Director: Edgar Wright
Screenplay: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg
IMDb rank: #232
IMDb user quote: “When my brother decided we were going to watch Shaun of the Dead, my initial reaction was ‘Oh God, this should be a load of rubbish.’ Well, how very wrong I was [. . .] I found that I was laughing, crying and cowering in fear all at the same time.” – mouse712, from United Kingdom, 10/10 review
Wipe’s take: I seem to recall that back in 2004, months before it was released theatrically in North America, Shaun of the Dead was being christened online as a slice of geek heaven by the infamous Harry Knowles and his staff of critics at aintitcool.com—a.k.a. fanboy central. It’s not difficult to see why Shaun clicked with the Ain’t it Cool crowd (whose readers I suspect frequent IMDb user boards as well), since the movie comes equipped with various geek-culture bona fides. For one, it’s written and directed by, and stars members of the cast and crew of British Channel 4 cult series Spaced (which up until recently I had confused with the BBC sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf—I was way off, but never mind). For another, the movie pays homage to the cult classic zombie films of director George A. Romero, meaning that, in addition to its punning title, Shaun offers plenty enough in-jokes for Romero aficionados—and IMDb posters—to play spot-the-reference (e.g., Shaun works at Foree Electric, a hat-tip to actor Ken Foree of Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead ). But most significantly of all, the film rewards genre familiarity—it’s such a rollicking good time because it plays so cleverly with zombie movie tropes, etc.—and thus is tailor-made for movie-nerd consumption.
Is it possible to be neither an internet fanboy (excuse the gendered term) nor a zombie-movie nut and still enjoy Shaun of the Dead? Sure, but I somehow doubt one could love the film (not to mention place it in a top 250) without identifying as one or both of these two species of viewer. I found the movie appealing enough in the early going, particularly for the charmingly offhand way it introduces the zombie apocalypse: bummed-out sales clerk Shaun (Simon Pegg) goes out one morning to grab a Coke at the corner deli and fails to register the fact that the groggy folks around him are the walking undead. Also amusing is a subsequent scene where Shaun and his slovenly roommate Ed (Nick Frost) discover that the “drunk girl” shambling around their backyard is not what she seems to be. It’s a near-constant parade of witty little visual jokes such as these that makes Shaun initially so easy to like. Also to its credit, the movie doesn’t oversell its jokes with flashy technical flourishes, à la Pegg, Wright and co.’s subsequent genre send-up Hot Fuzz (2007), a film I found so stylistically abrasive and annoying (however intentional this might have been) that I had to switch it off after about an hour’s time.
I can’t say that Shaun of the Dead did much more than amuse me, however. Its attempts at pathos, particularly in certain late scenes between Shaun and his mum (Nicola Cunningham), never catch the right tone, despite Pegg’s ability to produce anguished tears on cue. I think this failure can be attributed to the film’s generally cheery nature: there’s something approaching delight in the way the film frames the predicament of Shaun and the others, and the more the movie winks at genre conventions (especially in the jokey manner in which the film’s zombies are dispatched, and later all-but domesticated), the further one has to strain to invest any real emotion in the material. As funny as the movie sometimes is, one misses the underlying moral and political seriousness of Romero’s zombie pictures–not to mention the social/familial/sexual currents that stir the Haitian voodoo classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943)–which help to remind you why zombies are such a resonant film subject in the first place. Romero’s zombie apocalypse enacted a radical confrontation with human values; if Shaun of the Dead has anything to say about values and relationships it doesn’t amount to much more than a lesson one might glean from a sitcom. All the emotional, social, and moral implications of the characters’ trauma vanish blissfully and tidily in the film’s silly denouement. Cue laugh-track, and fade out.
Does the movie merit top-250 status? No, but as far as zombie comedies go, it’s better than last year’s Zombieland.