SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)

MIRTH OF THE UNDEAD

In its own way, this film is a minor classic already. It has created a whole new genre: the zombie comedy. Zombies, of course, have always been kind of humorous, with their shuffling, growling, and slowness. They have made appearances in Bob Hope and Abbott/Costello films, but it was always just for laughs. There was never a hint of seriousness in the genre until George Romero hits us with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and all the sequels. In the case of this film, a zany group of Brits, most of which had worked together, and knew each other from British television, have put together a film that combines the bawdy and the bizarre; a kind of dead-pan British humor meets graphic gore fest; a kind Benny Hill meets George Romero in a pub, and they hatch a plot.

The primary writer was Simon Pegg, who also starred as Shaun. The script was very clever, full of pathos and pratfalls, as much social commentary as it was comedic. There is a depiction of the English Everyman, that is leaden-eyed, glassed-over, drooling dumbly, a populous slogging through their gray lives barely breathing. A population that seemed vacuous, desensitized, slaves to their various routines, lurching home after working at a job they detested to their identical row houses. It took people a while to even notice that the undead were walking among them.

The director, and co-writer, was Edgar Wright. He has only directed one other film. Most of his credits were for the BBC and BBC2. To his credit, he kept the film moving along rapidly, and it was rife with sight gags. David W. Dunlap, an American, did the cinematography. He has worked as a camera operator on more than 75 films, but this was only his fifth outing as head lenser. There was a distinct Thames TV feel to this film. I kept expecting Rowen Atkinson, Stephen Fry, or John Cleese to pop in.

The project appears to be wholly the brainchild of Simon Pegg. He is a 1991 graduate of Bristol University. He has had a brilliant career on British television, and was the star of several series, like HIPPIES and SPACED. His foray into film still felt like an expanded sitcom, albeit the language was a bit saltier, but it does work well. It is a bit reminiscent of the successful transition made by Australian comedic television actor, Paul Hogan, with his CROCODILE DUNDEE series and subsequent films. Pegg is a STAR WARS fanatic. He made several references to the series within the film. He even cast Peter Serafinowicz, who was the voice of Darth Maul, as Pete, his “other” roommate. Hopefully we will see other projects done by Simon Pegg.

The plot, such as it is, could easily have been a pair of run-on episodes on SEINFELD or FRIENDS. Shaun works in an appliance store. Within his rut, he shuffles through his boring day, and then races to the pub at night. He, of course, gets real serious about his drinking on the weekends. His pub of choice was the Winchester, which was named after the American rifle and not the British heritage. Shaun’s best friend, and primary roommate, was Ed. Ed is an overweight drunken lay about, Shaun’s best friend since childhood, and he shadowed Shaun habitually. Nick Frost plays Ed brilliantly. He, in real life, is Pegg’s friend, and they have appeared together dozens of times in television roles. Ed spends most of his time playing video games, eating junk food, drinking beer, selling the odd batch of drugs, and waiting to meet Shaun at the Winchester. He is uncouth, crude, boorish, and a little bit loveable.

Ed: Can I get any of you cunts a drink?

Shaun is in crisis because his girlfriend, Liz, is breaking up with him. Kate Ashfield plays Liz very competently. She, too, has been a regular on Brit TV over the last decade. Liz is finally tired of Shaun’s idea of fun, romance, and recreation…drinking at the Winchester. She decides to dump him, and move on. There is only one complication; a zombie infestation.

Liz: Shaun, you hang out with my friends! A failed actress and a twat.

Shaun: Well, that’s a bit harsh.

Liz: Your words, Shaun.

Shaun: I did not call Diane a failed actress!

After Shaun gets shouted at by Liz.

David: Basically, I’d say your nine lives are up, Shaun.

Shaun: Get fucked, four eyes! Why don’t you go out with her if you love her so much?

[Storms off]

David: Well, I don’t know what he meant by that.

David: Liz, you still haven’t met his mum?

Shaun: Not yet!

Dianne: Don’t you get on with your mum, Shaun?

Shaun: Yes, what…

David: Are you ashamed of your mum, Shaun?

Shaun: No! I love my mum!

Ed: I love his mum too.

Shaun: Ed…

Ed: She’s like butter!

There were a couple of hilarious scenes where Shaun left his flat, and walked to the nearest convenience store. Even in the first scene, there were already zombies beginning to shuffle in the peripherary. He failed to notice. He was after snacks. In the tradition of great Richard Lester films, like HELP and the THREE MUSKETEERS, one has to stay sharp to notice the peripheral action and dialogue squirming in the sidelines of this movie. Finally through television news reports, which they paid more attention to that the real activity in the streets, our protagonists finally became aware of the Zombies. They were informed that they would have to decapitate, or shoot in the head, the undead. Initially they had no weapons, so they began to throw old vinyl record albums at them.

Looking through Shaun’s LPs for suitable records to throw at two approaching zombies.

Ed: Purple Rain

Shaun: No

Ed: Stone Roses.

Shaun: Definitely not.

Ed: The Batman soundtrack?

Shaun: Throw it!

Shaun: If you get cornered…

[hits himself on the head with cricket bat]

Shaun: …bash ‘em in the head, that seems to work. Ow!

The film leaps from horror to farce and then back to a comedy of manners. There was a sense that most of these middle class Brit characters just did not know how to really deal with all the zombie unpleasantness. Bill Nighy, as Phillip, his stepfather, and Penelope Wilton, as Barbara, his mother, play Shaun’s parents. They were quite effective, nearly stealing each of their scenes. Nighy is a great character actor, and a veteran of 49 films. He was Viktor in UNDERWORLD, and the aging rocker Billy Mack in LOVE ACTUALLY. This movie had a surprising number of poignant scenes mixed into the mayhem. Just before Phillip died from his zombie bite, before he would become one of the undead, he tried to talk to Shaun about how much he loved him, and how hard it was to be a stepfather trying to take the place of Shaun’s real father. This brought Shaun to tears, and us.

Shaun: Mum, look, what would you say if I told you that over the years Phillip’s been quite unkind to me?

Barbara: Well, you weren’t always the easiest person to live with.

Shaun: Mum, he chased me around the garden with a bit of wood!

Barbara: Well, you did call him a you-know-what!

Shaun: Oh, what, did he tell you that?

Barbara: Yes, he did.

Shaun: Mother fucker!

Later, in the pub, when Shaun was forced to have to kill his own mother, he was mad with grief, and the emotions were all bang on. Pegg, wisely, never played Shaun as a caricature, like most of the Monty Python characters were played. There was more nuance, and less broadness in his characterization. Shaun was a solid 29-year-old blue-collar loser. He could have stepped out of a Harold Pinter, or Tom Stoppard, script. The film often settled down, and for a few moments was a Dramedy. When Phillip was becoming ill secondary to his zombie wound, he still refused to go to a doctor. He just rinsed it off, wrapped it up, and took a nap. While Barbara, the mother, was lying in the pub dying, she hadn’t even mentioned that she too had been bitten.

Barbara: “Because I didn’t want to be a bother.”

Shockingly, many of the scenes of gore and gristle were very graphic. Much of the creeping horror was, at times, equal to the hardcore zombie thrills found in Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER, and in the humorless droll dull vacant remake of Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD. I was impressed, and touched by the scene where the character David is dragged from a window at the Winchester; where his belly was torn open and several zombies began to feast on his steaming entrails. The look of shock on his face, which led quickly to a death mask, was stark and memorable.

I loved a quick little scene where Shaun and Ed back up their car to look at the body of a man/zombie that they had just run over.

Shaun rolls down his window.

Shaun: Excuse me…are you alright? Hello?

Ed: Aw, come on, why can’t we just go?

Shaun: I’ve got to be sure of something.

Ed: Christ, he is going to be dead either way!

Shaun: That’s not the point, Ed! Excuse me…are you all right?

The body rises and moans, zombified.

Shaun: Oh, well, thank God for that.

One of the things that worked well for me about this film was how comfortable most of the characters were with each other; this being secondary, I suppose, to a bunch of actors who all knew each other. It reminded me a bit of the immediacy and the ambience demonstrated in Stephen Fry’s new film, BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS. That was completed by another group of British television actors who had worked together several times prior to the making of the film. One thing left out of SHAUN, and refreshingly so, was gay-bashing. The English are very good at working in gay characters, and adding a fey spin to most of their comedy. But this film was too busy with several other plotlines, and the homosexual possibilities never materialized. I remember, though, it was very funny to watch the gay vampire in Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, or PARDON ME, BUT YOUR TEETH ARE IN MY NECK. The bloodsucker preferred to bite young men.

Initially, the zombies were less a real threat than they were an inconvenience; interference between drinking bouts. Forting up at the Winchester was absurd, and yet it was as logical a choice at Shaun could come up with.

Ed: If we hole up, I wanna be somewhere familiar. I wanna know where the exits are, and I wanna be allowed to smoke.

Shaun: Okay. So we will take Pete’s car, go around to Mum’s, go in and kill Phillip—sorry Phillip—pick up Mum, then go and grab Liz, go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all this to blow over. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?

Ed: Yeah, boyyyeee!

Most of the critics responded favorably to this movie. Roger Ebert liked it a lot. After all, how many zombie films quote Bertrand Russell? I think it will be a candidate for cult status, and I will want it for my personal collection. It is audacious and original, and I loved it.

I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004