For years, friends of mine have dropped their jaws in utter shock that I hadn’t seen Shaun of the Dead (2004) yet. I remedied that this past weekend, so I finally know what I’ve been missing: a confident, fast-paced mix of formulaic zombie horror and zany comedy. And yeah, it’s pretty great!
Simon Pegg plays Shaun, an unambitious electronics store clerk who’s clearly stuck in a rut. One of the habits he can’t seem to kick is his best friend Ed (Nick Frost), a freeloading slob whose presence in Shaun’s life is partly responsible for the deterioration of his relationship with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). Shaun’s personal troubles escalate just as a zombie plague breaks out in London, a phenomenon he’s too preoccupied to notice, at first. But once he realizes his life on the line, Shaun identifies what’s important to him and finally becomes proactive, formulating a plan to save his friends and family from the mindless, flesh-eating zombie mobs.
Directed by Edgar Wright — who also helmed one of my favorite films from last year, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — Shaun of the Dead is frenetic horror-comedy fun. The opening stages are cleverly crafted, a slow build of amusing tension as the cluelessly distracted Shaun fails to see the signs of the coming apocalypse. The action ramps up gradually, a well executed escalation of increasingly desperate violence and manic comic energy.
While obviously a comedic send-up of zombie movie tropes, the film works better than a lot of the zombie horror I’ve seen, by taking the time to present distinctive, real characters before running them through their survivalist paces. Pegg makes for a likeable protagonist, and there’s effectively desperate support from the rest of the cast, including Frost, Ashfield, Lucy Davis, and the always fun Bill Nighy.
It also has thematic ambition, paralleling the daily drudgery of modern western living with the mindless plodding of the zombie hordes. It delivers this message, I think, without quite nailing it. But overall, Shaun of the Dead is an assured, thoroughly engaging film with great visual energy and loads of laughs.