by Mel Valentin
Billed as a “zom-rom-com” (or “Zombie/Romantic Comedy”), "Shaun of the Dead" is a playful, affectionate parody of the undead sub-genre, as reinvented by George A. Romero in his seminal “Dead” trilogy (e.g., "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead," "Day of the Dead"). The title, "Shaun of the Dead" is an obvious take on Romero’s "Dawn of the Dead" (Shaun is not, as the title suggests, a member of the ravenous undead). Co-written by Simon Pegg (“Shaun”) and Edgar Wright (who also directed), "Shaun of the Dead" unfolds as series of loosely connected scenes punctuated by humorous and occasionally gory gags, initially played for comedy and farce and, as the apocalypse takes over the storyline, into survivalist drama and pathos.Our ostensible, if seriously flawed hero’s flaws are evident from the first (comical) scene. His girlfriend of three years, Liz (Kate Ashfield) wants more from their relationship and less of Shaun’s longtime friend (and freeloader), Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun, it seems, is torn between an overly extended adolescence, as exemplified by hard drinking, pot smoking, videogame playing Ed, and an adult, domestic life with Liz. The two seem mutually exclusive, especially as Liz gives Shaun an ultimatum: dinner for two at a swank restaurant or the end of their relationship. Shaun, however, is the classic slacker/screw-up. Whatever he does, whatever he plans, usually in a drunk or post-drunk haze, goes wrong. And let’s not forget a guilt-tripping stepfather, Phillip (Bill Nighy) who enters Shaun’s life to remind him of his bimonthly visit with Shaun’s mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton).
"A most excellent time will be had by one and all (especially zombie fans)."
Needless to say, Shaun’s personal problems are compounded by the inconvenient approach of the apocalypse in the form of an ever-growing horde of undead, all of them bent on making a meal of Shaun, his friends, his now ex-girlfriend, and his family. In probably the best extended gag in Shaun of the Dead, Shaun, distraught over his recent breakup with Liz and hungover from a night of overdrinking with Ed, shambles out of his home, oblivious to the walking dead, the scattered scenes of minor devastation (including bloody prints on the glass doors of a cooler or a slip in an unidentifiable substance). The apocalypse, it seems, has to come to Shaun’s door before he awakens to the rampaging undead. It does, literally, in the guise of a one-armed undead in their living room, and a supermarket cashier and fat man in their garden (Shaun thinks the girls is simply drunk).
Setting aside his bruised ego, Shaun takes action (or something approaching action), hoping to save Liz, her roommates Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran), and his mother and stepfather. After several visualized plans, each scuttled for a safety or other reasons, Shaun and Ed settle on a secure location where they can sit out the apocalypse over a beer or two, their friendly neighborhood pub, the Winchester (complete with an unfired Winchester rifle over the bar). Before they get there, the survivors have to contend with all sorts of complications, including the not unexpected turn of one character from sick and pasty-faced to newly undead (and ravenous). As their predicament unravels (none-too-quickly, as the ravenous undead are a patient bunch, waiting until just the right moment to break through the windows), the harried survivors begin turning on each other. One character, for no reason other than to kickstart the final confrontation with the undead horde anxiously (and patiently waiting outside the pub), turns illogically suicidal (he’s turned into an all-you-can eat buffet). Not everyone survives, and those that do, survive in (sometimes radically) altered form. Shaun’s dilemma, friendship or domesticity, is ultimately resolved to Shaun and Liz’s satisfaction (if not quite Ed’s).
For genre fans, and especially for fans of the undead sub-genre, Shaun of the Dead includes plenty of (head) nods and in-jokes to its sometimes less-than-illustrious predecessors, including, of course, Dawn of the Dead (e.g., the riff on the name, the retreat to a seemingly impregnable sanctuary, the shopping mall music, and a blink and you’ll miss it reference to Ken Foree, one of the stars of Romero’s 1978 film), and Night of the Living Dead (the “We’re coming to get you, Barbara,” line Ed utters into a phone line early in the film). There’s even a brief shot of a chained zombie in the epilogue (shown on a television program) that strongly echoes a similar character in Romero’s Day of the Dead. Then there are the fragmentary television broadcasts, all of them offering various explanations for the zombie plague (they’re left as conjecture, typical for films in the sub-genre less interested in plausible explanations than in survivalist drama).
Sly jokes and references aside, Shaun of the Dead delivers a surprisingly high gore quotient, including the expected head shots, the body-cam (an undead gets pierced by a pipe, giving the audience a clear view to the other characters), and in another nod to Romero, one character gets viciously eviscerated (not that he doesn’t deserve it). In an early scene, the undead prove to be worthy punching bags for Shaun’s frustrations. Pegg and Wright take the gag past the point-of-no-return, in turn generating discomfort and finally laughter from self-aware audience members. Other gags come and go, sometimes with little relation to the loosely structured plot (one gag finds the survivors encountering mirror opposites of themselves).By ultimately putting aside the comic gags in the third act and opting instead for horror leavened with occasional bits of humor, Pegg and Wright falter in failing to deliver an appropriate balance between disparate genre elements (horror and romantic comedy). In addition, an unevenness of tone becomes apparent as the emphasis on horror and action in the third act sadly subsumes the clever, self-referential humor of the first and second acts. Still, these are minor quibbles for a film that (almost, at least for the first two-thirds) consistently delivers horror and comedy, a combination so rare that the successful genre hybrids (e.g., "Evil Dead 2," "Return of the Living Dead," "Dead Alive") are far outweighed by the near misses and forgettable failures.
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originally posted: 08/03/05 22:17:37