Before there was The Walking Dead (2010-present), or even a Zombieland (2009), there was Shaun of the Dead (2004). It premiered in an era when zombie films and television shows still took the notion of reanimated corpses seriously. I cannot think of any other examples before 2004 with a light-hearted take on the sub-genre. Given the success of Shaun of the Dead, one can make the argument that it launched a whole new interest in zombies that, nearly twenty years on (scary thought), has yet to wane. A little cursory research uncovered a blog going by “Den of Geek” that ranks the top eleven (I do not know how they arrived at that number) zombie comedies. If you take a moment to look at the article, you will notice that there is nothing before 2004, the year our film premiered. A lot of credit is owed to Edgar Wright, in partnership with Simon Pegg, for coming up with the idea. When you discover a way to take a theoretical life-or-death situation and have fun with it, it opens the door for more casual fans that would rather avoid productions designed to scare the wits out of people. Hence, if you are reading Edgar Wright (which would be amazing), thank you.
Shaun of the Dead begins with a close-up of our title character, Shaun (Simon Pegg) sitting late one night in his local pub, the Winchester. It seems that this is a habitual setting for him, which is pointed out by his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). She is across the table from him talking about how she wants more out of life and their relationship than being in the pub every evening. She would also like for them to go out alone, without the constant presence of Shaun’s best friend and roommate Ed (Nick Frost). Then again, Liz’s flatmates also seem to be a fixture at the watering hole with them. Sensing a threat to their relationship, Shaun promises to make some changes. The importance of doing so is driven home by Shaun’s other roommate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), a more successful adult who despises Ed. On the way out the door to work, Shaun is distracted by an argument between Ed and Pete, and misses a phone call from Liz reminding Shaun to make a dinner reservation for the two of them that night. At work, what he is reminded of is his need to visit his mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), the message being delivered by his cold stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy). With this in mind, Shaun buys flowers for her on the way home from work, but is beginning to have his attention diverted by several strange occurrences around town. As a result, when he enters the house, he remembers that he had forgotten to make the promised reservation. When he gets a call from an expectant girlfriend wondering about the plans for the evening, she angrily hangs up when she finds an unprepared boyfriend. In desperation, Shaun immediately travels to her flat, flowers in hand, hoping the blooms will smooth over the tensions. This backfires when she notices that they are address to his mother, and promptly announces they are through. Where else does Shaun go to take refuge from his sorrows? The Winchester, of course, and he is joined by Ed, who reminds him that it not the end of the world. Hopefully that will speak to at least a small portion of the comedy in this gem. When they awake from their drunken stupor at home, they are oblivious to the fact there is a zombie apocalypse underway. Shaun walks his all too familiar path to the nearby shop for refreshments, and returns without noticing the shambling corpses all around. The television is beginning to offer some clues, but Ed takes the slackly standing woman in the back garden as a drunk. It is not until they push her over and she falls on a spike running through her torso, only to get back up again seemingly unphased, that the enormity of the situation becomes apparent to them. After dealing with her and two other zombies, Shaun decides to pick up his mother and Liz, and, you guessed it, go to the Winchester, this last with the thought that they could bolt the heavy doors and weather the disaster in alcoholic comfort. Oh, the best laid plans, and all that. . . . They make it to Barbara, but then have to take Philip, who had been bitten by a zombie. They are also able to get to Liz, but her flatmates David (Dylan Moran) and Dianne (Lucy Davis) insist on tagging along. Because David secretly likes Liz, he complains the entire time. Unsurprisingly, the Winchester does not prove to be the impenetrable fortress Shaun believed it to be. The situation is exacerbated (if you know this movie, you should be laughing hysterically right now) by their inept entrance into the establishment, which attracts every zombie in the area. Their party is soon whittled down to just Liz and Shaun, with Ed helping them into the Winchester’s basement despite being bit several times. They are about to give up when Ed notices a way out of the basement. Ed volunteers to stay behind, while Liz and Shaun emerge onto the street, only to be greeted by the British Army mowing down zombies with lines of automatic weapons. Six months later, and Liz and Shaun are now living together at Shaun’s house and everything seems to have returned to normal, though with zombies being integrated into society in a variety of funny ways. We close with Shaun and a zombie Ed playing video games together.
There is nothing like being put in the most extraordinary of circumstances, like a zombie apocalypse as seen in Shaun of the Dead, to bring the best out of a person. Okay, maybe “best” is debatable. After all, Shaun’s grand plan does involve barricading himself in a pub, and leads to five people dying and/or becoming zombies. There is an interesting moment when the enormity of all this hits Shaun while they believe they are trapped in the Winchester’s basement. He cries out in anguish that he is useless, and Liz tries to tell him that he should not feel so responsible. He tried and that is what counts. There is a lot of truth in Liz’s words of encouragement. God knows that we are not perfect. He only wants from us an earnest effort. One can say that there are ulterior motives to Shaun choosing the Winchester as a refuge during the troubles. At the same time, he is trying to do his best to please everyone. I know from experience that this is not always the best plan of action in most situations. When you try to please so many, you end up not being pleased with yourself. That seems to be where Shaun is landing, emotionally speaking, in the climactic moment. Still, there is a grace in attempting to serve others. Shaun does it in a Christian way, which is underscored when they first get to the pub and they have trouble entering. He leads the horde of zombies away so that the others can enter unencumbered. Seeking the betterment of others is a path to sainthood. It may be played for laughs, but this is consistent with Shaun behavior.
There are a number of laugh out loud (do not catch me using acronyms) moments in Shaun of the Dead. A movie review can only do the barest of justice to a film with so much comedic value. On top of being funny, it is cleverly shot as only Edgar Wright can do, and it has a great message. Recently, I discussed The World’s End (2013) as being my third favorite movie. I stand by that, despite the genius that is Shaun of the Dead. It is not far behind the others. As you can probably guess, it gets my full recommendation. There are some bits of crude humor and language, but nothing over the top.