Oh, Shaun how I love thee. Let me count the ways: >=50. Yes, I’ve seen Shaun of the Dead no less than 50 times. I <heart> zombie films. They complete me.
Easter Sunday seems like a time befitting a good old fashioned zombie film (that’s right, I used the zed word). What’s that? Easter Sunday isn’t the time for gory films about the undead? You must be joking! What better time to enjoy a zombie filme than a holiday whose main purpose is to exalt and draw attention to the fact that 2000+ years ago this man died and was brought back to life?
I rest my case. And, if any of you are like me, and I’m sure some of you are just like me, you’ve just spent the day eating food with your families and enduring either a litany of religious films from the 50s, 60s, and 70s or you’ve been watching young kids get jacked up on chocolate and look for colored eggs. Either way, let’s settle down for a moment and remember to take care of ourselves before going back to work for the man.
The opening scene of Shaun of the Dead is arguably among the best of any film, zombie-related or otherwise, that’s come out of any major film studio in the last ten years. Immediately, we know everything we need to know about Shaun — just in the way he stares blankly into the camera as he sits in the Winchester (a neighborhood pub you’ll get to know well throughout the film). To Shaun, its totally superfluous that Liz, his girlfriend (played by Kate Ashfield), is sitting across the table from him in what is essentially the camera’s position. Also of little import is the presence of Dianne (Lucy Davis) and her boyfriend David (Dylan Moran) – two of Liz’s and, by the cruel juxtaposition of relationships, Shaun’s friends. It isn’t until Liz decides to say something incendiary that we even realize Shaun is not alone. And by incendiary, I mean, well, anything at all that brings Shaun out of his internal world and back into the realm of the living and breathing.
Liz: “See what I’m saying?”
Shaun: “Yeah, totally.”
He doesn’t have any idea, really, what she’s talking about. She’s been going off about Shaun’s best friend, Ed (played by the hilarious Nick Frost), who lives with Shaun and is a bit of a deadbeat. Only, she doesn’t mind that Ed doesn’t do much, it’s just that he doesn’t do much, with them, all the bleeding time.
Liz: “It’s not that I don’t like you, Ed.”
Ed: “It’s all right.”
Liz: “It just would be nice if we could–”
Ed: “F**k…” (he’s playing some kind of video game in the background)
The scene is brilliant, especially as Shaun and Liz’s conversation expands to include David and Dianne and the camera widens to include them as well. The intimacy of this conversation in contrast to their environment explains a lot about Shaun and his inability to reconcile the two halves of his life — after all its important to understand who Shaun is as soon as possible in the movie. He’s a child in a man’s body, living in a house with two other men, playing video games in his pajamas and working a dead-end job at an electronics store. Unable to make a full commitment to anything, especially Liz. Up to this point, Shaun has been happy enough just sleep walking through his life, not fully living.
Exhibit A: at the Winchester, Shaun promises Liz things will change. That he will change. That things will be different. He tells her he’ll make a reservation at a nice restaurant. The following day he forgets to make the reservations.
Exhibit B: at the crappy electronics store where he works (think Radio Shack meets Wal-mart), the supervisor has phoned in sick, leaving Shaun in charge. He gathers the employees for a quick stand-up debriefing during which the other employees, all of whom are younger and brattier, disrespect Shaun as he tries to take control of the situation and be authoritative. Especially bratty is Noel (played by Rafe Spall who you might recognize from another Pegg film, Hot Fuzz, in which he played one of the Detective Andys).
Noel: “All right. Keep your hair on, granddad.”
Shaun: “Hold on, I’m only 29, for chrissakes. How old are you? 20-21?”
Shaun: “Look…I know you don’t want to be here forever. You know, I’ve got things I want to do with my life.”
Yeah. Shaun’s got it going on. Check his moves as he tries to sell a television set to a couple of customers. He flips through the channels, stopping on the things that interest him, barely moving his mouth to explain the features of the television. Bill Nighy makes an appearance here as Shaun’s stepfather, Philip. He’s fantastically pallid, as usual, already doing his part to look dead. It’s great how early on in the film you’re shown these bits and pieces of things starting to go awry (the reports on the news at Shaun’s store, the man outside the floral shop swiping at pigeons, the police and ambulance sirens) and how little Shaun notices. It isn’t until he runs into his female doppelganger Yvonne (Jessica Hynes) on the way home that he remembers about his dinner date with Liz. Oops.
Poor Shaun. He promised things would change. But it isn’t until the world has gone to hell that he finally wakes up long enough to do anything. But, that’s what makes Shaun of the Dead so brilliant. You’re set up to see Shaun as a nobody, a total screw up with nothing going on. It makes it that more rewarding when the crap finally hits the fan and he’s the only one in his little circle of friends and family that does anything about it.
When he goes around to Liz’s house to make up for forgetting about their dinner date, you know she’s had enough. She breaks up with him on the spot. Distraught, broken hearted, Shaun retreats to the Winchester where he spends the night kicking back drink after drink with Ed. Its clear then that this is more of a love story between these two men than it is about Shaun and Liz. Their friendship is a beautiful thing.
Ed: “I’m not going to bombard you with cliches. But what I will say is this…it’s not the end of the world.”
A limp hand hits the window of the front door. Outside, lord only knows what’s been going on. There is a sense of this being the reality of this kind of event — Shaun and Ed leave the Winchester, totally drunk, and wander home, passing several zombified individuals (the couple outside the pub, the moaning man in the sidestreet) never stopping to put one and one together.
This is definitely the day that the UK stood still as Shaun wanders to the corner store admist the rabble of what’s taken place the night before. He passes vacant homes, streets littered with rubble and trash, a man sprints past him, he slips on blood on the floor, opens a bloody cooler door, and not once does Shaun notice anything out of the ordinary. In director Edgar Wright’s world, zombies move very slowly and pose little threat to anyone with half a brain to avoid them, unlike Danny Boyle’s super fast, super aggressive zombies in 28 Days Later. In many ways, this is the superior zombie film – tying in threads of comedy, romance, drama, and classic horror film tension to create a more rewarding experience overall.
It isn’t until Shaun and Ed find a zombified cashier named Mary in their backyard (you may recognize her from the opening title sequence) that they finally realize something’s amiss.
Expertly interwoven are the bits of newscasts that bring the far-fetched concept of zombies a little closer to our reality. Its absolutely spellbinding watching Shaun’s transformation from near-30-something slacker to zombie hacker as he and Ed tool up and put together a plan to rescue Liz and Shaun’s mom. After all, it isn’t until they hear that removing the “head or the brain” of an infected person, aka zombie, is the only way to stop them. Like either one of these guys would figure that out on their own. They’re far too content to sit on the sofa drinking tea and eating ice creams. I love the homage to Night of the Living Dead when Shaun and Ed talk to Shaun’s mother Barbara on the phone. Shaun is trying desperately to convince his mother to let him rescue her. She protests. Ed, in haste grabs the phone from Shaun and says in a gravelly voice: “we’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
Its apparent when Shaun and Ed arrive at Barbara and Philip’s house that Philip has been infected. Shaun runs into the house with a cricket bat, but once inside, becomes impotent in the face of his mother’s prowess and authority. Instead of taking care of Philip, as previously fantasized, and rescuing his mother, he sulks out of the house with both of them in tow. All of a sudden, in sharp contrast to the rest of the film, they are surrounded by zombies. The four of them, Ed included, pile into Philip’s gorgeous, vintage Jaguar and flee. This is a great moment for Ed’s character, as he blares heavy metal from the speakers of Philips Jag, speeding through the streets of London to Liz’s apartment.
Finally, finally, and none too soon, Shaun is coming into his own. He runs across the yard to the apartment complex, swatting down zombie after zombie with his bat before ascending to a second story window to Liz’s apartment. Inside Shaun finds David, Dianne, and Liz confused, scared, and cornered. He convinces the lot of them to follow him to the Winchester, through the gaggle of zombies that awaits them below.
They fill Philip’s Jaguar to bursting, like some kind of richie Shriners clown car and when Philip turns into a Zombie, they are left without transportation, car alarm blaring, zombies closing in around them yet again. They must walk the remainder of the distance to the Winchester, and along the way, they run into a group of men and women (mirror images of our heroes and heroines – among who you might recognize Matt Lucas from Little Britain fame as Ed’s doppelganger) who, like them, are fleeing for their lives.
What’s great about Shaun of the Dead is that when you least expect it you’re going to get punches of action, threats of danger, and moments of great, British humor. The story effortlessly moves forward and you flow along with it, your mind able to soak it all in without too much effort. Somehow, you can totally see yourself with your friends in a back alley trying to act like a bunch of zombies in order to blend in and sneak across a street filled with zombies to a hiding place.
Even if you don’t like zombie films, I promise you’ll enjoy Shaun of the Dead’s exciting cilmax during which Shaun, Ed, and Dianne beat up the Winchester’s-proprietor-turned-zombie to the rocking sound of Queen.
The final word: Shaun of the Dead is the kind of movie you’ll want to include in your library, so if you don’t already have it – grab it. The film looks great on a low-fi DVD player (I play it on a region-free Toshiba player that’s three years old and pipe it through to a 720 dpi Toshiba LCD 30″ and it looks pretty darn good) so no need to upgrade this one to Blu-Ray just yet. I find something to enjoy every time I watch the film, and although I have many of the lines memorized, I still prefer listening to the actors do the lines in lieu of saying them myself. Kudos to them and their brilliant performances. With something for everyone, and slightly tamer on the gore than your average zombie film, Shaun of the Dead is almost family friendly with children in their early teen years (under supervision, of course – don’t shirk your responsibility to tell your kids about zombies).