Shaun of the Dead by Edgar Wright (Review)

It’s almost subversive at the same time, the way it blends such solid characters with plenty of gore and some wicked humor.
Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright

Perhaps one of the greatest travesties of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was that Shaun of the Dead didn’t play during the Midnight Madness program. Apparently, everyone except the distributor wanted it to happen, which meant it didn’t. But if it had, I swear it would’ve owned every single person in the room. I finally got a chance to see Shaun, and it’s simply terrific. And I can only imagine how insane it would’ve been to see it in the Ryerson along with 1300 other cult film fans in the wee hours of the night.

I just got in my Spaced Definitive Collector’s Edition, which I’ve already begun showing off to people. Seeing as how Spaced and Shaun of the Dead were made by the same people, it’s only natural to make some comparisons. However, as the movie progressed, I found it more difficult to do so. Sure, you see Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Jessica Stevenson (to name but a few) running through the streets of London taking the heads off of zombies. But whereas Spaced had this endearing, very juvenile sense of glee about it, Shaun of the Dead feels remarkably mature and adult. At least, for a zombie movie.

Shaun (Pegg) looks and acts like Spaced’s Tim, only all grown up and completely disillusioned. He’s a good bloke, but he’s stuck in a dead-end job, lives with a friend who is sucking him dry, stuck in a relationship that he just can’t seem to be responsible enough for, and unable to communicate with the rest of his family. And yet when the chance arises to become a hero, a chance that could only come in one of those comic books that Tim illustrated, he’s finally given a chance to really live.

Although Spaced had plenty of solid character moments, I was completely unprepared for the depth of character on display throughout Shaun of the Dead. Sure, there’s plenty of buffoonery, thanks to the relationship between Shaun and Ed (his irresponsible roommate, played wonderfully by Frost), but there are some genuinely heartfelt moments that blew me away, moments when Shaun is desperately trying to save his loved ones, is desperately trying to be a hero.

Even secondary characters feel fleshed out. In one scene, Shaun meets up with Yvonne, an old friend (played by his Spaced co-star Stevenson). Just the way they interact, their nervous glances and embraces, implies a shared history, even a hint of regret. The same goes for Shaun’s relationship with his step-dad, which starts out as the inspiration for some of the movie’s funniest scenes, but ends up with some real emotional clout.

However, this is not what you expect from a zombie movie. You typically expect the characters in these sorts of movies to be mere fodder, tools to help further the movie along to the next munching scene. However, Shaun of the Dead brilliantly slips one past you by making these characters you actually care about and root for. When something bad happens to one of them, it actually hits you and means something, and when the slapstick comes, the laughs are that much more enjoyable. As such, the movie quickly rises above being a mere excuse to splash some gore across the scene.

Of course, there is plenty of gore, including decapitations, torn flesh, nasty zombie bites, and oodles of entrails strewn about. It’s definitely not for the squeamish. Pegg and writer/director Edgar Wright have their zombie lore down pat, and the movie works quite well as a fanboy’s homage to all things undead (just as Spaced did for comic books and sci-fi geekery). And there’s even some social commentary thrown in there as well, about how modern life with all of its mass media and drudgery turns us all into zombies. Of course, it’s all done tongue-in-cheek, and never gets in the way of the movie’s sense of fun and heart.

I was also impressed at just how professional and confident this film felt. Mixing romance, comedy, and zombies could easily have made for a very chaotic and uneven flick, but Wright handles it all with considerable skill. There’s one sequence in particular, as Shaun, completely oblivious to the walking dead, takes a morning stroll that’s choreographed so brilliantly and executed so naturally that it’s truly jawdropping. Throw in some of Pegg’s pratfalls and the best use of Queen in a zombie movie ever, and you’ve got quite a lot of icing on the cake.

Truth be told, I’m pretty surprised that this movie is playing in Lincoln, and in the mainstream theatres to boot. Part of me wishes this wasn’t the case, although I’d love to see Pegg, Wright, and Co. get all the acclaim they deserve, and then some. But part of me wants to keep this to myself, and give it all of the love any true cult film deserves. I’m curious to see how this plays, because it’s so much more than we deserve from your typical zombie movie. And yet, it’s almost subversive at the same time, the way it blends such solid characters with plenty of gore and some wicked humor.

Whatever the case, I can’t wait to see it again. Only this time, with a bunch of mates as we all get treated to a full dose of RomZomCom.

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