Shaun of the Dead

dir: Edgar Wright
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Shaun of the Dead is a pretty goddamn funny movie. I say this as someone who sees a whole bunch of films at the cinema, but would laugh out loud about once, if not twice as a member of the audience over the course of a year. It's not the kind of laughter that leaves you sore and moaning in pain afterwards from the splitting of sides or the rupturing of organs from the bellowing belly laughs, but it's close enough. This is a well-made and decidedly British entry into the zombie genre, one which is a whole lot more fun than the 150 of so other zombie films that have come out in the last year or so.

It's not so much a parody of the genre, because it sticks fairly closely to the elements of its source material (obviously Romero's Dawn of the Dead), but it gives it enough of a tweaking to make it more than just the next in a long line of pretenders to the putrefying, undead throne. Where the recent Dawn of the Dead remake didn't bother to go (by having pretty generic and bland cipher characters), Shaun of the Dead goes to the complete other extreme by spending an inordinate amount of time developing the characters, both main and otherwise. And I believe it's to the film’s benefit (to a certain extent). You don't go to one of these films expecting the characters to grow, develop, and mature as if they’re on a 12-step program to enlightenment and self-fulfilment. But it does make it somewhat of a more interesting experience when there's more to what's going on than just a bunch of people huddling in the corner waiting to be the next on the menu at a brain muncher’s buffet.

As well as having co-written the film with the director, Simon Pegg stars as the Shaun of the title. He has created a comfortable little rut for himself living the 'simple' life in London: he works as an assistant manager at an electronics store with his co-workers being a decade his junior, he wants for nothing more that a pack of crisps and a few pints at his local pub (The Winchester, which features prominently) and the occasional shag with his bored girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). He is so consumed by the mundanity of his life that he is oblivious to two impending catastrophes for longer than any intelligent person should rightly be: his girl's going to leave him, and there's a zombie cannibal apocalypse looming. The latter is smartly conveyed, and probably one of the film's greatest strengths.

Most films of this type require Our Heroes to be confronted with what's happening, disbelieve it at first, and then rapidly adapt to the situation in order to survive. This film parodies that whole process by having the situation occur all around our main character, who fails to see what's going on until way after it's too late. This is cleverly represented by having Shaun repeat his morning routine over two days, incorporating not-so-subtle differences in the set-up so that his obliviousness becomes quite worrying.

More than that, as a sly social satire, the film implies that plenty of people in contemporary urban life are pretty much indistinguishable from zombies anyway, be it from service industry wage-slavery, booze, television or pointless relationships. And it’s funny because, I dunno, it's true?

It's hardly hard-hitting social commentary in that sense, since it is all being played for laughs anyway. The most important point is that this is all supposed to give Shaun a character arc that most characters in these films never get to have. He has to go from a shlub in a boring rut to Zombie Slayer who not only has to save 'the girl' from the undead hordes, but convince her that he's 'changed' enough to warrant her taking him back.

Had it not been treated with a light hand this kind of crap could have been insufferable. I mean honestly. Do we really want to watch a zombie film where a man child has to 'grow up' and: reconcile with his girlfriend, stand up to his best friend who takes advantage of his easy-going nature, reconcile with his step-father (the perpetually drunk-sounding Bill Nighy), tell his mum he loves her, and save the day against the undead hordes? Well, do we? That wasn't a rhetorical question people. Pretend that this is the audience participation portion of a reality program, and dial some number to record your valuable opinion. Concerned people want to know.

It sounds a bit naff, and it is. But it's done in such a comical fashion, with a great attention to timing, a deft touch and an avoidance of over-selling the gags too much that it works really well. Many of the actors in the movie are veterans of that kind of British Channel 4 / BBC humour that you either love or hate. The actor playing Our Hero Shaun previous to this co-starred in Spaced, a nerd reference-aplenty show about, well, people doing stupid shit and being dateless wonders, doing drugs and trying to get shags. Others are stalwarts from The Office and one of my personal favourites Black Books (Dylan Moran). So these people know their comedic stuff, you'd hope.

Thus whilst many of the elements that make a zombie movie horrific (the zombies themselves, killing zombies, zombies ripping people to shreds) are included, far more emphasis is placed on the comedy potential of these scenes and the interactions between characters. Also, for the purists out their who make their decision on whether to watch a zombie film based on whether it has the doddery, staggering, slow zombies of the classics, or the ADD hyperkinetic zombies of 28 Days Later or the recent Dawn remake, they'll be ecstatic to know that it's the ye olde worlde kind.

And well may they rejoice. Personally I find the 28 Days Later Infected much scarier than the dopey retarded ones, but that's just me. I wasn't expecting to be 'scared' at any stage during the proceedings, and thus I wasn't surprised when I wasn't. There is one death scene however that is executed remarkably well, which is another direct homage to Romero's Dawn as one of the goriest deaths possible, and it's well done. However it does seem almost out of place, which is strange. I thought it looked great all the same.

The film has a very different sensibility. It doesn't have the grimness of the other recent entries in the genre (and, please people, stop making these films already, there's way too many of them coming out and it's getting a bit overdone), but it also has a kind of British / European sensibility to it. As an example, the ending, which I won’t spoil, is pretty much a tongue-in-cheek jab both at the 'fraternal' illusions of the European Union and a sly reference to contemporary emphasis on 'diversity' and Equal Opportunity practices in many workplaces. It's a laugh.

As a better example of the difference in cross-Atlantic sensibilities, in a situation in Dawn of the Dead where Our Heroes are faced with legions of the peckish undead infesting an area that they want to get across, they tool up and turn into the A Team, with modified transportation, chainsaws, shotguns and semi-automatic weaponry at the ready in order to deal with the disorderly horde.

In Shaun of the Dead the solution to the same problem of how to cross an area in similar circumstances is much simpler, much cheaper, and quintessentially, spastically English.

Also when guns become part of the story it's played more for irony rather than depicting it as the sole invention standing between human civilisation and oblivion.

Since they spend more time establishing the characters it's possible that some of the more prominent ones could prove to be too fucking annoying to tolerate for any great length of time. It's hard to say. Shaun’s best mate Ed is such an incredibly boorish, vulgar, funny, vividly disgusting creature that the film wouldn't have worked without him, though I'd put money on it that some people will find his so annoying that merely tolerating him might prove too much. He's more hideous than the zombies themselves, and five times as funny. Everyone puts in good (modest) work, but Ed's presence helps undercut much of the cheese that overflows in many of the more deliberately but sincerely played mawkish scenes. And that's a good thing.

Putting too much thought into these elements isn't really going to bear fruit worth eating, whether genetically engineered with teeth or not. All in all as long as you remember that it’s all a laugh, innit?, you'll remember that seriousness really is out of place here, and it's definitely worth a few chuckles. Any film that has a zombie being beaten to death to the tune of Queen's Don't Stop Me Now with a choreographed beating has got to be worth a look and a laugh or two and at least 90 minutes of your time.

It's well written, wittily scripted and set up, the use of the media clips and the editing / staging of scenes is really quite clever, and Shaun is definitely a new working class hero for the millennium that the people have just been crying out for.

8 film critics being ripped into pieces out of 10

'Who died and made you fucking king of the zombies?' – Ed, Shaun of the Dead