Early on in Shaun of the Dead, the title character (Simon Pegg) — whose sunken eyes and slack-jawed stupor make him the least likely of heroes — says to his teenaged co-workers at an electronics store, “Ash is feeling a little bit under the weather, so I’ll be taking charge.” The nod, of course, is to Ash Williams, the brash star of the Evil Dead franchise, played by horror icon and indie superstar, Bruce Campbell.
The allusion is not unintentional — Shaun of the Dead is to the flesh-eating Dead movies (Night, Dawn, and Day) what the Evil Dead franchise was to the horror films that preceded it — a genre satire that doesn’t stray from the genre formula, brilliantly lampooning while also paying homage. And like the Evil Dead franchise, Shaun of the Dead is the sort of future cult classic that will someday inspire drinking games, the kind that our children will watch at midnight screenings years from now, no doubt half-baked, decked out in zombie attire, and sporting broken records around their “bloody” craniums.
Shaun — who looks like a cross between Green Day’s Billy Joe and School of Rock’s Mike White — is a thirtyish slacker working a demeaning job at an electronics store, stuck deeply in his underachieving rut - the very type of person who wouldn’t notice the sudden proliferation of undead in the streets. Citing his lack of direction, Shaun’s long-suffering girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) dumps him, leaving him to wallow in the familiar routine that led to his breakup: drinking at the neighborhood pub with his best mate, Ed (Nick Frost), a slovenly English version of Jack Black, who spends his days playing video games and selling marijuana.
So distraught and hung-over is Shaun after his breakup that he fails to notice that London is collapsing into chaos all around him, as he channel-surfs past coverage of the zombie crisis that’s engulfed the city (a nice allusion to Night of the Living Dead). Shaun and Ed ultimately find what they believe to be a drunken girl in their backyard, whom they soon discover is actually one of the walking dead. Realizing their error, they dispatch an array of household goods in an attempt to decapitate the zombie, before finally settling on Shaun’s record collection, prompting an amusing discussion, a la Nick Hornby, of what albums should be sacrificed (they settle, appropriately, on Sade, Dire Straits, and the Batman soundtrack).
After rendering a few zombies immobile, Shaun and Ed become the heroes of Shaun of the Dead, the kind of obliviously subversive comedy team that Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller so want to be, but are not. As all hell literally breaks loose, the duo rescue Shaun’s mother and ex-girlfriend, determined to return them to the safety of the neighborhood pub, where they can all cheerfully drink beers and wait for civilization to return to normal.
Things, of course, do not go as planned, and the troupe of central characters are picked off by the flesh-eaters in comedic fashion, as in one clever scene where Shaun’s stepfather (Bill Nighy) dismisses a zombie bite by explaining in his laconic British accent, “It’s all right. I ran it under the cold tap.” The visual gags, sharp dialogue, and hilarious homages are fast-moving and fierce, and the cast of Shaun of the Dead (which includes “The Office“‘s Lucy Davis) is richly appealing.
But what makes the film work to such brilliant effect is that, unlike other genre-busting spoofs, there is more at play here: Shaun of the Dead doesn’t merely poke fun at its predecessors; it gently mocks its audience with knowing winks, letting us know that, while we may be in on the joke, we also make up part of the culture that the joke is on: the video-game junkie, the sales clerk, the half-asleep commuter, or the brain-dead pop culture enthusiast.
Unfortunately, the last half-hour of Shaun of the Dead is hurt by the limitations of the genre — once the body count starts piling up, zombie movies tend to trap themselves in the constraints of gore and impending apocalypse. Here, Shaun of the Dead is left with little room to maneuver, as it loses site of the metaphor and, instead, hobbles along to an ending that cannot ultimately match the intensity and wit of the first two acts. Even still, Shaun of the Dead is too smart and too entertaining to miss — a conventional zombie film that recklessly abandons convention and makes you laugh for the right reason: because it’s funny.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Shaun of the Dead / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()