Before Simon Pegg somewhat succumbed to the dumbing-down commercialism of Hollywood, playing a slightly annoying caricature of his usually funny self in the likes of Mission Impossible and, now, Star Trek, he created quite an unusual Brit comedy TV series in the shape of the film-reference-laden Spaced. Although it had a fairly short run, it soon gained a cult following, and actor/author Pegg, together with his writer/director partner-in-crime Edgar Wright and actor partner-in-crime Nick Frost, decided to take a shot at the Big Leagues, taking inspiration from an episode of Spaced where the lead characters (played by Pegg and Frost), having played too many video games, imagine that they are faced with a bevy of zombies in their living room. And dispatch them with shotguns. And so Shaun of the Dead was created, a tremendous fusion of 3 popular genres - Romance, Comedy and Zombie Horror - with a twist of Brit sensibility about the whole satirical affair. With the same sharp wit and reference-laden script employed for Spaced, the resulting production was a big hit, and led to a further film being commissioned, utilising the same style and humour, only within the buddy-buddy action comedy genre, respectfully satirising the likes of Point Break and Bad Boys 2 to great effect.
Since then things appear to have plateaued out somewhat for the dynamic trio (at least in terms of decent output), with Wright graduating to fully-fledged Hollywood auteur (his next film takes Superbad's Michael Cera and pits him against the world) but potentially forgetting his Brit roots, Nick Frost being relegated to predominantly uninspired TV work and Pegg himself becoming a shadow of his former witty self in his bid to conquer Hollywood. Thankfully, not all is lost. Pegg and Frost are finally reuniting for something with potential (after the abysmal The Boat That Rocked) in 2010's Paul, a tale of two comic-book geeks who come across an Alien whilst travelling across the US to visit Area 51. Until then, fans will have to content themselves with Blu-ray releases of their best work so far - Hot Fuzz and, first and foremost, Shaun of the Dead.
Shaun lives a pretty mundane life, the highlight of his day working in a computer store often trying to avoid staining his shirt with a leaky pen. He spends his spare time playing Playstation with his lay-around best-friend Ed, and his relationship with his girlfriend Liz is on the brink of disaster, although he remains largely oblivious to that fact. As his world comes crashing down around him, and he finally realises that he must make some changes - particularly if he wants to keep Liz - things take a bizarre turn for the worst, with a mysterious outbreak infecting much of the population of the UK. Initially surprised by the seemingly drunken state of his neighbours and even his flatmate, Shaun and his best friend Ed eventually figure out that they are, in fact, dealing with zombies, and take to the streets to stay alive and get to their friends and family before it is too late.
When Shaun of the Dead came out in the cinemas, there really had been nothing like it before. Fans familiar with the work of Wright, Pegg & Frost on Spaced would recognise the humour, but the scale was unprecedented for this style, the movie truly embracing several different genres and taking a fresh approach to handling all of them. Working on so many different levels - whether it be the romantic side of things with the relationship drama between Shaun and his girlfriend, or the horror side of things with fairly effective zombie gore and thrills, or as an outright comedy (the immensely quotable laughs coming almost non-stop throughout) - the film eschewed previously established boundaries for cross-genre pollination, avoided the flimsy US slapstick approach to spoofs and became one of the top British comedies of all time.
The key to its success must surely be the filmmakers' immense knowledge of the movies that it sends up, such is the familiarity with the films - classics, b-movies, Hollywood actioners, Romero's zombie classics, the whole shebang - that they are capable of spoofing the genre with total and utter respect. It is clear that they do not want to mock these movies (this is not Scary Movie parodying Scream, or Dance Flick parodying every flimsy dance film out there like Bring It On Again and Again), but instead show just how much they love these movies (and not in a straight, often plagiaristic Tarantino fashion) whilst harmlessly poking fun at the more distinguishable genre clichés.
Pegg and Frost themselves put in tremendous performances as the two hapless everymen caught up in the zombie uprising. They effortlessly make the transition from the small to the big screen, seemingly undaunted by the broader scope of things, still just as lovable and neurotic as they were in Spaced - and still acting like they are just playing themselves. Pegg's cynical, almost comatose PC-shop worker has such a mundane life, where everything appears to happen in the same, uneventful, lackadaisical fashion, that when the zombies take over, he barely notices a change in the routine - gloriously traipsing all the way to work, saying hi to all the local familiars, and not even registering that they have turned into zombies.
Frost's character's existence appears to be centred around his games console and his sofa, the highlight of his day being a Cornetto, and the poignant way in which Shaun's girlfriend criticises the two friends for both being so boring and repetitive in their practices - going to the same pub, sitting in and playing videogames etc. - highlights that inescapable difference in the sexes: girlfriends (and often girls in general) just don't get the male practice of chilling out together and doing next to nothing. Believe it or not, spending an hour shooting terrorists in some meaningless game is our version of girls' hanging out and painting their nails, or gossiping endlessly about 'Susan's first date last night - tell me exactly what happened'.
There are numerous other familiar faces - both from Spaced and from British comedy in general - from the gorgeous girl-next door Lucy Davis (Dawn, from the UK Office) and Martin Freeman (also from The Office) to Dylan Moran (Black Books), Peter Serafinowicz (Spaced), Rafe Spall (Hot Fuzz), with even a cameo from Bill Nighy (Underworld). Kate Ashfield also does a good job standing as leading lady opposite Shaun. I vaguely recognise her from TV offerings like Talk to Me and Secret Smile. There are also a bunch of recognisables who play themselves - from chat show hosts to news presenters. It's a tremendous cast, and everybody looks like they are having a great deal of fun tackling (or playing) zombies.
Shaun of the Dead has something for everyone - whether you like zombie horrors, romances or comedies - and presents it all in an immensely accessible and enjoyable package, the humour fast and sharp, the insight into everyday life often refreshing and easy to associate with, and the characters (often played by characters who feel like they are doing little more than being themselves) thoroughly loveable. It marks a tremendous debut film for the Wright/Pegg/Frost trio, and was followed up by the thoroughly engaging action-comedy Hot Fuzz, which almost lives up to the standards set by Shaun. Marking a pinnacle in recent Brit comedy offerings, this one comes highly recommended.
Our Review Ethos