The zombie troof
“I don’t think I’ve got it in me to shoot my mum, my flat mate and my girlfriend all in the same day,” says weary North London pub dweller Shaun after a strenuous 24 hours of running from and battling flesh-eating zombies. Fortunately, he does not need to. Well, at least not all of them. So it goes in Shaun of the Dead, a clever, drop-dead hilarious spoof of George A. Romero’s daunting, disgusting and droll Dawn of the Dead.
Shaun of the Dead is as funny as Dawn of the Dead is gory. This is not faint praise. Dawn is a literal smorgasbord of disembowelment and dismemberment. And Shaun both butchers and reconstructs Romero’s rabid creep show with wildly comic energy and efficiency.
There is nothing inherently funny about a closed body bag wriggling on a stretcher near an abandoned ambulance, or a pub dart getting imbedded in the skull of Shaun while he and his cohorts pummel zombies with pool cues, in synchronized beats, to a song by Queen. But director Edgar Wright, with help from star and co-writer Simon Pegg, put such an outrageous, deadpan and properly British spin on the horror genre that it left me laughing out loud at times, even while cringing.
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is, at the age of 29, the oldest “sales adviser” at Foree Electronics (for trivia fans, Ken Foree is one of the stars of Dawn of the Dead). He lives with two roommates in a messy flat and has made the Winchester, a neighborhood blue-collar pub, his home away from home. His loutish roomie Ed (Nick Frost) is always at his side. They are social zombies of sorts (with Shaun even walking like one of the undead when he awakens each morning) who are quite content with a daily stream of cold pints and TV video games.
Shaun’s sweetheart, Liz, has tired of the daily rut that has devoured their romance, and Ed’s constant, sloth-like presence. She wants “to live a little,” while Shaun has broken numerous promises to upgrade their relationship, and his commitment is slippery at best. She breaks up with Shaun when he bungles their anniversary plans. On the same day, the local populace gradually is being attacked by and turned into zombies. By the time the self-involved Shaun and Ed realize what is happening, it may be too late for them to gather up loved ones and find sanctuary at the Winchester.
Shaun of the Dead uses the pub the same way Dawn used the shopping mall as fertile ground for social commentary. Instead of two groups of survivors fighting each other in Dawn, Shaun has two groups of survivors running into each other, exchanging mundane pleasantries and continuing their individual flights for safety. And Shaun references not only Romero’s gruesome series, but also Star Wars, the see-through-body bullet holes in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead and Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and the 1999 British TV series Spaced (on which Pegg, Frost and Wright first teamed). It also shadows a Dawn of the Dead survivor’s quote that “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth,” with a quote attributed to Bertram Russell: “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”
The acting is perfectly shaped for the film. Pegg’s Shaun is a character with an embraceable arc that builds from slacker to reluctant hero. Frost, as Ed, avoids caricature as the slob sidekick who does a good job of imitating Clyde the orangutan from Every Which Way But Loose to cheer up his buddy. The two are told on a TV news bulletin that the only way to stop zombies is to sever their heads or injure their brains, and the encounter in their backyard, in which they first mistake one female eater of flesh to be drunk, is classic.
The profanity-laced language embraced by pub crawlers may put off some viewers. The violence goes way over the top near the end, with stringing innards yanked from a screaming victim, and the film takes a darkly dramatic turn that feels out of place in this rowdy mess. But when the bloodletting subsides, Shaun of the Dead survives as the most entertaining horror movie set in the British Isles since An American Werewolf in London.
So, how can a movie with so many zombies and corpses still be so enjoyable? I think Roger Ebert nailed it perfectly: “They aren’t being killed after all: They’re already dead.”