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Review: Shaun of the Dead

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Shaun of the Dead

A zombie import from our pasty British friends that delivers a breath of fresh air and some side-splittingly charming screams into a genre that desperately needs it.

by Gabriel Gonzalez
Shaun of the Dead

I’ve always felt that the Zombie movie was the lazy man’s monster movie.  Grab some oafish extras, dress them up in homeless chic, get them drunk, and set them loose on the set.  The rest of the filming would involve close-ups of a dapper young scientist and his adoring starlet of the moment trapped in a log cabin, staring out the window with wide eyes and wider mouths.  No need to bother with the monsters.  These zombies were no mad genius creations or Counts.  Zombies were the monsters nobody wanted to love to hate or at least lament.

Nothing has really changed in the Zombie genre the past century or so save for a convenient new hot social stigma now thrust upon these poor unsouls; the VIRUS.  When we die our bodies are immediately devalued. We don’t matter because we are no longer matter.  Thus, the next logical step would be to make the dead the punching bags for the ills of the living.  In this case, the ills would be the emergence of some particularly nasty viruses.

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And so, the zombie becomes the drooling doormat of human disease, safely detached from the living by the unfortunate condition of death.  Death is now a condition.  Pop culture has turned the hereafter into the ‘what’s happening”.  Movies make the big bucks from turning death into the “it” rite of passage performance for cute & cynical would be actors.  Even if you are the only survivor in the cast, there is always the comfort of knowing that you will be bludgeoned in the sequel.  If you die, there is an even better chance that you’ll be return as a sexy villain in the same sequel.

Enter, Shaun of the Dead.  A comedy-spoof of the zombie-virus-slacker genre(s) from Great Britain that tackles the zombie genre from a fresh new perspective; it takes the zombie and puts him in a new role.  The zombie is now the neighbor, the Indian drug store owner, the step-father, and so on, who once lived, has tragically fallen pray to the ‘deadly bite’, and is now a lost (un)soul rather than the cliché hungry mongoloid.  The zombie still enjoys brains and guts, but we find, especially through the eyes of Shaun, that this is yet another misunderstood segment of society (such as slacker Shaun himself happens to be).

As a thirty-something slacker, Shaun, still lives with two college buddies-one of whom is a fat, filthy, and, frustrating as all hell, Jack Black type-and works as a salesman at an appliance store.  One fine day, Shaun is dumped by his girlfriend and her friends (that proper British couple that seems to pop up in every British comedy of late???) for being a slacker who would rather hang out at the local dive pub than take her to nice places.  Also, Shaun’s cold as a cadaver stepfather stops by to remind him for the millionth time that he must visit his mum and bring flowers.  Shaun is a neglectful son having a shite day.  The day turns downright catastrophic when Shaun loafs about with his obnoxious roommate and forgets about his dinner reservations and final chance to take his girlfriend to a nice place.  He, of course, also doesn’t get around to delivering flower to his mum.  And all the while, his fat, filthy, and frustrating roommate, having been the main culprit for his dismal day, continues to ruin everything.

The best of the film truly gets going when Shaun and his fat flat mate, Ed, discover their first zombie in their backyard and hilariously taunt her, assuming she is drunk out of her mind.  They soon discover she has no mind, or soul, or life and set off into sloppy-slacker scared-shitless hero mode.  Simon Pegg, as Shaun, mugs himself into awkward misstep after misstep and falls, pitch-perfectly, into the dazzling sketch comedy style that made him so hilariously memorable on the British sitcom circuit (most notably the recent Spaced).  As the zombies begin to populate the streets of England in increasing numbers (like ravers at the Redding Festival), Shaun and Ed devise a plan to rescue the ex-girlfriend, and Shaun’s mum, and flee to the sure-to-be-safe dive pub.  Unfortunately, this under achieving, and delusional, duo make a hysterical mess of things in a sequence of events that places co-writer and director Edgar Wright in his finest element, having perfected his skill for brilliant sketch comedy with the seminal Brit tele-series French & Saunders. 

While I could have done without all the Guy Ritchie rapid jump-cut editing gimmickry and with most of the Jack Black-lite, in bad taste, urban-Americana one-liners from Ed, the actors managed to maintain their scared shite-less sincerity and the film its rapid-fire British sketch comedy sensibility.  I would have loved a bit more self-control in all the (unsubtle) set-ups and forebodings.  I really didn’t need to see Shaun move past the Coca Cola and onto the more mature Diet Coke to know he was a changed man.  I definitely didn’t need mum looking at her arm every other frame to know someone was about to go Zombie on their assess.  It also dawned on me that a bit more attention, and perhaps dollars/pounds from the budget, applied to the goriest scenes would have come along way on the fright scale.  After all, the saying does suggest, No Guts No Glory.

All in all, Shaun of the Dead was the memorable little spoof that could.  A little gem of a Zombie genre film that had a lot of fun taking itself seriously in all the right places.  Simon Pegg might have seemed like just another cool young actor sharpening his star potential had it not been for the touching scenes of tragic loss which he so potently delivered.  His gave a star-making perfaromance that would have merely been a make it and move on role for a lesser comic.  Not to be outdone, however, the zombies also had a hand (and many other severed limbs) in turning this British import into one giant step forward for the zombie rights movement.  After all, Ed seems to have found himself a more fitting, and funny, role as a drooling and subdued zombie in an England that exploits the remaining and enslaved zombies much the same way that Hollywood now exploits poor people from rural America. 

I wonder if the inevitable Shaun of the Dead 2 could dig further into unearthing more fully developed zombie characters living their (un)lives in modern day London.  Would this not be a bold step forward for a genre once deemed dead.   Would this not be a new beginning for our least respected boogie-men?