Directed by: Edgar Wright
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield
Edgar Wright’s feature directorial debut, Shaun of the Dead, has become more of a symbol for where the horror genre was headed in 2004 than it is an enjoyable standalone zombie flick over 15 years later. That’s not to say the movie isn’t entertaining, but having become overshadowed by several zombie comedies since, including Zombieland, One Cut of the Dead, Little Monsters, or even Life After Beth (just to name a few), Shaun of the Dead almost feels derivative amongst the bunch, despite being the one that set the trend into motion.
The horror film had a huge impact on the genre and serves as a strong progenitor for every “zombedy” that followed in its footsteps. While it wasn’t the first movie to notice the uncanny humor intrinsically tied to the undead, it was certainly the first to invest this much attention to the comedy aspect on a performance level.
‘80s and ‘90s predecessors, such as The Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Comet, Night of the Creeps, and Dead Alive, definitely imbued a level of irony amidst the chaos, but the modern tendencies to halt the tone for the sake of an actual joke delivered by an actual comedian simply weren’t present back then.
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a 29-year-old assistant manager at a small electronics store who’s relationship with his girlfriend of three years, Liz (Kate Ashfield), is seriously on the rocks. Our protagonist still lives with his childhood best friend Ed (Nick Frost), a glorified slacker who spends his days playing video games, and Liz is afraid that he’s bogging down Shaun’s own ability to grow up and negatively influencing him. She’s not wrong. Ed is almost always insufferable, opting for fart jokes amidst seriously troubling situations. He’s our secondary protagonist, yet the audience becomes just as fed up as the characters within the film.
Liz finally breaks up with Shaun on the day that nearly everybody in the world starts turning into zombies, including his stepfather and his other roommate (not Ed). As Shaun’s world is falling apart, the world around him literally is. He and Ed have the bright idea to barricade themselves inside The Winchester, a pub they frequent every day. He rescues Liz,her two roommates, David and Dianne, and his mother, who all begrudgingly follow him to the pub despite their best judgement.
Wright, who also pens the script with Pegg, draws commentary on a person’s will to survive even when their life which they are arguably unhappy with already has recently been put in shambles. However, this characterization only really applies to Shaun, as the others still seem more apathetic about whether they live or die. While this theme doesn’t really feel justified or fully formulated, it does relate tangentially and inadvertently to Shaun’s relationship with his stepfather, which provides us with the only authentic moment of depth in the film.
Unfortunately, Shaun of the Dead is almost too farcical that it detracts from the emotional resonance of its more dramatic scenes and there are a few. This might be a selling point for some viewers, but the verisimilitude of the film suffers as a result of the wonky tone. It constantly presses its luck with the bounds of realism, even amidst this ridiculous premise. There are moments so preposterous that we truly believe that what we’re watching is a dream in the mind of Shaun, such as a character stupidly running into a crowd of zombies in order to “save” her boyfriend who’s already been ripped to pieces and decapitated. Or our main characters venturing into an underground cellar AFTER the zombies have already penetrated the walls of their fortress, thus able to see them going down there to hide. There are never any logical thought processes by the characters; no strategy—which would be perfectly fine if the director didn’t request that we invest ourselves emotionally in these characters and view Shaun as an Ash Williams type hero.
Wright and Pegg fall in love with this “rom-com with zombies” premise, yet the two elements never seem to play symbiotically. Rather, one is almost always put on hold for the other to unfold. When the gang is debating whether or not to kill a character who’s been bitten, the zombies that were previously trying to furiously come in through an open window seem to stop existing for a brief moment, instead of adding to the tension at hand, and the conversation between the human characters is apparently taking place in a vacuum.
Despite all of his attempts to have his technical skills merely serve as garnish to the comedy, Wright’s use of stylized cinematography from David M. Dunlap and kinetic editing from Chris Dickens undoubtedly overshadow the other plot-related elements. While the storyboarding and overall vibe have since become bested by more recent horror comedies, the camerawork and composition he puts on display (which are quite often mimicked as well) have not. The director utilizes unique wipe transitions, interesting one shots, perfectly timed cuts, clever framing, all to make it so the audience can’t afford to look away or else they’ll feel like they’re missing out on all the fun.
Unfortunately, Shaun of the Dead is almost too farcical that it detracts from the emotional resonance of its more dramatic scenes and there are a few.
And there is a lot of fun to be had. As a director, Wright does everything perfectly. Although, as a writer, he and Pegg have a lot of work to do despite a handful of chortle-worthy gags. The characters and story aren’t realized enough for us to be on board with the emotions trying to be evoked. This is a case study that brilliant direction doesn’t necessarily equate to an amazing film, although it can help with inventiveness, of which Shaun of the Dead definitely has a lot. You can make a sound argument that it changed the horror-comedy subgenre by single-handedly giving birth to a wholly unique genre altogether. However, while the movie does seem to acknowledge that it’s doing something different enough to alter the cinematic landscape, the story it boasts suffers the same fate as those of many other influential films throughout history in that it doesn’t realize the actual impact it’s going to have in the future, and therefore never quite takes the necessary time to develop into something truly magnificent.