‘Shaun of the Dead (2004)’- Throwback Review: The Perfect Zombie Comedy

What’s the Story: Shaun (Simon Pegg) can somewhat be described as a loser in his own right. Besides having a tedious, deadened job as a salesman, he recently got dumped by his girlfriend of three years, Liz (Kate Ashfield), when all he does is hang out with his man-child friend Ed (Nick Frost) at the Winchester, signifying he must grow up. But that depreciation of change is halted as a zombie apocalypse overruns the town through the streets of London. So now, it’s up to Shawn to be the leader in protecting his friends and family while fighting their way to find refuge at their local pub.

Not many British movies get that much attention in the U.S. when it’s usually paid more attention to those who watch everything from different countries. Since I was only eight years old when Shaun of the Dead came out, my little mind thought it looked foolish in the wrong way. Maybe it was because this came out the same year as the remake of Dawn of the Dead, or something about the trailers sounded good. I think the first time I watched it was probably on Comedy Central one night, and while I didn’t get everything it was shelling out, it surprised me. Then, I checked it out from the library about a decade ago, and it was that second viewing that made me appreciate this film where it became an all-time favorite of mine ever since.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) - IMDb

The fear I must’ve had was thinking this would be a painfully dull horror-comedy that relies on the famous moments from better zombie movies we’ve gotten over the years before it became overexposed. However, nothing about Shaun of the Dead screamed out spoof when all this was meant to be is a classic send-off of what legend George A. Romero made his career out of, but in the most clever and silly way imaginable without going complete parody of itself.

Edgar Wright directed and co-wrote his first studio film here, and what a way to show the rest of the world what he can deliver behind the camera. Though he started with his debut, A Fistful of Fingers, even I keep forgetting this wasn’t his first film. This came into reality when the idea was inspired by an an episode of the Spaced series where it revolved around Pegg’s character in the sitcom hallucinated fighting zombies. Thus, the two of them wrote this script now as the fun was about to begin. Watching this again made it feel like you’re experiencing a home movie done by an aspiring filmmaker but with a modest budget.

Basically, Wright shows an unconventional time watching an unlikely hero try his hardest to survive this harsh day with a hint of charm thrown in. Because I’m very familiar with his style now, those who watched this for the first time will be taken by the fast-paced nature of its slick-editing choices and a few nods that’ll likely come back when it was mentioned briefly somewhat around the first act. A classic example that remains one of my favorite one-shot takes is the morning of a hangover where Shaun takes his quick walk to the corner store to grab a Diet Coke and a Cornetto. The first time seems pretty standard; the following day is too quiet while going through his routine, and it’s hilarious knowing Shaun is oblivious to his surroundings.

Even when it doesn’t hit you over the head knowing you’re in for a zombie movie, the first act drops hints that aren’t hard to miss if you pay attention to what people are saying on television or while doing boring things throughout your days. Shaun of the Dead is the first instance of noticing how well the screenwriting from the combined minds of Wright and Pegg as it’s a zombie film at its core, but still carries through its moments of laughter and smart attitude towards it.

The entire cast works well together, and that’s mainly because of Simon Pegg’s performance as Shaun, one of his most iconic roles. Portraying as the unlikely hero, Pegg does a great job at showing that sudden potential he has to prove everyone in the dire of scary situations. But the best part is the chemistry between him and his buddy Nick Frost as Ed since it’s easy to see why these two are friends in real life. Of course, they’re the kind of slackers you love to see around an invasion, but I couldn’t get enough of Frost. The rest of the supporting cast consisted of Kate Ashfield as Shaun’s ex Liz, Lucy Davies and Dylan Moran as Liz’s flatmates Dianne and David, and Penelope Wilton as Shaun’s sweet mother, Barbara.

The best part about a horror comedy like this is that it works both ways. It’s not that I wouldn’t understand the British humor, but it’s not a difficult film to laugh at throughout that holds up nicely since it came out. More than likely, so many details in the jokes you won’t be able to pick up until you watch it again, and the amount of silliness I come to expect. But was it necessarily scary? Not really, but I did sense confidence in what they were trying to pull off here, even when we’re not dealing with fast-running zombies. However, it won’t be for those who aren’t fans of blood and gore. The best scene in the entire film that made that point clear is the trio of Shaun, Ed, and Liz had to fight off the pub owner John, who’s a zombie set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” on the jukebox, and this is an early stage of how Wright ideally times music and action to significant effect. And it’s probably the best usage of a Queen song in a film ever.

The intention in making Shaun of the Dead probably knew if zombies ever took over the world, this is an expected reaction for those who don’t hold these skills carefully. While it’s the strangest way of having this main character be brave enough to go out and protect those you care for, it shows you can be capable of finding your weaknesses and making decisions that are helpful enough to become a better person—growing to become much more than being an actual living zombie who can’t control his actions. It’s the weirdest film about a man needing to change his life, but I bought it. Even with the comedic moments, this wasn’t afraid of having a few profound moments that didn’t step over the line and were needed.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) - IMDb

But does this deserve to be popular in the years this has been out? To quote Ed, “Yeah, boyyyeee!” I’ve always found Shaun of the Dead to be a comedy everybody with a good sense of humor has to enjoy. Maybe the only nitpick suggesting the ending was a bit anticlimactic, but all I saw was a satisfying film that serves as a fun time. And when Romero himself was impressed with this, how could you not find this creative. For my money, nothing will ever beat anything from the subgenre; maybe another favorite, Zombieland, in a close second. But this was the perfect start for what would become the first installment in the “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy.   

Final Thoughts: Shaun of the Dead subverts the usual zombie feast with Edgar Wright’s signature style of bringing clever comedy and wit into the mix, delivering one of the funniest films of the 2000s and of all time. This one is a required watch if you want to introduce anyone to his incredible filmography.

Grade: A

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