It’s the film that made the majority of Americans aware of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It’s the film that—with an exclamation point—announced the arrival of Edgar Wright as a formidably stylish director. It’s also a film that came at the forefront of the revival of zombie horror that creeped up over the early Aughts. With all the hype that surrounded Wright’s Shaun of the Dead after its release in 2004, once I finally tracked down a copy (the closest it ever played to Asheville theatrically was Greenville, SC), I can honestly say that I was a bit disappointed. Maybe it was because of all that aforementioned hype. Maybe it was because there’s only so much you can do with zombie horror, or perhaps Shaun followed along the same paths that had been obliterated by Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… just a couple years earlier. After getting the chance to reassess the film (which, really, was the reason we programmed it, since we’re nothing but self-indulgent), I can say I was at least a bit wrong. What I found instead is one of the most assured directorial debuts imaginable, not to mention a comedy not like many others. That it doubles as horror is simply a bonus.
Since this is a zombie movie at its heart—and a classic zombie movie at that, even going as far to take a jab at 28 Days Later… towards the end of the film—Shaun of the Dead isn’t really about zombies. Instead, like Boyle’s film, or George A. Romero’s Dead series, the movie’s really about people’s reaction to a zombie outbreak. In this case, we follow Shaun (Pegg), a 29-year-old with a job at an appliance store and no real will to improve his lot in life. Quite a few of his issues—at least according to his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield)—seem to stem from his overriding loyalty to his best friend Ed (Frost), a crass, uncouth slacker who does little more than play video games and hold Shaun back. Beyond his deadend job and a friend who does nothing more than piss everyone off, he finally screws up irreparably with Liz to the point she dumps him, plus ends up with his overbearing stepfather (Bill Nighy) to deal with.
Of course, this being a zombie movie, the eventual zombie outbreak happens (the film is sly in that it knows that you know zombies are coming at some point, and plays this up a bit). The entire outbreak is handled pretty deftly, via news broadcasts that everyone seems too self-absorbed to pay attention to, while everyone’s approach to handling the zombies is often both goofy and believable. The film doesn’t shy away from gore, and there are definite horror elements to the movie, but the purpose of Shaun of the Dead is less brains-a-munching and more centered around characterization and comedy. There is a tendency toward sentimentality that doesn’t always quite work (one scene between Shaun and his stepfather is the strongest, mostly due to Nighy’s ability as an actor), but the characters who populate the film are all understandable and fleshed out, something you don’t often get from horror films or comedies. The humor is sharp, more based around lightning fast turns of phrase and pop culture references that never feel out-of-place or like name-dropping. What’s interesting, though, is how much of the comedy is based around Wright’s direction and his aggressive editing, making a comedy—a genre that’s usually pretty stylistically inert—that’s just as dependent on its director as it is its material.
While—for my money—Pegg, Frost, and Wright, together and seperately, would all go on to make better films, and that Shaun of the Dead just barely misses the high water marks of zombie comedy set by Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) and Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), the movie still remains a top notch piece of entertainment. And its easy, too, to give the film short shrift looking at it under that lens. But there’s not a lot of modern comedies or horror flicks that get as much right as Shaun of the Dead.