Should I Watch..? 'Shaun of the Dead'
What's the big deal?
Shaun Of The Dead is a romantic horror comedy film released in 2004 and is the first part of the so-called Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy. Written by director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg, the film deals with a aimless young man and his slacker best mate attempting to rescue their loved ones in the midst of a zombie apocalypse in suburban London. The film is styled similar to their TV sitcom Spaced and features many cast members from the show in the cast. The film also shares many references and pays homage to George A Romero's earlier Dead films like Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead. Released to critical acclaim, the film proved enormously popular with fans and went on to gross just over $30 million with only a limited release in the US.
What's it about?
Shaun's life is going nowhere. Bogged down in his junior manager's job at an electrical retailers, Shaun spends his days with his flatmate and best friend Ed either playing video games or drinking at the Winchester pub and somehow maintaining a relationship with the ever-patient Liz. After a bad day at work, Shaun forgets to book somewhere nice to take Liz for their anniversary and mistakenly suggests the Winchester - which causes Liz to break up with him. Drowning his sorrows with Ed, they return drunk to their flat where their landlord Pete berates the pair of them.
The next morning, Shaun wakes up and is determined to make things right. Unfortunately, during the night, London has been struck by a zombie apocalypse but this is a minor distraction for Shaun - in fact, he has an idea. He and Ed will rescue Liz and Shaun's mum Barbara, head for the Winchester and barricade themselves in until they can be rescued. What could possibly go wrong..?
Phillip, Shaun's stepfather
Barbara, Shaun's mum
Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright
Release Date (UK)
9th April, 2004
What's to like?
In the years since its release, stars Pegg and Frost and director Wright have all gone on to bigger and brighter things - whether its staring in the rebooted Star Trek franchise or nearly directing Marvel's Ant-Man. But at the time, this film came out of nowhere and blew audiences away with its irresistible blend of comedy, bloody zombies and lovable characters. Pegg and Frost bring their off-screen chemistry to the film, utterly convincing as two of life's losers somehow surviving as the world around them goes to hell in a hand-cart. They would also supply most of the humour in the other films in the Cornetto trilogy, the action-comedy Hot Fuzz and the apocalyptic sci-fi The World's End.
The best comedies, in my opinion, rarely pass up opportunities for laughs and Shaun Of The Dead is one of the best at delivering. Dialogue comes out of nowhere, there are numerous surprises in the film and the violence is pushed as far as it can go in a film with limited resources. But don't go thinking that because this is a comedy, it can't be that frightening. The film's makeup and effects are convincing enough and the constant peril in the film feels oppressive. The film also doesn't shy away from the necessary blood and guts a zombie movie simply must have - characters get literally pulled apart in a red blizzard while impalements and other gruesome injuries are shown in their full gory glory. On every front, the film manages to not just meet expectations but exceed them.
- George A. Romero was so impressed with Pegg and Wright that he cast them in his next zombie film, Land Of The Dead. However, Pegg & Wright insisted on being cast as zombies instead of the principal characters Romero envisioned.
- Although it's never mentioned in dialogue in the film, Shaun's surname is Riley. It can be seen on a poster from Shaun's former career as a DJ.
- Among the famous voices heard on the TV at the end of the film are David Walliams, Keith Chegwin, Mark Gatiss (former member of The League Of Gentlemen) and Rob Brydon. Walliams unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of David.
What's not to like?
As a rule of thumb developed over many years of watching and reviewing films, films that try to genre-hop usually spread themselves a little too thin. Action comedies will tend to have more action than comedy while horror comedies also favour one over the other. There are times when Shaun Of The Dead slows down a bit such as during the scenes between Shaun, Barbara and Philip and were it not for the movie's pacing, these scenes might have gone unnoticed. I had felt that the supporting cast had one or two weak links in the chain - Ashfield doesn't demonstrate much character in the role of Shaun's love interest and while Davis is a more experienced comic actress, her role is too underwritten to give her much to do.
But aside from numerous references being missed by non-British audiences, the film doesn't really put a foot wrong. It's inventive, funny, shocking and surprisingly intelligent for a film that is really a loving homage to Romero's earlier undead work. It's also proved influential with foreign remakes like Juan Of The Dead and blatant rip-offs like Zombieland and you might even argue helped revitalise the zombie as a movie villain, bringing fresh ideas to the table and allowing stuff like The Walking Dead to become TV stalwarts. If nothing else, it reclaimed the horror crown from vampires who were getting increasingly diluted thanks to teen tosh like Twilight.
Should I watch it?
Shaun Of The Dead is many things to many people - it is a affectionate love letter to the more hokey, low-budget efforts of horror pioneers like Romero and Fulci but it is also a brilliantly written, witty and invigorating comedy from people just starting to find their creative peaks. It was also the launch-pad for the careers of Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost and rightly so as the film wouldn't be the same without them. I heartily recommend this bloody, violent and comical zombie flick but whatever you do, don't watch it for tips on how to survive in a zombie apocalypse. Mug-trees are a rubbish weapon...
Great For: horror fans, comedy lovers, cameo spotters, residents of London
Not So Great For: the squeamish, acting teachers
What else should I watch?
The film's stablemates in the Three Colours Cornettto trilogy - Hot Fuzz and The World's End - were also well received and also feature many of the same cast members as well as a scene involving Cornetto ice-cream. Where they differ is their different genres - while they are all comedies, each film takes a humorous look at other movie types. Hot Fuzz is an action comedy involving the classic 'buddy-cop' dynamic where Pegg and Frost play mismatched policemen in a sleepy English village that suddenly becomes a hotbed of murder and intrigue. The World's End, by contrast, adopts a more sci-fi tone as an alien invasion becomes the backdrop to a misguided pub crawl by a group of friends.
Horror-comedies might not be as rare as you might think but good ones certainly are. Most usually offer up titles that double up as puns (straight-to-DVD nonsense like The Gingerdead Man being a prime example) or focus more on blood-and-guts because they are easier to provide than a good script. One film I can recommend is the thoroughly bizarre Bubba Ho-Tep which sees the star of the Evil Dead franchise Bruce Campbell play Elvis Presley who shares a nursing home with a black man convinced he's JFK and who find themselves tormented by a cowboy mummy stalking the residents. Written and directed by Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli, it is an obscure film but well worth tracking down as it is the very definition of a cult picture.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox