Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Rating: A+

Dir: Edgar Wright
Star: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Dylan Moran

This was triggered simply by bumping into a heavily-bastardized version on Comedy Central, which left us with an overwhelming urge to watch the proper version. And it’s still completely awesome. Indeed, it’s even better on subsequent viewings, as you can appreciate the utterly brilliant foreshadowing that goes on. For instance, the line “We’re not going to get out of this by moaning” – which is exactly what they do. Or Ed’s post-breakup suggestion to Shaun: “A Bloody Mary first thing, a bite at the King’s Head, couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here and bang… Back at the bar for shots,” basically lays out the rest of the film. It’s just a perfect mix of horror and comedy, starting off heavily weighted to the latter. Even as the outbreak gets into full swing, Shaun’s utter obliviousness to this has the absolute ring of truth to it, and it’s probably the most accurate cinematic enactment of how WWZ would start.

And yet, once the survivors reach the pub, the comedic aspects take back seat, and it becomes more or less a straight zombie survival flick, with all the tropes you’d expect, e.g. bickering and a character who is infected, yet tries to hide it. The latter results in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in any horror movie, and credit all those involved for playing it dead straight. But throughout, the comedy is a beautiful mix of scripting, performance and execution, down to the littlest level – one of the best gags is simply a sound-effect of Ed winding his camera forward [ok, this does date the film, and one wonders what future generations, oblivious to a time when cameras used film and needed winding on, will make of it]. Pegg is a marvellous hero, developing from a slacker whose life is slowly, ever so slowly, circling the drain of dead-ends, with Shaun basically becoming a zombie himself, into a man raging against such a fate. It’s easy to identify with him, and I found myself peering out into the garden, hoping there might be a Bloody Mary out there for me to take on.

Those involved have gone on to do other, perfectly fine work, both together and separately, but you’d be hard to say they’ve ever matched the beautiful pitch of Shaun. And I can’t believe I failed explicitly to praise the brilliant work of Bill Nighy and Penelope Moran as Shaun’s step-dad and mom, who just about manage to steal every scene in which they’re involved. “I ran it under a cold tap!” has become part of TC Towers lexicon for any unfortunate event as a result. Best zombie film ever? Absolutely. Best horror-comedy ever? Probably. Best film ever? Quite conceivably.

[September 2004]: Horror-comedy is an easy genre to do, but a very difficult genre to do well – usually, one side or the other suffers. However,Shaun is a film that can stand proudly along classics like Evil Dead 2 or Re-Animator, for this is not only the best comedy of 2004, it’s the best horror film as well. The basic set-up is straight Romero; to escape the threat of the living-dead, Shaun (Pegg) leads his motley band to find a safe haven. Everything else, however, is pure genius, starting with a hero so engrossed in his petty life, that until the threat stumbles into his garden, he doesn’t even notice it. The audience will, however, thanks to a clever use of TV and unsettling imagery, though the first half does concentrate more on the comedy of Shaun’s slobbish friend (Frost) and ambitious girlfriend (Ashfield) – even if her ambitions are merely not spending every night in the same pub.

As the epidemic spreads, the horror, almost subliminally at first, comes to the fore, until we are once again deep in Romero territory – though Wright and Pegg deliver cliches like “the infected friend” with enough sincerity to overpower their familiarity. The only weak spot is the method used to reach sanctuary, through a horde of (refreshingly old-school and shambling) zombies; it’s clunky, then conveniently forgotten once they’re trapped inside. Otherwise, this is one of those very rare films that works on multiple levels, engaging all emotions. How it’ll play outside Britain, I don’t know – is the rest of the world aware of Cornettos and Breville sandwich toasters? – but I suspect that while some jokes may suffer, easily enough will get through. Perhaps the film’s best achievement is reclaiming the words “British comedy”, which are no longer inextricably linked to Hugh Grant. For that alone, fall down on your knees and give thanks. A

See also: 31 Days of Horror ‐ Shaun of the Dead.