“Look, I don’t care what the telly says, all right? We have to get out of here. If we don’t, they’ll tear us to pieces, and that is really going to exacerbate things for all of us.” —Simon Pegg, Shaun Of The Dead
Much like a contagion spread through, say, gnawing on someone’s arm or feasting on brains, zombies plagued the ’00s, beginning with the lightning-quick super-zombies in 2002’s 28 Days Later and metastasizing from there. Before the decade was over, we were treated to zombie epidemics (I Am Legend), zombie sheep (Black Sheep), zombie strippers (Zombie Strippers), found-footage zombies (Quarantine), zombies as metaphor for the Iraq War (Land Of The Dead, 28 Weeks Later), zombies as metaphor for FlipCamera narcissism (Diary Of The Dead), the zombie apocalypse (Zombieland), and the zombie excuse for getting Milla Jovovich in that short red skirt (the Resident Evil series). And yet Edgar Wright’s Shaun Of The Dead stands out in a crowded field—for being wittier and better-made that than nearly all of them, but also for its zombie-movie classicism in the face of all that revisionism.
As with their TV show Spaced, Shaun Of The Dead strongly expresses the pop-addled brains of its creators—Wright, co-writer/star Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost, who frequently plays Hardy to Pegg’s Laurel—but it isn’t entirely about putting a contemporary spin on musty genre, despite the proliferation of clever modern references. At its core, it’s a committed George Romero disciple: The zombies are relentless yet slow-moving and dull-witted, and the film latches onto a single, potent social metaphor—one perhaps not as political as Romero’s tend to be, but ingenious and thoroughly realized. I cannot describe that metaphor better than Keith Phipps at the beginning of his review:
In the London of Shaun Of The Dead, dead-eyed city-dwellers shamble through the streets. Thoughtlessly, they make their way from place to place, sometimes alone, sometimes in clusters. Their glazed eyes suggest no purpose beyond mindless repetition. Eventually, some of them even turn into zombies.
It would be fair to describe Shaun Of The Dead as a one-joke comedy, but the joke—that everyday Londoners are virtually impossible to distinguish from undead Londoners—is an inspired one, and Wright exploits it cinematically. This isn’t the wacky, aggressive, graceless irreverence of zombie comedies like Black Sheep or Zombie Strippers; it’s a film loaded with elegant Steadicam shots and foreground/background (and offscreen) effects, snappy visual gags, and a general commitment to letting the camera (and the sound) do much of the joke-telling. Knowing nothing of Wright and company going in—I caught up with Spaced years later—the sequence that convinced me I was in for something good was not terribly comedic, just a long, beautifully choreographed take of the film’s hero making his morning walk to the convenience store and back. Horror-comedy is a junky subgenre, because the style necessary for the horror part tends to be the first thing lost; clearly, this was going to be different.
Perfectly cast in the Simon Pegg role, Pegg plays Shaun, a 29-year-old salesman at an electronics store staffed mainly by nincompoops a decade his junior. The prototypical slacker, Shaun could improve his life with just a modicum of ambition—remembering to place a reservation for dinner with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) or venturing beyond the confines of his weed-choked flat and a dank pub called the Winchester Tavern—but inertia proves too powerful a force. The devil on his shoulder is Ed (Frost), his affable best friend and roommate, less a slacker himself than a standard-bearer for directionless sloth (and chimpanzee impressions). It’s a comfort for Shaun to have Ed around, not least because he looks a shade more together by comparison.
All of this is foreground to a zombie takeover that’s already in progress in the background. Wright has fun confusing zombified London with everyday London, touring the dead-eyed, shuffling, workaday blokes as they skulk around the bus stop or mindlessly scan grocery items through checkout or, in Shaun’s case, pad to the living room in a state of yawning half-sleep. But the joke isn’t entirely on London. It’s also on Shaun himself, who’s so locked into his mindless routine and so thoroughly oblivious to the world around him that he doesn’t notice the zombies until they literally land in his backyard. In the film’s money sequence, a brilliant redux of the earlier Steadicam shot, Shaun strolls right through the dawn of the dead.
That shot has my favorite little touch in a movie full of them: Pegg slipping on puddle of blood in the convenience store, the puddle off screen. It’s a delightful sleight of hand, and a good example of Wright’s visual wit and screwball-quick comic timing. If anything, the density of gags in his films has increased with each one, culminating in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, where the ADD inventiveness grew enervating at times. Wright and Pegg’s script has a speech or two at key moments, but the rhythms are generally one-line/one-line/one-line, with the dialogue ping-ponging between characters. (Sample exchange, as Shaun picks up a PlayStation controller next to Ed: [computer voice]: “Player 2 has entered the game.” Ed: “Haven’t you got work?” [computer voice]: “Player 2 has left the game.”) And Wright and Pegg’s characters may be hyper-verbal, but dialogue doesn’t do all the heavy lifting; often, something as simple as a whip pan can take care of a punchline. If you ever wonder what’s missing from a Kevin Smith film, watch one of theirs.
Shaun Of The Dead does the heroic work of restoring the zombie film to its origins—even if it’s never really scary, and writes itself into a boilerplate action finale—but as with Spaced and Scott Pilgrim especially, its true subject is our relationship with popular culture. There’s an irony embedded in Shaun’s transformation from slacker zombie to zombie killer: He may be coming out of his shell and transforming into the strong, responsible, proactive man Liz wants him to be, but he’s really the hero in his own movie—Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead or John Wayne in Rio Bravo. You get the sense that if he could see all the ass he’s kicking, he’d really be geeking out about himself.
At the same time, Wright and Pegg really are interested in Shaun puncturing the pop-culture bubble that walls him in, at least enough to let out the smell of stale Cheetos and defeat. Fending off the zombified hordes of London means not being one of them, after all, and Shaun’s journey in the film is about rejoining the land of the living. He doesn’t have to leave his old life behind—Ed is still his friend, even if he’s the monster in the shed—but circumstances force him to be a better boyfriend and son, and perhaps he’ll remember to place a simple dinner reservation next time.
All metaphors and life lessons aside, though, Shaun Of The Dead is chock-a-block with inspired silliness: Shaun and Ed rifling through a record collection to determine which albums are disposable enough to be whipped at zombies’ heads (Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times, no; Batman soundtrack, yes), several discussions over the meaning and proper usage of the word “exacerbate,” a scene (included below) where Shaun and the gang learn to act like zombies in order to give them the slip. Unlike the scores of other modern comedies about man-children learning to grow, this movie would never ask Shaun to put away childish things entirely. Pop life, to reference another indispensible Prince title, infuses it with too much joy for that.