There are some movies you just love to pieces. Every line, every character, every scene feels just right. The first time I saw Shaun of the Dead was a two CD, 4:3 pan-and-scan copy I downloaded off of Limewire. I think that might’ve even been missing the credits. The CD break didn’t even happen on an act break, it just interrupted a scene. It should say something about the quality of this movie that when I finally got the 2.35:1 theatrical widescreen DVD, I honestly didn’t notice a change for months. It is that well written, that well acted and that well directed. With Hot Fuzz to follow, Shaun of the Dead is the first in what I hope is a trilogy of brilliant, wickedly funny films from the creative team of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.
Shaun of the Dead, as you may have guessed by its subtle title, is a zombie movie. It is also, as you probably would not have guessed from its title, a romantic comedy. I don’t know of many science-fiction rom-coms, so this zom-rom-com is really standing peerless in its genre classification. However, just because a movie is made in its genre does not mean it’s made well for being the only one. Shaun is made well. Character development and arcs typical of the romantic comedy are executed with both a knowing wink and a solemn deference to the genre. This is all stuffed in the gaps of the typical zombie apocalypse plot and the resultant fusion works astonishingly well.
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is an overqualified staffer at a Radio Shack knockoff whose roommates represent the conflict in his personality: career-driven and serious Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) and his tubby, slovenly best friend Ed (Nick Frost). If you know Wright/Pegg, you know that Ed is the second male lead and that Pete’s fate is likely decided before he appears onscreen. Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is more successful than he is, more attractive than he is and the love of Shaun’s life. But after the last cock-up in a four year string of them, she finally ditches him. Unwittingly, she’s dumped him on Z-Day, and he wakes up the next morning oblivious to the fact that the dead are walking the earth. Shaun now has to gather together his limited resources, mum, step-dad, Liz’s flatmates and Ed to do his best to keep everyone alive. It’s finally time for him to be a man.
Shaun is unique in its approach to its myriad genres. Whereas later effort Hot Fuzz kept them separate and let the unique brand of profane comedy Pegg and Wright specialize in be the glue that ties them together, Shaun of the Dead often has moments of genuine emotion be sandwiched by crude humour motivated by the characters trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and it’s an indication of Wright/Pegg’s deep respect for the movies they’re spoofing/outperforming that the funny bits, the romantic bits and the zombie bits don’t seem to be fighting. Instead, they all work together to form a funny/heartwarming/terrifying whole. As theatrical debuts go, this is a feat on par with Reservoir Dogs–a movie that will be imitated by dozens of directors and never equaled by any of them. (Count the number of movies called “[nation]’s response to Shaun of the Dead!” to see what I mean.)
A delightfully profane humour saturates the script with the kind of swearing that makes a film seem more mature for having it. Pegg and Wright don’t see profanity as inherently funny, like Kevin Smith or Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg do on their off days. These guys instead use profanity and obscenity to create a world where people in their twenties talk like people in their twenties. Swearing has been a pastime since 1992 and it feels good to see a fictional universe where that holds true. It’s also nice to have that dialogue hold through from the movie’s opening scene right through to the ending. It reinforces a sense of reality–in reality, people swear when they talk. The dead don’t walk the earth and guys like Shaun would fare far worse in getting back together with Liz, but it all feels real because of the natural qualities of the dialogue.
This is especially astonishing as Shaun of the Dead is possibly the tightest, most concise movie I’ve ever seen. It moves at a pace more at home at the Kentucky Derby than in a movie, jetting from scene to scene through several circumstances and staples. In the course of 99 minutes, the movie moves through dozens of scenes, all of them significant to character development, most of them setting up gags and emotional tentpoles for the final act of the film to run through like a checklist. By the time the movie makes its final gearshift into full-blown zombie pandemic action, it’s set itself up with enough running gags to stock a warehouse. Half of them are used to close character arcs, one by one, with a grace unseen by any other horror movie of “equal” caliber.
Really, what Shaun of the Dead has done is used its first genre, the romantic comedy, to build a world of believable, engaging characters to serve its second genre, zombie apocalypse, in a way that modern horror almost never does. In a field of dead teenager movies, Shaun of the Dead stands apart for having smart dialogue, believable characters and emotional arcs that are legitimately engaging. You care about the protagonist, you care about the love interest, you care about his best friend. This is all so that when the real horror kicks in, it’s tense and terrifying as a zombie apocalypse should be, running zombies be damned. Differences emerge between the characters, guns come out and it’s revealed, as it is in the best zombie movies, that the real threats to your continued safety are your fellow man. The zombies are just what allow these types to surface, even if they’re a close friend or colleague.
Shaun of the Dead: one of the past decade’s great movies. No argument allowed. FOUR STARS