Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran
Length 99 minutes
Shaun is a geeky electronics sales clerk who gets dumped by his girlfriend for lacking ambition and adventurous spirit, remaining loyal to a vulgar slob flat mate, and being inconsiderate about romantic details. He gets little respect - even from his best pal (and vulgar slob flat mate) Ed - but is not ignorant of his own shortcomings and bad habits. As his three-year relationship rapidly breaks down, so does surrounding society. People fall ill and die while Shaun sluggishly rolls on his routine tracks. People are becoming zombies. Grisly mayhem spreads overnight. Shaun and Ed finally get hip to the horrific haps and try to save Shaun's mum, his ex-girlfriend, and their friends from the ever-increasing mob of undead freaks. Not only is humankind at stake, but Shaun is faced with a crucial chance to redeem his old, ineffectual ways (in both his and his ex-girlfriend's eyes). Mixing farce, gallow's humor, and sentimentality (from silly to touching) with horror-genre carnage, Shaun of the Dead delivers a cool but not great filmic chapter in zombie lore.
Written in a previous spiel about zombie flicks: Generally speaking, zombie films rock. That's why so many are produced. The definitive zombie films are George Romero's three DEAD works: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). Romero is to the zombie genre as Leone is to the Western. And he still rules the genre's artistic standard. No other zombie flick has proven to be a worthy match. Danny Boyle's overrated waste of film, 28 DAYS LATER, had the potential to be a zombie fan's wet dream, but it's just a soggy sock - and the baddies technically aren't zombies anyway. All the anticipation with no pay-off.
Of course, 28 Days Later was a slight rip-off of Romero's The Crazies (1973), a technically-not-zombie film that set the artful stage for DOTD. The Crazies was much more self-serious than DOTD, closer to Romero's precedent Night of the Living Dead. But it sharpened the atmosphere of panic, the apocalyptic dread, and nourished the variable characters. So the (very underrated) The Crazies served as an interim improvement between NOTLD and DOTD (Martin notwithstanding). Dawn of the Dead introduced a tempered comedic element into the eerie, grim zombie-rampant scenario, executed with such finesse that the (sometimes downright wacky) humor didn't override or ruin the very somber, dreadful, poignant (implicit and explicit) drama of the story. Day of the Dead had far less humor, as if the protracted zombie infestation sucked most of the irony and nervous laughter from most survivors. The Crazies' weirder, ultimately futile, Kafkaesque mood seemed to return, although Day's conclusion was life-affirmative and hopeful. This contrasting hope was engendered in Dawn of the Dead, shown in the different plot treatments of two pregnant characters. The Crazies' Judy loses her baby when she's slain; Dawn's Fran rejects abortion and survives with her yet unborn baby.
We might consider Romero's filmic journey to be one from vague, sudden terror and mayhem (in Night) through increased panic and hopeless senselessness (in Crazies) and ironic, even farcical humor in the face of horror (in Dawn) to a jaded, pissed off, salvational hope despite overwhelming odds (in Day). (Discussion of Martin and Knightriders demands a whole other affair, but I will point to Knightriders - a very underrated masterpiece - as a retelling of the same concerns of the ghoul/zombie films: mass, negative change/influence/dehumanization/death versus genuine humanity, fidelity, life-affirmation, and redemption.) Through crafty satire, humor, violence, and even farce, Romero raised the zombie/fantasy genre to an astute, metaphysical level. Those who dare dabble in Romerian style beware! You can only pass or fail. Your gun only has one bullet. Make it count. I've already bashed Dawn of the Dead 2004, insisting that, despite its homage to the original (and the cameos of Foree and Savini), it was a base, unsubtle, juvenile action flick that cheapened the Dead legacy for the sake of shocks and death-affirmative, heavy-metal abortion of hope. (Plus, the characters sucked and I didn't give a flying hockey puck for the lot of them.)
Enter Shaun of the Dead. I initially swore to not bother with the film altogether. I admit, I was snobbishly offended by the title itself, mistaking it as a total parody of a film I hold very dear to my thankfully beating heart. Ok, I sound like a freak. Well, I am a freak. But let's save that discussion for a later rap. Parodies and satires and downright mindless cinematic romps (like Versus or Return of the Living Dead) are fine, if that's what I'm in the mood for. Shaun rumors just bothered me. Disappointment and anger over the DOTD 2004 remake still lingered. I feared that the fresher generations would adopt that upstart zombie film as their definitive zombie film, threatening the eventual dwindling of Romero's excellent works. Such cheap replacements are regrettable facts of life. What if Shaun of the Dead turned out to be an even worse replacement? A severed-tongue-in-torn-cheek travesty? Colleagues and friends (some who know my zombie proclivities), however, recommended the film. So I finally assented.
My diagnosis in a nutshell (before my lengthy blather)? High Fidelity and Brit-com meet Dawn of the Dead. The movie poster says it all: "A Romantic Comedy. With Zombies." That being plainly said, I'm no longer offended or threatened. The filmmakers delivered what they advertised. And they managed, through adequate fidelity to Romerian style/creativity, to create a decent - more zany than scary - zombie flick. Though I found it too silly in some spots, I noticed a good number of very cool aspects. With the exception of the careless conclusion, Shaun was also well-paced and unified in its own right. The romantic-comedy plot is a simple cliche that usually works: A good-hearted, lethargic, loitering man gets dumped on his ass by a more ambitious, zestful girlfriend who "wants more out of life." You know the drill, fellas: Yakkity-yak-yak-yak. The breakup shakes the man's ego and shatters his habitual glaze, causing him to assert his neglected worth and win the chick back by major (usually extraordinary) means. The male usually has a dead-end and/or despised job and is disrespected by peers, bosses, employees. He might even live with a bum who takes him for granted or compounds his troubles.
Shaun (co-writer and actor Simon Pegg) fits into this typical mold (as High Fidelity's Rob did). His ex girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is tired of his habitual failure. His obese, sloppy chum, Ed (Nick Frost), naturally enables Shaun's social stasis and counterproductive habits. Ed's not a bad chap; he's just a chickless, video-game-mongering leech with a kind heart and a love of farting and offending folks in general. The third flat mate, Pete (played by Peter Serafinowicz, the actor who did Darth Maul's voice in Phantom Menace), is responsible but callous and openly spiteful of Ed for understandable reasons. Shaun's misery is compounded by his resentment against his seemingly cretinous stepfather, Philip (Bill Nighy). Add this to tension between Shaun and Liz's flat mates, priggish David (Dylan Moran) and his girl Mary (the plump and cute Lucy Davis from Britain's brilliant "The Office"), and you've got a typical but effective bunch of conflicts to develop amidst flesh-eating monster madness.
The script is clever and strong in some areas and trite or overwrought in others. I picked out the bald foreshadows one after another: Shaun running into a former female friend (probably flame) and saying "surviving" when she asks how he's doing, someone saying "You got red on you" to Shaun when his red pen leaks ink, the obligatory background news reports and various social oddities, Ed saying "Next time I see him... he's dead" about some jerk, etc. Damn right! Aside from that, I disliked some of the rather unamusing gimmicks. For instance, Shaun is shown shambling and yawning during his wake-up routine. Hardy-har-har. He's like a zombie. We get it. NEXT. (But I must note that a brief scene of droning folks with cell phones is quite amusing. Look at cell phone slaves. They ARE zombies!) In the beginning of the film, Shaun asks Liz what "exacerbate" means. Later, Shaun uses the word appropriately while frantically speaking. THAT was funny. But when Ed asks what the word means even later in the film, I groaned. And the "You got red on you" line wore out its welcome after the second time. I cheered when, during a rapid channel surf, I spotted a Smiths performance clip of Morrissey singing, "Panic on the streets of London..." (Yes, I'm straight and I dig Morrissey!)
Not only does Shaun feature clips from the very music from Dawn of the Dead (done by Goblin and others), but it lifts entire lines from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, particularly the newscaster's warnings about the dead rising to feed on the living. (I recall the famous line "Kill the brain and you kill the ghoul" being repeated, but I'm not certain at the moment.) I triumphantly noticed the name FOREE on a business sign on a door. That's an obvious nod to Ken Foree, the actor who played Peter in Dawn. The zombies' design and sluggish but deadly mannerisms were Romerian, and the ways to batter and destroy them were A-OK. I looked for Tom Savini's mustachioed mug, but he was sadly absent. A nod or two to the superior 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers also pleased me. And Shaun's lowly job reminded me of Ash's employment at S-Mart in Raimi's Army of Darkness. Like Ash, Shaun goes from drab obscurity to wielding weapons and kicking evil ass.
Yes, fans of the blunt-object-to-or-through-head-and/or-chest technique in evil ass kicking will be more than satisfied, but the Shaun filmmakers introduce a quite cool resourcefulness: hurling vinyl records. After learning that head shots are "deadly" to the undead, Shaun and Ed scour their album collection for expendable discs to use against two ghouls. This provides one of the funniest scenes in the film. Ed: "Purple Rain". Shaun: "No". Ed: "Sign o' the Times". Shaun: "Definitely not". Ed: "The Batman soundtrack?" Shaun: "Throw it". They agree to toss a Sade album without hesitation. (Jerks.) But even better than records? A cricket bat. Nice touch, I must say - and very British. Ed ends up using a shovel to bash zombie skull. Early in the film, while in a pub called the Winchester, Shaun and Ed briefly discuss a Winchester rifle that is displayed above the bar. Ed insists that it's loaded; Shaun disagrees. Right away I knew that the Winchester would be THE gun they resort to in a tight spot later on - and it would be loaded. After all, didn't Eugene O'Neill say that if a gun appears in a play, it'd better go off before the curtain falls? Sure enough, when the survivors hole up in the Winchester (which serves as the survivors' Alamo - there must always be an Alamo), they learn that the rifle is indeed loaded. And some zombies get foreheads full of blessed bullets, thank heavens!
It's easy for celebs (like Rosie O'Donnell) who have ultra-secure estates and (often armed) bodyguards, to play the anti-gun violin. I find it bitterly amusing, though, that many gun badmouthers portray heroes in films who save the day - sometimes the WORLD - by using precious guns and other weapons. When the abused protag or group is about to bite the dust or get slammed yet again by some prick or group of pricks, what relieves and delights the sympathizing audience? The protag or group find a gun/guns and practice necessary self-defense! Guns usually level the playing field in a crisis: a woman thwarts a brutalization or rape, a child saves his parents, someone saves a family or a subjugated victim, heroes blow away soul-swallowin' demons or vamps or flesh-hungry zombies, etc. Hell, where would Ash be if he didn't have that cool shotgun in Army of Darkness? Viva Charleton Heston, I say! And anyone else would if they were besieged by damned ghouls!
A good crisis film centers more on the involved characters than the crisis. Mind you, the characters must be likeable and/or intriguing and/or deep. Many crisis films fail because audiences don't care about flimsy characters - or want them to be mutilated or cremated. (Jurassic Park succeeded with variable, interesting characters.) Shaun succeeds so. The film patiently establishes the human problems before a single zombie appears. Like the first act of From Dusk Till Dawn, the first part can almost continue as a horror-free story sufficiently based on an odd cast. Instead, it veers into a full-blown monster mash, which just adds to the glory. Remember, the title is SHAUN of the Dead. The film is primarily about Shaun and his arc. (No, you imbeciles out there with cartoon question marks above your heads, Britain isn't flooded. Arc, not ark!) When he rings Liz' flat after being dumped, her flatmates refuse to let him in. He tries to scale the outside wall to climb through the flat window. He bungles and doesn't make it. But when zombie hell sweeps into town and he and Ed resolve to save Liz, he heroically succeeds in climbing into the flat. He also grows adept at swatting ghouls with the cricket bat, taking charge, and even doing an acrobatic trampoline flip over a fence to rescue his dear mum. In other words, Shaun develops and further humanizes as the surrounding masses degenerate and dehumanize, another proper zombie flick ingredient. His heroism is not instant or complete, unlike many action flicks that show housewives or accountants becoming sharpshooters within seconds of an attack. Though he displays bursts of prowess, he still blunders. While staving off zombies that are invading the Winchester, Dianne tries helping by throwing darts. Shaun's fallibility and characteristic clownishness are punctuated by a poorly aimed dart lodging into the side of his head.
A crucial key to Shaun's emotional vulnerability is his stepfather. By the time the audience meets Philip, he is already preconceived as a jackass who Shaun doesn't even respect enough to call "father." Shaun learns through a phone call with his mum that Philip is quite ill. Under the assumption that Philip will soon turn zombie, drastic action is in order. When Shaun and Ed imagine different scenarios of how to rescue Shaun's mum and Liz, they cavalierly include killing Philip in the heroics, shifting from euphemisms to blunt use of the word "kill". Shaun: "We take Pete's car, we drive over to mum's, we go in, take care of Phillip - "I'm so sorry Phillip". - then we grab mum, we go over to Liz's place, hole up, have a cup of tea and wait for this whole thing to blow over." Then: "We take Pete's car, go around mum's, go in, deal with Phillip - "Sorry Phillip!" - grab mum, go to Liz's, pick her up, bring her back here, have a cup of tea and wait for this whole thing to blow over." Take car. Go to mum's. Kill Phil - "Sorry." - grab Liz, go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over. How's that for a slice of fried gold?" (Notice that the third sequence culminates at the Winchester with a pint instead of tea at Liz's or their flat.)
According to Shaun's one-sided perception and expression about Philip, we view Philip as a somewhat inhuman, despicable character. But when Shaun confronts his mum in her kitchen while Philip feverishly rests in the other room, we get a hint of his stacked deck: "Did you know that on several occasion... he touched me?" he says. Then he catches himself. "That wasn't true. Made it up, shouldn't have, sorry." Instead of killing Philip, Shaun lets him go along in a car with the rest of the survivors. Unfortunately, Philip gets gnawed on by a hellion. Before dying from blood loss, Philip sorrowfully confesses to Shaun that he has always desired to be a good father and a worthy, albeit strict, role model to him. This revelation causes Shaun to weep, but it more importantly humanizes Philip. In a sense, he is a zombie in reverse: changing from (perceived) monster to genuine, soulful human. When Philip dies, Shaun is markedly grievous. What a touching scene. (Of course, Philip wakes up as a ravenous organs-gobbler. Oh well.)
Shaun's human survivors perform an amusing gimmick that juuuust misses being blasphemous to zombie-avoiding technique. At first I thought, Come on, but then I warmed to both the comedic and allusive elements to the gimmick. When the survivors see that a sea of zombies blocks access to the Winchester, Dianne gets a bright idea. Inspired by a groaning, impaled zombie, she suggests that they all act like zombies in order to stumble to the pub undetected by the ungodly hoard. She calls on each person to do their best zombie impression: a dry run, so to speak. Not only is this an idea that has popped up in my own mind during my regular strategizing about potential zombification of the United States (blending in with the ghouls instead of trying to plow through them), but this seems to be an allusion to zombie-mannerism instruction for Romero's extras. (By the way, Sherman Howard's stellar mime and facial expression work as Bub in Day of the Dead is worth applauding. Check it out.) I might be giving the Shaun filmmakers more credit than due, but hell...that's a freebie, cats. Dianne's scheme gets them to the Winchester's front door, but soon the zombies begin to notice - mainly due to Ed's cell phone F-ing ringing! (Besides, I think zombies can smell living beings. Maybe their fresh braaaains.)
There's no need to be hush-hush about whether or not Shaun wins the girl back in the end. He does. And it was refreshing and realistic to see the couple settling into a benign, basically domestic relationship that wasn't all glamour and adventure. (Shaun's similarity to High Fidelity's Rob is mostly situational, not in personality. Rob is a fundamentally despicable cad who once covered up a girlfriend's pregnancy by urging abortion and who weakly resorts to a one-night stand despite his professed love for his estranged true love.) If the film would have ended with Shaun's and Liz's bliss, I would have given it an extra index finger up. But it didn't. (Thankfully, it didn't have 76 endings like The Return of the King.) I've already divulged enough spoilers, so I won't identify the goofy, all-for-chuckles, throwaway ending. I'll just say it sucked.
George Romero reportedly likes Shaun of the Dead. He must, since he cast Simon Pegg as a ghoul in the long-awaited fourth Dead installment, Land of the Dead! (I'm so excited about Land, I could pee. The entire world is overrun by zombies and the survivors hole up in a fortified city. Woo-hoo!) Anyway, I endorse Shaun of the Dead, flaws and all, as a worthy (but not great) chapter in zombie film lore. Those bloody (pun intended) Brits certainly pulled off a potentially disgraceful comedy. Or should I say zombedy?
Simon Pegg, enjoy your Romero cameo. You lucky bloke.
review by David Herrle 4/2005
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