Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Director Report Card: Edgar Wright (2004)

2. Shaun of the Dead

“Shaun of the Dead” is a film that seemingly came out of nowhere. Over here in the states, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost weren’t names that meant much. When the film was released, it immediately garnered a following. Fans loved its quick-witted humor, lovable cast, and fast but focused pacing. A decade after the fact, it’s impressive to realize how much of an influence “Shaun of the Dead” had. Aside from really launching the careers of many involved, it contributed to the ever-rising popularity of the zombie movie while launching something like a genre of its own: The zom-rom-com. Even more impressive, the film is just as funny and fresh now as it was when first released.

Shaun is something of a non-starter. He still lives with his college roommates, the slacker Ed and the more professional Pete. He has a go-nowhere job in an electronics store. He spends most of his nights at the local pub, the Winchester. His girlfriend, Liz, is beginning to grow restless. She doesn’t see the relationship going much anywhere either. The personal sturm-und-drang of Shaun’s life is interrupted by the sudden outbreak of a zombie virus. The living dead tear through the city, forcing Shaun to get his shit together if he wants to survive.

“Shaun of the Dead” immediately won over hardcore horror fans by peppering references to the genre’s history throughout its run time. The place Shaun works at is called “Foree’s,” which also employs someone named Ash. There’s a restaurant named “Fulci’s.” The movie verbally quotes “Night of the Living Dead,” “Evil Dead,” and “Reservoir Dogs” while visually quoting “Day of the Dead” and “An American Werewolf in London.” The movie even takes a brief pot-shot at “28 Days Later,” the film responsible for revitalizing interest in zombies. Yet Wright’s pop culture callbacks are never in service of themselves. They populate the film’s universe, adding layers and personality. People with interest, ideas, and hobbies live in this world.

Aside from helping re-popularize zombie movies, “Shaun of the Dead” also came out around the same time as another significant film movement. The next year, “The 40 Year Old Virgin” was released, beginning a wave of films about arrested man-children, struggling to discover a late maturity. “Shaun of the Dead” fits into this mold as well. Shaun is a slacker, still acting like a college student despite nearly being thirty. His job isn’t worth much, his goals are unclear, his friends are childish, and he can’t hold a plan together. The zombie apocalypse gives him a chance to realize his potential. However, Wright approaches the material from a different perspective. Shaun’s immaturity helps save the day a few times. His ideas occasionally work and his relationships are shown to be meaningful. Holding onto that immaturity, a bit of it anyway, isn’t shown to be a bad thing.

“Shaun of the Dead” is also a fantastic buddy movie. Shaun and Ed share a deep bond. They’re as much like brothers as they are best friends. Ed is slovenly, no doubt. He’s introduced swearing, loudly hunched over a Pachinko machine. He’s usually seen drinking beer or smoking pot. He’s generally dismissive of other people and doesn’t hesitate to tell them. He’s not above fart jokes or stealing a car in the name of a good time. His shenanigans get the group in trouble a few times. Whipping out a cell phone while surrounded by zombies, or turning on said Pachinko machine while trying to avoid attention, are bad ideas. Yet Shaun and Ed depend on each other. When Shaun is down in the dumps, Ed can immediately cheer him up. After a night in the bar, they spill into the streets, singing songs and goofing around. The friends come to blows, Shaun frustrated with Ed’s behavior. Yet as Queen sings over the end credits, they’re best friends. Their bond informs the entire movie. As they bid tearful farewells at the end, it’s obvious that they do love each other.

Though you could spot slivers of it in “A Fistful of Fingers,” “Shaun of the Dead” is where Edgar Wright’s directorial style truly came into focus. Wright’s method of shooting can best be described as razor-sharp. For example, how about the scene where Shaun quickly prepares for work? The camera cuts between the toilet flushing, him clipping his name tag on, brushing his teeth, and grabbing his keys. The quick cuts are humorous and also established a breezy, energetic tone. Wright’s style throughout the film is invigorating. During an action scene, the camera follows the barrel of a rifle, putting the audience right in the moment. The camera frequently approaches the action from a dynamic angle. Much of the film’s humor and excitement come from how it's shot.

Something that makes “Shaun of the Dead” so endlessly re-watchable is its beautifully constructed screenplay. The film constantly circles back on its own ideas, building upon them with each new viewing. After Liz breaks Shaun’s heart, Ed lays out the next day’s play. Cleverly, these mirror the later events of the film. Ed’s references to beginning the day by drinking a Bloody Mary is mirrored by the zombie woman, named Mary, appearing in their backyard. The commands given for a video game are later echoed in the Winchester, when Ed is helping Shaun aim the rifle. A seemingly normal walk to a shop is repeated the next day, after the zombies are unleashed. Many of the same things happen but in an entirely different context. The eventual fates of many characters are foreshadowed by their names and small lines of dialogue. All of this shows how Wright, Pegg, and their team beautifully, perfectly planned out the script and story.

The film is frequently hilarious too. Right from the beginning, Wright shows a strength for quick-witted dialogue. The barbs traded between Shaun and Ed are usually funny. The characters’ have such a natural rapport, full of in-jokes and half understood references. In other words, they talk like long time friends do. Yet the film piles on memorable sight gags too. An angry Pete’s onslaught of profanity is humorous. Ed and Shaun utilizing a collection of vinyl records, deciding on the fly which to keep and which to literally toss, is a winning gag that was heavily featured in the trailer. The gang has to impersonate undead behavior in order to cross a street full of zombies. Before that, we get a hilarious run-down of their acting abilities. Some of the biggest laughs in the film come during a showdown in the Winchester with an errant flesh-eater. Featuring the best use of a Queen song since “Wayne’s World,” the scene is energetic and full of laughs. The same could be said of the whole movie.

So much of the appeal of the zombie genre is tied to its traditionally outrageous gore. After all, we are talking about rotting ghouls that tear people apart and eat them. While “Shaun of the Dead” is never quite scary, the film understands this connection. A zombie stumbles backwards onto a pipe, tearing a hole in her chest. Afterwards, one has his head bashed in with a glass ash tray. Later, another zombie is impaled against a fence with a metal pole. After being run over, another zombie twitches on the road, slowly pulling himself back to life. In the last half, the gore is ramped way up. Brains are blown out. Someone is torn limp from limp, before his intestines are wrenched from his body. Even when throwing blood and gore around, the film maintains its sense of humor. Such as the dramatic cut between Shaun and Ed beating on a pair of zombies… To Ed on the couch, peacefully enjoying an ice cream cone.

The film isn’t afraid to explore different tones. “Shaun of the Dead” can be surprisingly sad at times. The antagonistic relationship Shaun has with his stepdad is mostly played for laughs. Such as the repeated references to being chased with "a bit of wood,” Shaun’s clumsy attempts to frame Phil for child molestation, or Phil maintaining his sense of humor even while zombiefied. Yet Philip’s death scene undeniably generates pathos, as he admits to Shaun that he tried his best to be a father. Later, the film reaches an even more devastating point. Shaun’s mother, who is easily the kindest character in the film, receives a heartbreaking death scene. Suddenly zombified, the cast has to quickly decide whether or not they can kill her, to protect themselves. Lastly, the parting between Shaun and Ed is likely to generate tears as well. The movie reprises a fart joke, of all things, from earlier and gifts it with a surprising amount of pathos. The point is “Shaun of the Dead” doesn’t just go for laughs. It’s a richly emotional film, making the audience feel many different things.

“Shaun of the Dead” would only be a quarter lovable as it is without the spectacular cast. Simon Pegg maintains a smart ass wit while making Shaun an easily related too every man. His rapid fire comic skills help deliver the movie’s impressively amusing dialogue. Nick Frost doesn’t back away from Ed’s slobbish behavior while still making him a funny, likable presence. Kate Ashfield is maybe the unappreciated ace up the movie’s sleeve. She keeps up with the boys while also spinning equally funny lines. The supporting cast is full of strong names. David is the practical member of the group, which frequently makes him obnoxious, yet Dylan maintains his humanity. Penelope Wilton is adorable, sweet, but willing to mine her plight for pathos as Barbara. Bill Nighy is incredibly dry as Phil. Only Lucy Davis as Diane seems underdeveloped, being the peppy slice of upbeat energy in the group.

Ultimately, “Shaun of the Dead” subverts the zombie epic as much as it embraces it. In the early half of the movie, the film willingly contrasts the behavior of the living with the behavior of the dead. Many of the people Shaun encounters seem much like zombies even before they’re bitten. The zombies are never devalued as threats. Yet the film recognizes that the blank, hungry face of a zombie can be an ideal straight man. Amusingly, in its final minutes, the movie beautifully defuses the entire idea of the zombie apocalypse. The military marches in, contains the disease, and blasts away any remaining undead. The outbreak doesn’t last more then a day. In the aftermath, the zombies become an every day part of life, operating shopping carts and being the fixture of tabloid television. It’s a brilliantly funny subversion of what we’ve come to expect from the genre.

The film’s status as a modern day classic can be seen in how many other “zom-rom-coms” followed in its path. “Warm Bodies” and “Zombieland” are only the most well-known examples, with scrappier indies like “Dance of the Dead” or “Life After Beth” also appearing. (Not to mention films that blatantly references "Shaun," like "Juan of the Dead.") While some of these movies aren’t bad, none of them have captured the magic of “Shaun of the Dead.” The wonderful cast, hilarious screenplay, playful direction, and genuine sense of emotion combine to make the movie a true masterpiece and an all time favorite among fans. [Grade: A]

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