The zombie movie seems to have made an official comeback. Last year, Danny Boyle reinvented the genre with 28 Days Later, and this past spring we got an adrenaline-filled remake of Dawn of the Dead. The zombie movie gets the satire treatment in Shaun of the Dead, a British import that has already earned raves from no less than Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino.
Simon Pegg plays Shaun, an electronics store clerk who ambles aimlessly through life. He shares a flat with a supercilious roommate and Ed (Nick Frost), a drug dealer who came and never left. When heís not working his dead-end job or playing video games on the couch, Shaun drinks the night away at a local pub called the Winchester. In the opening scene, his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) tells him that his apathetic lifestyle is getting to her; she doesnít want to spend the next 30 years drinking beer in the same dingy booth. Shaun decides to make it up to her by taking her out to a fancy restaurant for her birthday. When he forgets to make the reservation, Liz breaks the relationship off once and for all.
What Shaun fails to realize (for the first 20 minutes of the film) is that a deadly virus has been turning people into zombies. Although this fact is all over the news Ė and right under his nose Ė Shaun is so out of tune with the world that he doesnít pick up on whatís happening. Not even the presence of a zombified woman in his backyard does the trick; he thinks sheís just drunk. Eventually he catches on and formulates a plan to rescue his mother, his friends, and Liz. Maybe he can even win her back. Eventually, as things tend to go, the plan leads right back to the Winchester, where everyone tries to hold off the approaching zombies outside.
There are really two central jokes in Shaun of the Dead. The first joke involves parodying the whole genre of zombie movies. In one of the funniest scenes, Shaun and crew must make their way through a crowd of zombies to reach the pub. In order to ďblend inĒ with the zombies, they simply limp rigidly down the street while groaning loudly. None of the creatures notice that Shaun and his friends arenít technically undead. The scene mocks the fact that big screen zombies are rarely portrayed as having any real physical menace. They can be easily outrun and fooled. So brilliant and so logical is the sequence that I canít believe that no one ever thought to do it in a film before.
The other joke is more subtle. The movie suggests that many people live their lives in a zombie state, even if they arenít aware of it. Shaun just kind of plods through life. He meanders aimlessly and repetitively, doing the same thing day after day, satisfying himself with the occasional diversion of video games or beer. Thereís no ambition, no intent, no purpose. Heís little more than a drone, who does nothing to improve himself. No wonder Shaun fails to miss the signs of the plague thatís taking over his town. In some ways, Shaun represents those of us who also get stuck in lifeís dead ends, who fall into a rut from which they cannot escape. Only by leading a small group of humans to victory is Shaun finally able to break out of his shallow existence.
Shaun of the Dead is very clever and often very funny. Pegg, who wrote the film with director Edgar Wright, brings a perfect worn-down quality to the central character. You can almost feel him drifting aimlessly. As the story goes on, Shaun comes to realize that some things in his life are worth fighting for. And fight he does. (The movie is really gory, but Iíd expect nothing less from a zombie picture.) Watching this slacker store clerk turn into a master zombie hunter to win the woman he loves is a refreshing way to approach the genre.
Toward the end, the movie starts to become somewhat conventional. A lot of the familiar scenes are accounted for, such as the one in which a central character gets infected and the others have to decide whether to kill that person now or later. The humor also slightly gives way to action and violence. Iíd have liked as many laughs in the last reel as there were in the others.
Things snap back during the coda, which again puts a unique spin on the zombie movie format. Watching pictures in this genre, I am always aware that filmmakers paint themselves into a corner. How, exactly, do you stop such a virus and get rid of thousands of infected undead? Most zombie movies donít have an answer to that question. Shaun of the Dead does. It knows exactly what happens next, especially in a society that was already filled with zombies. This is a great ending to a smart, funny, original movie.
( out of four)
Shaun of the Dead is rated R for zombie violence/gore and language. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.
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