Monday, October 6, 2014

Shaun of the Dead

The following is funnier if read in Ed Grimley's voice: "You know, I don't really like zombie movies, but I absolutely loooovvvvveeee Shaun of the Dead." I can't how many times I've heard variations of that statement (probably because I never counted), but needless to say, it's gotten on my nerves.

Shaun of the Dead (2004), except for maybe Zombieland, might very well be the most popular zombie movie at the moment. An affectionate parody of the sub-genre, most notably the works of George Romero, Shaun of the Dead might have been the death knell of the classic, slow-moving living dead. After all, it's hard to be terrified by a creature two losers try to kill by throwing vinyl records at it if they have time to debate over which albums are worth keeping.

It's the end of the world. Zombies are rising up to feast on the warm flesh of living victims, and in London, Shaun (Simon Pegg) and his best friend Ed (Nick Frost) barely notice. You see, Shaun's all mopey because his long-suffering girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) has broken up with him because he continues to show no initiative to act like an adult while Ed is a lazy, fat slob with no interests beyond video games and scratching his balls. They eventually catch on and formulate a plan: get Shaun's mom Barbara (Penelope Wilton), kill Shaun's infected stepfather Phillip (Bill Nighy), rescue Liz, and head over to their favorite pub, the Winchester, to hunker down and let the whole thing blow over.

As the tagline says, Shaun of the Dead is a romantic comedy. With zombies. It could actually be considered a bromance as well. See, Shaun's life is out-of-balance; at the beginning, Liz gives him an ultimatum more or less: her or Ed. She wants to get more out of life, go places, experience new things, etc. But Shaun remains loyal to Ed, who is content to lounge in front of a TV screen, drink at the same pub every night, and leach off Shaun. Shaun defends him perhaps because, as his flatmate Pete says, he "enjoys having around someone who's more of a loser than" him. The zombie apocalypse provides Shaun the opportunity to take charge, prove himself to Liz, and accomplish something. By the end, Shaun and Liz are back together while a zombified Ed lives in the shed, where Shaun visits for an occasional video game session.

One could argue Ed is already a zombie before he dies. He's a couch potato driven by his baser instincts, and he would make Shaun just like him, just as zombies make their victims zombies as well. Shaun's a bit of a zombie already too, going through the motions at work and at home without any higher purpose in mind. His morning routine when he wakes up involves shambling out like a ghoul and yawning in a way that sounds like he's moaning.

That's one touch of the film's motif: just how much like zombies modern life makes us. Office drones, bored teens on the bus, service sector employees, drunks at the bar, the homeless guy begging for change, the parallels with the living dead are astounding: blank expressions, vacant thoughts, mindless routines day-in-day out. They're already dead. Imagine how many lives could have been saved if only zombies wanted coffee instead of brains.

The movie is mostly played for laughs, having a lot of fun at the notion of how slow and stupid zombies are. Lacking weapons at one point, Shaun and Ed resort to tossing Shaun's record collection at a pair of slowly approaching ghouls. On the first day of the apocalypse, Shaun groggily goes through his routine, walking to the store to buy a drink, and he doesn't notice how different everything is; director Edgar Wright uses the same single-take, panning camera angle from an early scene to reinforce how identical Shaun's actions are and how everything around him has gone to Hell.

Surprisingly, there are occasional moments of pathos. Nighy brings it as Phillip; the strict stepfather, as he expires, he confesses to Shaun how he did his best and is sorry he couldn't be better, and Shaun realizes how much the strain of their relationship is his own fault. Later, when Barbara reveals she's been hiding a bite on her wrist, you can believe it when she says she did it so as not to worry Shaun.

Even the zombies, ostensibly the creatures of ridicule, have their moments of menace. The blood and gore are plentiful as throats get ripped out, chucks of arm are bitten off, and one characters gets the full Captain Rhodes experience (sadly, he does not yell at the zombies to choke on 'em.). Even the shots of the horde pounding on the windows of the Winchester are kind of creepy and tense. The humor is more situational than mockery. Take one fight inside the Winchester. Shaun, Ed, and Liz take on one larger zombie with pool sticks as Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" blares on the pub's juke box; they're fighting for their lives, but that is a silly song to be doing that to.

Shaun of the Dead also comes packed with an enormous amount of references, insider jokes, and little gags in the background. In the first act, Shaun is always so close to realizing something is afoot until someone interrupts his attention. A newscaster dismisses a theory of rage-infected monkeys causing the zombies as complete bollocks. And at one point, Ed tells Shaun's mother, "We're coming to get you, Barbara!"

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