Jokes. Shaun of the Dead has them and it serves them up with regularity as it marauds through the type of zombie apocalypse we’ve become quite accustomed to seeing through the works of Mr. George A. Romero. Brains. It also has those, and we’re not just talking about the one true way to kill a z-word here, either. Shaun of the Dead is a smart movie that showcases the uniqueness and talents of both Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg in an otherwise oversaturated genre space. Keep reading to see how just how well it all sticks together but remember that there are spoilers ahead... So if you haven’t seen this modern classic yet then do us a favor and share this post on your way to the couch to remedy that situation. K thanks.
Reviewed by: Jake
At its core, the plot of Shaun of the Dead is pretty straightforward. There’s a zombie apocalypse and some characters try to survive the hordes (and each other) whilst having their ranks slowly thinned. To hit the main points so we can get on with the review, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a burnout appliance salesman living in a London flat with his buddy, Ed (Nick Frost). He gets dumped by his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield) because of said burnout-dom and because his idea of a good time is going for a pint and some pig snacks at his favorite pub, The Winchester. Every. Single. Day…
He tries to take action when the outbreak begins by collecting his mom and Liz from their respective residences so they can all go to the Winchester and wait for the apocalypse to blow over. The only problem is that his plan is fucking terrible in almost every conceivable way and it lands everyone in hot water (aka zombie death) as a result. Alas, he and Liz are the only ones remaining and they are saved by the military at the last possible second. They live happily ever after in a society that uses the remaining zombies for manual labor and game shows.
What the Movie Does Right
As I mentioned in the plot synopsis, this movie follows the tried-and-true formula that was established in Romero’s gargantuan 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, and riffed on in subsequent Romero films as well as in countless others over the years. Where Shaun of the Dead starts to carve a unique path for itself is through Shaun, who seems stuck in between his youth and the responsibilities of adulthood. The strain is accentuated by his supporting cast of Ed and Liz. The dynamic between these three characters serves as the primary vehicle for all the strife in the film to unfold, as Shaun seems like a guy having one arm tugged by each influence in his life. Right now you’re probably thinking this still sounds pretty standard, but that’s where the brilliance of playing the whole thing as a comedy comes into play. Director/co-writer Edgar Wright developed such an intricate screenplay that each stage of the standard zombie devolution into madness and death is played with equal parts accuracy to the genre and comedic subversion of what it typically has to offer. Take the following scene for example:
This works because it’s believable that these particular characters would treat their first encounter with a zombie this way. It’s a classic zombie reveal that is neatly wrapped in a joke. To further illustrate how expertly constructed the movie’s screenplay is, let’s also examine the following scene:
Ed’s plan for the next day is easy to overlook as the ramblings of a man who is hammered off his tits, but it’s just one example of about a million that exist in this film of incredibly intricate writing. Each step of his recommendation is both honest smashed babble and also the foreshadowing of events that take place over the rest of the film. We could continue with examples like this for paragraphs but I’m lazy so we’ll finish it off with this one:
Everything about this is amazing.
The last thing I’ll mention here is that I love the way the movie balances humor and horror. Don’t get me wrong, it’s funny throughout, but at the shift into the third act there is a noticeable change in tone where the movie goes from a comedy with a horror backdrop to a horror movie with a comedic tone. This works extremely well to deliver more punch as the stakes are ratcheted up and it does not feel jarring in the least.
What the Movie Does Wrong
Not a whole hell of a lot. In fact, most of the problems I have with this film would probably be easily overlooked in most others. The issue is that any slight misstep, however small, is exacerbated because of the overwhelming number of things the movie does right. To continue the theme of using scenes from the film as proof, let’s go with the following:
This is the perfect scene to illustrate what the movie does wrong because it begins so well. When that jukebox comes on, every single word of dialogue is a callback to the scene from earlier when Shaun and Ed get hammered after Shaun is dumped by Liz. It’s funny. But then it goes a little too far. Don’t get me wrong, watching the gang whack a zombie with pool sticks to the beat of “Don’t Stop me Now” is hilarious and a great example of implementing music into a film (which Wright has only gotten better at doing over the years, by the way), but for a movie with such an intelligence everywhere else, you’d think they’d at least be hitting the zombie on the head and trying to destroy the brain.
The only other real nit I have to pick with Shaun of the Dead is that some of the foley art on display here is surprisingly bad. I get that this is a comedy and that adding small touches to make things seem off kilter is pretty common, but as we discussed on the podcast, there are some instances where it’s overdone to the point of breaking immersion.
Story: 8 - This is a fairly basic zombie story but with a pretty delightful comedic twist that brings plenty of freshness to a genre that is completely overplayed. It’s also worth mentioning for the umpteenth time here that the screenplay for this is just about perfect.
World-Building / Immersion: 9 - The only thing keeping me from giving this category a perfect 10 is that there are a few minor hiccups here and there in an otherwise expertly constructed world. The only real problem is that comedy inherently requires some level of detachment from the events taking place in order to recognize the humor.
Scare-Factor: 3 - There is some gore here, particularly in the third act. However, this is more of a comedy-horror than a horror-comedy, nahmean?
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 7 - The effects are very well done in this movie. The gore looks good, there are fairly good sets and props, the cuts used are brilliant, and the soundtrack is amazing. Some minor things stack up to detract from the score a bit, such as the aforementioned foley art oddities, along with some odd discrepancies in things like the zombie eye effects. There are also several scenes where the choreographing leaves something to be desired.
Overall: 8 - Shaun of the Dead is a modern classic and should not be missed.