SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)
(Directed by Edgar Wright)
(Written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright)
(Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Kate Ashfield)
Plot: A lazy, 29 year old slacker named Shaun (Simon Pegg) and his even lazier friend Ed (Nick Frost) find themselves caught up in a zombie apocalypse. Shaun decides to rescue his family and friends by gathering them up and hiding in a…pub?
I’ve been staring at my computer screen, pulling out my hair- only to remember I don’t have hair, making me feel kind of stupid- and wondering in exasperation what I can say about “Shaun of the Dead”. This 2004 gem is a British comedy which parodies zombie films. It does it very well. In fact, “Shaun of the Dead” is such a successful parody that it somehow manages to be an awesome zombie flick in the process, even though the terror and drama is often played for laughs- or at least the comedy intermingles with the darker elements effortlessly. I laughed, I cried, I cringed, I paused the movie so I could take a dump, I wiped, I washed my hands, I returned, I laughed some more, I cried some more, I cringed some more and even did my fair share of shivering. But comedies like this just can’t really be critiqued. It comes down to: “Did it make you laugh?”. Well, yes. “Shaun of the Dead” made me laugh. A lot. Success!
I am going to focus on three different areas for this review. I will discuss “Shaun of the Dead” as a comedy, as a parody and as a legit zombie thriller. I am an American from the country known as American. We at American specialize in intellectual comedy, heralded by witty, mature and thought provoking comedians such as Larry the Cable Guy. My biggest concern was that the British style of humor would be beneath me, like toilet jokes and silly voices. But then I remembered that I usually like British humor, so wondered why I would’ve been worried. Despite containing plenty of gags which would appeal more to English audiences, Edgar Wright apparently had a more universal vision in mind. The only time I felt like I was not part of the joke was when a character named Yvonne (Jessica Hynes) shows up sporadically. Apparently it was a reference to a TV show named “Spaced”, which I’ve never heard of. Otherwise, whenever “Shaun of the Dead” wanted to make me laugh, I would laugh. I didn’t feel like the humor was trapped within the confines of a single culture. Or genre. You don’t have to be a zombie fan to necessarily ‘get it’. In fact, one of the taglines was “It’s a romantic comedy. With zombies“. Don’t let that line frighten you, as it’s not really a romantic comedy either. It draws its humor from plenty of different sources.
Um, so why did I think it was funny? Well, I thought the dialogue was really clever. The characters reactions and facial expressions were very amusing. “Shaun of the Dead” has a lot of fun with situational humor, ironic humor and brick jokes. The characters are all very well written and complement each-other nicely. The actors sell their performances by not taking the material too seriously, while also not necessarily taking it too lightly. Maybe it’s because in the U.S (I had to drop that gag because some asshole will think I was being serious), parody has devolved into…well, shit. Actors will try too hard to act funny, constantly winking to the camera while mugging in front of it. But here, I never felt the actors were trying too hard to be amusing. They just happened to be naturally funny people and this would benefit the tone.
When I saw the trailer for “Shaun of the Dead” in 2003 or 2004, it really played up the movie as a comedy. But when I saw the movie itself, I was surprised at how it didn’t just limit itself too that genre. There are some sweet and heart-wrenching moments, where tragedy has the tendency to come bite everyone in the ass. Simon Pegg’s limited, dramatic acting abilities might’ve contributed to this. He does pretty good, helping make the scene work, but he’s not too good to where it stops the comedy in its tracks. He’s kind of over-the-top in these moments, but it makes these sad parts (which are definitely sad) a little more amusing, so when it would transition back to a full-blown comedy, it didn’t feel like the tone should be diagnosed as bi-polar. It might bend the rules of a consistent tone, but it doesn’t break any of them. The gore effects are incredibly nasty (the “Day of the Dead” homage was awesome), so expect graphic violence against zombies and the living- soon to be dead- alike. Even though the ending has an air of goofiness about it, it’s also surprisingly intense and nail biting.
But “Shaun of the Dead” never becomes so dark to where it ceases being funny. Edgar Wright might be lampooning the zombie genre, but he does clearly respect and understand it. He crams the project with homages, from “Evil Dead” to “Night of the Living Dead” to even the works of Fulci (“Zombie”). Yet he doesn’t force them down our throats and they’re so smoothly inserted that it’s fairly easy to overlook those. The film deals with the usual zombie conventions in a way that’s typical, subversive and satirical all at once. Can those three even work together? Apparently so. Hell, “Shaun of the Dead” does such a great job at satirizing zombie flicks that it even satirizes the satirical aspects of the genre. It’s common knowledge that Romero (“Dawn of the Dead”) inserted social commentary into his movies and would often use it in a lighthearted and even goofy kind of way. Here, everyone acts so zombie-ish before the outbreak even occurs, so it takes longer for the characters to even realize what is happening. Yet as intentionally heavy handed as it could be, it at least has relevance to the character arcs. So they didn’t just use it for parody, they also used it to tell the story.
Edgar Wright’s direction is much better than it needed to be, but I am obviously not complaining about that. What I like is how his style works perfectly with both the serious and comedic elements. He does a superb job emulating the visual style of zombie movies, especially the Italian ones. One scene which stood out to me is when the Mother is staring at a zombie and they use close-ups on both, emphasizing the strangeness of the situation. That was very Italian. The score and sound design are perfect recreations of the type of music you’d here in an older, legitimate zombie movies. But people tend to remember the kinetic editing style the most. Wright seems to have an obsession with making the mundane seem epic. Characters will put together a sandwich and the over-the-top sounds and quick-cut editing make it badass. I also love how various, normal actions would be presented in a rather menacing and spooky fashion. Shaun will see his Step-Father (Bill Nighy), who stands creepily still before suddenly turning around dramatically. The sound, camerawork, editing and even the acting makes it seem like it’s supposed to be scary. But it’s just an awkward conversation. Or what about when Shaun is climbing the window. We hear his grunts and noises, but the other characters’ reactions/editing/camerawork/sound design make it seem like it’s supposed to be unnerving. The funny thing is…these parts usually are kind of creepy and unnerving, despite the obvious intention of making you laugh. Remove the jokes and “Shaun of the Dead” would be an effective horror film. Retain the jokes and you have a classic comedy-horror hybrid.
“Shaun of the Dead” is just awesome. It works as a zombie film, it works as a parody of zombie films and even if you’re not a fan of the genre, it just happens to be a funny comedy in general. It turned out to be a sleeper hit, leading to the production of “Hot Fuzz”, which was met with similar acclaim. “Hot Fuzz” did for 80’s actioners what “Shaun of the Dead” did for zombies. I thought “Hot Fuzz” made me laugh even harder, but it also wasn’t as well paced as “Shaun of the Dead” was, which was consistently funnier. Unfortunately, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg would go on make that piece of shit known as “Paul” and Edgar Wright helmed the cult favorite flop, “Scott Pilgrim vs the World”. In that film, Wright’s hyperactive editing style was taken too far and I found it to be sort of obnoxious. But it does have many fans. They’ve decided to re-team once more with “The World’s End”, which I hope is funnier than what the trailer suggests…But I’ll see it for sure and even if these guys used up all of their energy with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” (which I doubt), at least these movies are a blast.
Violence: Rated R. Pretty gory.
Nudity: Nothing explicit.
Overall: “Shaun of the Dead” is hilarious. Nuff said.