Thursday, October 7, 2004
You don’t have to be a fan of the zombie epics of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) to enjoy this supremely engaging and jaw-droppingly (literally) hilarious “romantic comedy…with zombies,” but it couldn’t hurt.
Director/writer Edgar Wright and star/co-writer Simon Pegg are the creative team behind the cult BBC4 sitcom Spaced, which pairs an obvious love for the tropes of the big screen with razor-keen wit and boundless energy for re-imagining the constraints of the small one.
Shaun of the Dead’s grue-laden take on the horror genre (and in particular Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, recently remade Stateside to fine effect by Zack Snyder) is the most faithful and interesting film about the walking dead we’ve seen since the last time we visited Romero’s besieged Pittsburgh (in 1985’s Day of the Dead) and is one of the best stand-alone horror films of the past 10 years. It’s also, oddly enough, the funniest comedy from just about anywhere in longer than I care to remember, and, to top it off, it’s a winning tale of friendship and true love that actually gets it all right for once. The only comparison I can think of is John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, but even that doesn’t come close to matching Wright’s note-perfect mix of humor, horror, love, and death.
North London ne’er-do-well Shaun (Pegg) has just been dumped by his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) as the film opens. She’s sick and tired of what she sees as his do-nothing, go-nowhere lifestyle, which is understandable. By day, he works a McJob managing an electronics outlet, and by night, he and his boorish, Playstation-addicted pal Ed (Nick Frost) down pints at their local pub, the Winchester, a pastime with which the forward-thinking Liz has well and truly had enough.
Heartbroken, Shaun doesn’t even notice as the world comes to a screeching halt and the recently deceased get up and begin wandering around his backyard. It takes a while (and a few well-aimed swipes with a cricket bat) before Shaun realizes what has happened, but once he manages to come to grips with the reanimated dead, he has only one goal: Rescue Liz. And from here on out, Shaun of the Dead is an unstoppable engine of comedy and desperate lovin’, as inspired in its own way as the Pythons were in theirs, and as unrepentantly gory as Romero in his finest hour. The real surprises here come not from the comic-horror, but from the genuine emotion that Pegg and Ashfield and Frost manage to muster.
Despite the over-the-top comedy bloodbath surrounding them, the story of hapless loser Shaun and his transformation into the battle-hardened hero is absolutely spot-on, as is Shaun’s unstinting friendship with the loutish Ed. The lessons to be found here—the power of friendship, love, and loyalty in the face of overwhelming odds—are not what you might expect from a film that features shotgun blasts to the face and excellent jokes at Dire Straits’ expense, but that’s key to Shaun of the Dead’s runaway success in the UK, a success that I can only hope is matched here in the former colonies.
Add to the wealth of in-jokes for Romero fans, a ripping
good soundtrack featuring Queen, the Specials, and Ash (whose
guitarist, Charlotte Hatherly, is Wright’s paramour), and a
frenetic glimpse of a London rarely seen on this side of the
Atlantic—no Big Ben, but plenty of chip shops and Ford
Cortinas—and you have the most original comedy from either
side of the pond in years.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD ( * * * * )
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Dylan Moran, Lucy Davis, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton
(Rated R, 97 min.)