27 October 2011

Shaun of the Dead

From left, Nick Frost, Penelope Wilton, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Kate Ashfield and Simon Pegg are shown in a scene from "Shaun of the Dead."

There are many signs "Shaun of the Dead" (2004) is a step—or two or three or four steps—ahead of its zombie movie counterparts: the wit of its screenplay, the performances, the filmmakers' reverence for classic zombie movie tropes.

But the real reason? It's flat-out better made, with its filmmakers' technical skill on full display, and real thoughts and ideas behind its undead hordes.

The movie, directed by Edgar Wright, who also co-wrote with star Simon Pegg, reaches its pinnacle with a pair of long Steadicam shots following Shaun (Pegg) on his morning walk from his London flat to the market across the street.

The first shot follows Shaun, a 29-year-old electronics salesman, through his normal, brain-dead routine, buying a can of Coke and returning home.

By the time of the second shot, "Z-Day" has begun—only Shaun doesn't know it. The camera movements are identical while Shaun is oblivious to the death and destruction that surrounds him. In fact, he even starts to feel good about himself when he opts this time for a Diet Coke. In the best gag, he slips on a puddle of blood and continues going about his business without giving it a second thought.

Shaun and his best pal, Ed (Nick Frost), who's such a slacker he makes Shaun look good by comparison, are so absorbed in their own insulated world that they do not realize the end may be near until it literally reaches their backyard.

The point is, Shaun, through his own lack of ambition, mind-numbing job and free time spent either at the pub or parked on the couch watching TV and playing video games, might as well be a zombie already. Even when Shaun aims to be a hero, his immature nature shines through. His plan: Round up his girlfriend (Kate Ashfield) and mother (Penelope Wilton), and ride out the apocalypse at his favorite watering hole.

George A. Romero's classic zombie films (including "Night of the Living Dead," 1968, and "Dawn of the Dead," 1978), to which "Shaun" owes a great debt for its mythology, traded in satire and social commentary, but never were as laugh-out-loud funny as "Shaun of the Dead." Here, we get Shaun and his friends learning to act like zombies to avoid getting eaten; a running joke about the meaning of the word "exacerbate"; Shaun and Ed bickering over which records to use as weapons against the backyard zombie (the "Batman" soundtrack is an acceptable loss; Prince's "Purple Rain" is not); dialogue repeated and characters reappearing with different meaning; and an endless barrage of visual gags.

We also have a real rooting interest in Shaun. Often in zombie movies, humans turn on each other and become the real villains. Wright and Pegg, however, show great affection for their characters, and the relationships between Shaun and Ed, Shaun and Liz, Shaun and his mother, even Shaun and his stepfather.

For all his faults, the movie doesn't prove Shaun's lifestyle wrong. He betters himself without changing who he is—he still watches TV, hangs out at the pub, plays video games with Ed.

"Shaun of the Dead" is a rarity in its genre for ending with a real sense of hope. That helps make it the best zombie movie ever made and the best horror film of the 21st century.

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