Monday, October 18, 2004

Review: "Shaun of the Dead" (2004)

Earlier this year, I read a book called The Zombie Survival Guide. Penned by Saturday Night Live writer Max Brooks, it is a humor book disguised as a dead serious guide on how to defend yourself from the undead. The book comes at a time when the zombie film is making a resurgence, thanks in part to the success of last year's success innovative zombie film "28 Days Later". It seems appropriate that since a British film helped, ahem, resurrect the genre, it should also be a British film to put a whole new twist on it.

"Shaun of the Dead" is about Shaun (Simon Pegg), a 29 year old with a dead end life in a dead end job. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) doesn't like hanging out with him in the same pub night after night. She would rather have romantic dinners with him alone than hang out with Shaun's sloth-like roommate, Ed (Nick Frost). When Shaun screws up a simple restaurant reservation, she says she's had enough and breaks up with him. Just when Shaun thinks things can't get any worse, the living dead begin walking the earth.

Unlike most zombie films, the buildup to the zombies is slow as they establish the characters and the lives they lead. The audience begins to see the growing signs of trouble, while Shaun and Ed remain characteristically oblivious. Critics and fans have often pointed out the underlying social/political messages to all three of George Romero's "Dead" films. At the very least, "Shaun" can be viewed as taking a wry look at the similarity some living people have with zombies as they go about their mind numbing routines.

Congratulations should be given to Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the film. His performance goes the extra yard as he has to deal with loved ones falling to the growing horde. These moments are far more touching and convincing than any in the "Dawn of the Dead" remake that came out last year (though I still consider the remake a very exciting action film). His interactions with Liz are also realistic and heartfelt, albeit in extreme circumstances. Instead of the usual romantic comedy machinations of two beautiful people meeting, bickering, then joining up together, we have two everyday people dealing with a relationship in a rut. It goes the extra mile to help the audience identify with these characters.

As for the details of how the characters survive the zombie onslaught, a lot of the old cliche's hold sway, but not without a wink to the audience. At one point in the film, Shaun and his group of survivors come across another group led by Shaun's friend Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson). The camera shot lines them up opposite each other to showcase how the two groups have somehow managed to assemble the same amount of people with the same personality types. Indeed, once the group gets to the pub, the resultant bickering between characters plays out as it did in the original "Night of the Living Dead" and nearly every subsequent zombie film. Some things, and characters, never change.

Sharp eyed zombie movie fans will be able to spot nods to Romero's "Dead" films as well as Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" Trilogy. Movies directed and written by film geeks can go overboard and obvious with film references, but "Shaun" proves to be very subtle in this regard. Particularly, there is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to the original "Matrix" film. Although it is quick, the audience I was with got it immediately and goes over so much better than yet another bullet-time knock off.

Despite having a soft spot for such movies, I can objectively say that this is a damn good film in its own right. Those looking for the horror of a zombie plague should rent "28 Days Later". However, for pure entertainment value, this film goes up against the best of Romero's work, and that's saying something.

Eight out of Ten

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