Release Date: April 9th, 2004 (UK); September 24th, 2004 (US)
Genre: Comedy; Horror
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
It has been almost 10 years since we first met the instantly relatable yet spatially anarchic Pegg, Frost and Wright trio. Since 2004, their fumes of hilarity have glazed earlobes the world over, excellence exhaled from the likes of Hot Fuzz. But before Pegg and Frost had an unruly, conspiring cultist town to deal with, the duo wielded shovels and cricket bats in a war against zombies. The epitome of wholesome comedy-horror, Shaun of the Dead wittingly embraces society’s increasing individuality and detachment — a hapless trait infused even more in today’s world — before sending it spiralling in a zombie rage. The zombie adage it apt too, a smart comparison that evokes humour because the notion cuts so close to the bone. Perhaps a few characters are too incidental to warrant their on screen presence, but part one of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy is damn tasty regardless.
Working in an electronics shop where he commands disrespect, and still living with his overweight, uninspired room-mate Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun (Simon Pegg) is pitifully meandering through life, unwilling to commit and unable to justify. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) bemoans Shaun’s discrepancies, in particular a monotonous infatuation with the local pub, the Winchester. As Shaun spends many a day lethargic amongst the comatose masses, juggling fractious relations between Ed and another house guest, and failing to win over the love of his life, he must be pretty certain that it cannot get any worse. Only, it can. Zombie worse.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost front this raucous outing, and their gag-full chemistry is one of the prevailing positives. As down-on-his-luck lead man Shaun, Pegg exudes the everyday. His demeanour is casual, occasionally showing the slightest hint of enthusiasm, only to be shot down by an ungrateful colleague or a disappointed friend. Even Shaun’s motivational methods leave a lot to be desired (“There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘I’ in meat pie”). You can see part of yourself in Shaun; well-meaning but gobbled up by a generically infectious culture, and Pegg’s bedraggled showing is suitably so. Though when the going gets heroic, Pegg is just as believable. His camaraderie with Nick Frost acts as the driving force behind the film’s intelligent wit. Frost portrays Ed, who’s a bit of a git. Ed is sort of like Shaun, only a lot further along the waster-scale. Rude and lazy, he seemingly exists only as the semi-loveable pain in Shaun’s backside, though he does emit a semblance of smarts every so often. The duo bounce comedic mouthfuls off each other for the duration, and they never get stuck in a rut. If the key to comedy is timing, these two have the art of early arrival down to a T.
At the forefront of Shaun of the Dead — which often harks knowingly back to zombie classics such as George A. Romero’s Dead series and Sam Raimi’s maniacal Evil Dead — is this concept of reviewing society as a failed collective unit. Although the zombie undead are the primary antagonists throughout, the narrative is really about the zombie alive — us humans. Director Edgar Wright, who also co-wrote the clever script with Pegg, smartly highlights numerous zombie-esque characteristics of the modern being: from waking up still tired after a late night, to ambling around streets unaware of anything other than oneself, to sitting slumped and mouth-gaping in tune with the other morsels on public transport. And each of these distastes are depicted before any actual zombie shows up. Wright’s almost satirical outlook on our isolated existence is smart, and is actually the most horrifying realisation that comes to fruition during the film, as opposed to the limb-deprived monsters. “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation,” proclaims Shaun, an admission boasting more truth than realistic application.
Unlike the slow zombies afoot, Shaun of the Dead advances at a brisk pace and never threatens to dwell on a gag for longer than necessary. In fact, many of the funniest lines are quipped as humorous sound bites, again playing off the excellent chemistry between the front pair. Moreover, lengthy jokes interspersed throughout the zom-com tend to work (for example, a certain rifle in a pub) meaning each pay-off feels validated. There aren’t many things more frustrating than a film-long gag that loses steam before reaching the station, or worse, breaks down on arrival. The meaningful pace adopted by the filmmakers ensures proceedings are camp, as the people involved don’t take the goings-on super seriously, generating a healthy spirit throughout. Of course, there’s a genuine societal pondering going on as aforementioned, but encasing this sincerity is a plethora of over-the-top gut removals and blood splattering. Perhaps the most outrageous scene of the lot involves three humans, as many pool cues, a zombie and an oddly beat-by-beat consistent rendition of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”. Why outrageous? Because we’re having such a good time.
The tremendous Bill Nighy appears inconsistently as Shaun’s apparently disapproving step-dad, but should have a bigger role. Nighy’s lack of connection with Shaun acts as an embodiment of the film’s appraisal of civilisation, whilst at the same time provides the funniest moments external to those involving Pegg and Frost. His lack of sufficient screen time rankles even more so in the presence of peripheral characters Diane and David, played by Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran respectively. Both Davis and Moran are fine in their roles, but Moran’s spiteful, bitter David is unlikeable and therefore not worth investing in. His constant appearance coincides with hardly any character development, and therefore acts as a regular surplus to requirements reminder. Generic isn’t necessarily bad, especially considering the film’s self-awareness. However irrelevance is bad, and both David and Diane are just that. Kate Ashfield remains appealing as Liz even when denying Shaun, which is a testament to her solid performance. Peter Serafinowicz partakes in a small role as the grumpy room-mate, relinquishing more than one hilarious and angry diatribe.
Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead delivers on two levels: as an accessible cautionary tale denouncing a cultural phenomenon of zombie-like monotony in society, and as a camp, witty and downright amusing banterfest with a splurge of chopping, ripping and cutting. Imperfections are not absent, but nor are they wholly adverse, and the excellent script maintains a rollicking pace throughout. Anyone for a Cornetto?