Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Shaun of the Dead

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SHAUN OF THE DEAD

6+/10

UK (UK/US) 2004 : Edgar WRIGHT : 97 mins

Shaun of the DeadEngagingly – and accurately – billing itself as “a romantic comedy… with zombies” UK-American co-production Shaun of the Dead is a cut above most British romantic comedies (especially those in the insipid Love Actually vein) and it’s also much more satisfying than this year’s clueless Dawn of the Dead remake. Ranged alongside previous British zombie movies, however, it’s the worst of the lot – but that isn’t saying very much, as there have really only been two previous examples of the sub-genre: Hammer Studios’ surprisingly political Plague of the Zombies (1965) and the surprisingly gory Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1973).

Then again, neither of these is very ‘British’ – the atmosphere of Plague (which features a truly phenomenal performance from Jacqueline Pearce) is emphatically Cornish, while Living Dead was shot in and around Derbyshire’s Peak District by a mostly Spanish cast and crew. Incidentally, Danny Boyle’s overpraised 28 Days Later was widely described as a zombie film but, as Boyle himself never tired of pointing out, technically speaking there weren’t any zombies involved at all.

In between 1965 and 1973, of course, the modern zombie movie as we know it was born in Pittsburgh via George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). There’s speculation that Romero may have been influenced by Hammer’s zombie classic and, if so, Shaun of the Dead represents a neat closing of the circle. A mostly effective – if somewhat uneven – spoof of Romero-style zombie epics, Wright’s film scores by relocating the action to a humdrum London suburb and rooting the mayhem in an well-observed stratum of modern-day lower-middle-class British society.

As the opening scenes make clear, modern life has so desensitised urban Britons that many of them are pretty much zombified already – Manchester Morgue made the exact same point in the exact same way (shots of vacant-looking folk at a bus-stop) more than three decades ago. One of the overworked, emotionally stunted cogs in the post-industrial machine is Shaun (Simon Pegg) a balding, innocuous 29-year-old shop-manager in the throes of being dumped by his long-suffering girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). So wrapped up in his own neuroses and problems is he than Shaun initially fails to notice anything amiss when an unexplained catastrophe turns most of his neighbours into psychopathic zombies. Shaun, Liz and their friends instinctively flee to their favourite watering-hole – a pub called The Winchester – only to find themselves cornered by the flesh-eating undead hordes…

Dylan MoranThe team behind Shaun – including director/co-writer Wright and star/co-writer Pegg – cut their teeth on the postmodern British TV comedy Spaced, and at times their film does have the feel of a one-joke, over-extended sitcom episode. Once Shaun and company make it to the Winchester around an hour in, the movie pretty much treads water until lurching to a halt with an abrupt and woefully unconvincing deus-ex-machina finale. The lack of proper structure means that Shaun of the Dead is really only ever as funny as its most recent gag: unfortunately the last gag of all is one of the weakest, perhaps explaining why the film may leave many viewers with a vaguely dissatisfied feeling as they walk out of the cinema.

That said, the film has gone down extremely well with many critics and audiences, especially in advance US screenings: there’s certainly no shortage of decent jokes spread across its relatively nimble 97-minute running-time (including a Verhoevenish use of TV footage, both real and fictional) as well as some surprisingly touching moments as Shaun’s loved ones succumb to the zombie ‘infection’. And how could anyone resist a film which manages to drop in a reference to Bertrand Russell (without sounding at all pretentious) and also feature the on-screen disembowelment of Dylan Moran?

13th April, 2004
(seen 10th April : UGC, Boldon : public show)

by Neil Young