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Shaun of the Dead
Reviewed by Andrew Kozma, © 2004

Format: Movie
By:   Edgar Wright (director, writer) and Simon Pegg (writer)
Genre:   Tragi-Comic Zombie Horror
Released:   September 24, 2004
Review Date:   September 30, 2004
Audience Rating:   Rated R

Now start paying attention, unless you want to find yourself at the bottom of a zombie dogpile. You can't rely on dumb luck to survive, though it works wonderfully for some (who may not even be that dumb), because the world (at least part of England) is going to hell in a (very large) hand basket and you don't want to be one of those carried along for the picnic. In hell. (See: hand basket.)

Of course, none of this (except the hand basket) is the focus of the first third of Shaun of the Dead. The opening scene sets the tone, and the real drive, behind the movie — Shaun (Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the script) getting his life together and finding a way to deal with his best friend Ed (Nick Frost) as an adult so that his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), will stay with him. Along the way, of course, there's the usual working things out with the step-dad, the heart-to-heart with mum, and the failed (but ultimately successful?) attempt to prove oneself "a man." With zombies.

Shaun is paying attention — unlike the heroine Ana in the Dawn of the Dead remake, who is oblivious to newscasts, radio messages, anything except her own middle-class life. There are strange things going on in London. From a bus window he watches a man fall down from a heart attack; across the street from a convenience store a homeless man stalks and eats pigeons; and there are sirens everywhere. Shaun may not know what is going on, but he definitely knows something is. It is hard to stay oblivious when you're trying to sell a TV and every channel you flip is covering the same local emergency. Of course, Shaun's step-dad Philip (Bill Nighy) shows up to berate him for not remembering flowers for his mother, so we never see what the emergency is about.

But that's the genius of the movie. Of course we, the audience, know what's going on — and if you don't, maybe you should read the title again, and again, and again — and, as usual, the characters in the movie don't. But every time Shaun is close to finding out the danger in the beginning, or the movie threatens to only be about zombies after Z-Day, the action is interrupted by the personal. Shaun of the Dead isn't about zombies any more than Dune is about spice or Flash Gordon is about people wearing tight gaudy clothes and bad alien costumes . . . actually, I take that back about Flash Gordon. Still, Shaun is more about personal relationships than it is about zombies taking over the world (or even just downtown London).

On that score — real people involved with real zombies — the movie succeeds. There's reality to Ed and Shaun's first zombie kills and the fact that they can't stop beating the corpses. As with the original Dawn of the Dead, there's a little craziness that infects the characters that seems a necessary defiance to a world gone mad. Often this tinge of insanity is funny — and when it's not, it's scary. Most Hollywood horror movies don't give us the chance to see real psychological reactions to monsters or horrifying moments; all we're ever given is running and screaming.

Pay attention! I know running and screaming sounds like fun, and there's some of that here if you want, but you have to realize there's more to life or death than Run, Scream, Die. In fact, if you want the running and screaming, you can find those moments as tangents in the film — at the end of an alley behind Shaun's group, a woman runs (yes, screaming) from zombies; as Shaun goes to get breakfast (beer and ice cream) a man races (no, not screaming) past; another car swerves madly through the streets as the heroes enact their Plan. This movie, more than any other apocalyptic film I've seen, presents the world as a mass of stories going on simultaneously, and though we're only allowed Shaun's story we see bits of the world beyond him. Take Yvonne's group of survivors that Shaun's group passes; her group has the same number of people and the same type of people, check 'em off right down to the rescued, and slightly bewildered, mother.

The movie is chock full of nuts — um . . . humor and small treats — that you'll miss if you're not (as I've said you should) paying attention all the time. This doesn't just include references, though you'll find nods to 28 Days Later, Romero's original Dawn (re: the biker on the mall floor surrounded by zombies), and the Evil Dead movies, as well as Michael Jackson's Thriller and, sprinkled throughout, all the theories past movies have given for the rise of zombies. Not to mention such scene dressing as the coffee cups Shaun holds in each vision of The Plan. You need to stay aware, because although the movie alternates slow and fast scenes, there's never really a pause — almost always there are several things going on at once.

One of those things is the music, ironic and attentive to the action, that almost tells a story on its own. Take a listen to the soundtrack if you don't believe me. (No, really, take the soundtrack. I mean, even if you don't see the movie, the soundtrack is worth buying.) After the initial pub scene there's a montage under the credits that is simply amazing. It only lasts a short moment, but it encapsulates the whole visual tone and theme of the movie. Romero's movie was about consumerism, the remake about action (some would say "fear of a chaotic world"); Shaun is about getting lost in the routine of life.

Director Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (you should recognize that name; don't make me quiz you) have created a movie that shambles beyond the horror genre into the larger, ill-defined good movie genre. Sure, there are zombies running (um . . . limping) rampant, and there's death and destruction, but when you get right down to it, the movie is simply about the relationship between three people: Shaun, Liz, and Ed. And the zombies.

Okay, this is the last time I'm going to tell you to pay attention. Don't stand in front of a window when you know there are zombies outside. If someone looking distinctly ill is behind a sliding glass door, don't open it. If you can see the whites of their eyes, you're too filking close. And for goodness' sake, never throw darts at someone. Come on, common sense here, people.

RevSF Assistant Film/DVD Editor Andrew Kozma is removing the head or destroying the brain.

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