Monday, December 20, 2004

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Zombie movies have always been one of horror's most popular sub-genres. George Romero's zombie movies are classics, and in recent years, DVD releases of those movies have been widely successful. The films of legendary Italian directors Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento are regarded with great esteem among diehard genre fans, and zombies have seen success in video games, with Resident Evil, House of the Dead, and Timesplitters being popular game franchises. When Fox Searchlight brought the British pseudo-zombie movie 28 Days Later to America in 2003, it was greeted with wide critical acclaim. Universal Pictures imported another zombie movie from England a year later, only this one was a little more lighthearted than 28 Days Later. Made by cast and crew members of the popular British TV show Spaced, Shaun of the Dead is a comedic homage to the zombie movies that preceded it, greeted with high praise from reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a 29-year-old loser, living a rather mundane existence as an unmotivated electronics store clerk. He isn't helped any when his fed-up girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), with a little nudging from her roommates Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran), dumps him for not changing his slacker ways. After a night of drowning his sorrows in Queen songs and several pints of alcohol with his slob of a best friend/roommate Ed (Nick Frost) at the Winchester, the local pub, Shaun wakes up the next morning and walks to a nearby convenience store, discovering that the normally busy streets outside his house are a wee less busy.

He returns home to find Ed staring out a window into the backyard. Ed informs Shaun of an apparently drunk woman standing in their garden, so they go outside to shoo her away. The woman tackles Shaun and tries to bite him, but when he pushes her off, she falls and gets spiked on a pole sticking up from the ground. That would usually hurt or even slightly annoy most normal people, but to the "drunk" lady, it's not a problem. She doesn't even notice. She just stands back up and starts shuffling in Shaun and Ed's direction.

They wisely retreat inside the house and try to call for help, but all of the phone lines are tied up. However, they soon discover the way to defend themselves when Ed kills a zombie that came in through the front door by bashing it in the head with an ashtray. Coupled with a news report moments later that says head wounds are the best way to dispose of the undead, our two zeros get a bright idea: Shaun and Ed grab their record collection and head outside, chucking records at the zombie lady and another one that's joined her in the backyard. Because when you think head wounds, you think vinyl records.

After some debate over which records should get broken and which ones shouldn't (do you throw the Purple Rain soundtrack or a Dire Straits album?), Shaun arms himself and Ed with a cricket bat and a shovel. Note to self: cricket bats are far more effective weapons than regular baseball bats. Shaun and Ed soon come up with a plan to get Liz and Shaun's mother (Penelope Wilton) away from the zombie horde. They put their plan into action, and with Shaun's mother, Liz, Dianne, and David in tow, they hole themselves up in the Winchester. Knowing that they can't survive in the Winchester forever, they soon try to find a way out without becoming food for the ever-growing number of undead or killing each other first.

You might be a little disappointed if you're expecting British horror along the lines of 28 Days Later or Dog Soldiers (an underrated British werewolf flick that was imported to American video store shelves and the Sci-Fi Channel in 2003). When a movie that comes right out and says it's a "Romantic Zombie Comedy," expecting anything else from it would be ill-advised. It's a romantic comedy in the midst of a zombie invasion, which is one of the most original cinematic concepts that I've heard in a while. The movie is both well-written and well-executed, and my only complaint is the humor. I didn't get some of the jokes in the movie, but most of the ones I didn't get were in-jokes for fans of Spaced to catch. Being an American that's never seen Spaced, I missed the humor behind those. But those were a minuscule part of the comedy, as all the jokes worked on some level.

That extremely minor complaint aside, the movie is great all the way through. I haven't seen a movie balance horror and comedy this well since the original Return of the Living Dead, and that's saying something. Return of the Living Dead is a really good movie, but Shaun of the Dead just may be better. The cast is enjoyable, with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost being the definite standouts. Helping the cast is a hilarious script (co-written by Pegg and Edgar Wright), and for the horror moments of this horror/comedy, the score composed by Daniel Munford and Pete Woodhead is very engaging. Throw in the stellar use of songs by Queen and The Smiths, along with various techno songs and music from the 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead, and the whole soundtrack is superb.

I'm just sad that Shaun of the Dead didn't get a wider theatrical release, because it could have gone from a surefire cult classic to a surefire blockbuster. It's a romantic comedy that horror fans can enjoy, and a horror movie fans of romantic comedies can enjoy, and that eclectic combination makes one of the most entertaining movies I've seen in a long time. For that, Shaun of the Dead gets four and a half stars.

Final Rating: ****

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