but necessary for the film to continue working on multiple levels.
Even more unexpected is the depth of the film's emotional content. The filmmakers refer to Shaun as a “rom-zom-com”—romantic zombie comedy. Winning Liz back is more important to our hero than whacking zombies with his trusty cricket bat. Meanwhile, Shaun's actions—he's taking charge in his life for perhaps the first time—change him in Liz's eyes, justifying a love we get the feeling she has had to work hard to maintain. Shaun's interactions with his mother and stepfather give the movie another emotional dimension.
The most touching relationship, though, is that of Shaun and Ed. When Liz breaks up with Shaun, she complains that Ed is always around. But Shaun is not about to abandon him, even for her. Shaun and Ed share a wonderful scene late in the film, and the coda includes a hilarious, heart-warming payoff.
Pegg and Frost play Shaun and Ed more like sitcom characters than heroes in a zombie film. I'd never advocate sitcoms as high art, but that is one of Shaun's great strengths. It feels as though Shaun, Ed, Liz and all the others have lives that extend beyond the scope of the film, and the cast brings them and their relationships to life. They seem like a group of people you might actually find somewhere in London rather than characters created to serve a movie plot.
I have probably been too kind to some horror movies in the past. I'm not doing that now. Shaun of the Dead is an ambitious film that accomplishes all it sets out to do. It is not just a good zombie movie—it's a great film.
(Rated R for zombie violence/gore and language. 99 minutes.)