Shaun of the Dead (2004) — Pub hoppers encounter the zombie apocalypse

“I’m quite all right, Barbara. I ran it under a cold tap.”

PoolMan’s rating: I’ll even forgive them for spelling “Sean” wrong!

PoolMan’s review: It’s nice to know, two months into my fledgling marriage, that my wife, the woman to whom I am forsworn to love, cherish, and honour (but not obey… she wanted it left out, not me!) thinks I’m a liar. I told her I was going to see Shaun of the Dead with some friends, and she asked me what it was about. So, naturally, I gave the tagline of the movie.

Me: Well, honey, it’s a romantic comedy with zombies.
Her: [pause] No it isn’t.
Me: Yes, actually, it is.
Her: [another pause] There’s no such thing! I mean, zombies?
Me: Honey, it’s called Shaun OF THE DEAD. What would you think it’s about?
Her: [yet another pause] But a romantic comedy?
Me: [suddenly realizing it DOES sound pretty weird] Um, yeah… Sounds, uh… cool, eh?

I had a sudden flashback to when I surmised the plot of Bubba Ho-Tep for her, and got an uneasy feeling (I hated that one). However, just like you’ve heard, just like the movie poster says, and just like my wife STILL thinks I’m fooling her about, Shaun of the Dead is a romantic comedy. With zombies. And it’s definitely got “classic” potential all over it. Only time can tell that bit, but in the immediate sense, it’s great fun.

See, Shaun has made a royal, lethargic mess of his life. A dedicated British beer drinking machine (I hear Rich played his booze double!), Shaun and his best friend Ed are basically teenagers who never grew up. They spend their days playing video games and their nights haunting the local watering hole, the Winchester. Even after three years managing to hold on to a girlfriend, Liz, he still only thinks to take her to the bar for their anniversary. So naturally, Liz decides it’s time to end the relationship. However, no sooner than the words “it’s not the end of the world” spoken to console poor Shaun that the world does, in fact, end.

See, our hero has completely missed the fact that there’s a growing hoard of the undead shuffling around England. The early scenes are especially fun in not only setting up the characters in the foreground, but in the background, there are all kinds of indications that something is just not right. People are calling in sick everywhere. The radio and TV have brief snippets about attacks and religious groups. Military vehicles go streaking by outside store windows. But Shaun manages to avoid every possible early warning that his life is about to take a serious turn of the bite and shuffle variety.

However, once he and Ed accidentally kill their first zombie, they begin to get a clue. They gather up some friends and family (including Shaun’s mother and Liz, and a couple of her friends) and hole up in — where else? — the Winchester.

As both a hysterical comedy and a real, blood n’ guts zombie flick, SotD is really something. Simon Pegg as Shaun just never made me stop laughing. From his impish face to his zombielike yawning, the character is just a riot, and Pegg’s obviously having a great time (he better… he also wrote the story). Everything is just really funny… from Shaun and Ed’s girly screams as they are attacked in the early goings to the debate as to which vinyl records should be thrown at the zombies to kill them, and which should be kept.

And while I’m no expert on zombie movies, the horror aspect of the flick gradually ramps up and up, especially near the end with what is probably one of the most gruesome on-screen deaths I’ve ever seen. All the traditional rules of zombies seem to be adhered to… you become a zombie when you’re bitten by one, they can only move a couple miles an hour, and they have a startling inability to break glass until it’s really, REALLY appropriate. Oh, and they can only be killed by removing or destroying their heads. That’s always nice.

I thought the mood takes a turn for the worse towards the end as characters start dying. No spoilers here, but once the bodies start falling (especially the one who gets pulled out the window of the bar), the feel of the film starts to go from comedy to the horror feel only. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it changes things pretty significantly.

I’d say it’s a good bet if you’re a fan of Evil Dead or enjoy zombie/horror movies in general, this will be right up your alley. If you’re ready to enjoy a romantic comedy without Hugh Grant (they use OTHER forms of the living dead), well, I don’t think you can go too wrong there, either.

Rich’s rating: The British are coming! The British are coming!

Rich’s review: You know, being the sole European reviewer in the current Mutant Reviewer line-up can be a hard row to hoe sometimes. While Kyle is swanning off to movie premieres and Justin is getting phone calls from USA Today asking for his powerful and influential opinions on the state of the movie industry, and while Clare and Lissa and Drew and Sue and Pooly all at least get to see films roughly around the time they are released, it always seems that I’m the one left out in the cold, still waiting for the UK premiere of Ninja Academy 4 (released in the US in 1804) and crying into my warm beer.

But sometimes, just sometimes the boot of delayed releases slips off the crusted foot of Hollywood and onto the dainty and well manicured tootsies of Lady Britannia, who then takes great pleasure in collectively kicking Hollywood in the knackers with it while her dutiful movie-going subjects shout “Hurrah!” Those days are few and far between, but the scarcity of these wonderful moments just makes them all the more fun when they do come along. Shaun of the Dead definitely qualifies.

Now, obviously, had I written this review seven months ago when I saw the film at the cinema before its US release, all my ranting and raving and “Ha ha, I saw it before you” juvenile tongue-out-poking would have been slightly more relevant. Sadly, I wanted to wait for the DVD release in all it’s gory glory, leaving time for that treacherous Poolman to sneak in while my back was turned and review it first, in a shocking display of disloyalty to the crown. However, I’m willing to forgive my colonial comrade, because he’s managed to cover all the important plot points and stuff, leaving me to be able to touch on one of the finer nuances of Shaun of the Dead without having this review run to eight pages making Justin start birching me for overusing bandwidth again.

First of all, let me just re-iterate Pooly’s points. Shaun of the Dead is funny. Very, very funny. It’s well-written, well-acted, and features zombies, which come with an inate comedy potential all their own. It’s amusing and engaging, and anyone who likes their humour to come a little black and twisted should go and see it immediately.

But what Pooly (and indeed, most non-UK resident readers) will miss is that Shaun is a direct spin off from a wave of excellent alternative British comedy that has been bubbling through the mire of British TV over the past few years. Shaun of the Dead was written and directed by the same team that produced UK sitcom Spaced, and almost the entire cast of the film are drawn from the varsity of British comedy.

In many ways, Shaun of the Dead is the ambassador of British sitcoms; it’s like a window into the excellently absurd and amazing comedy that is (sadly) not really getting much in the way of play outside the UK. Trust me when I say if you liked Shaun, and it made you laugh, then you could do much worse than to hunt down some of these other cult TV shows. You should find them equally bafflingly hilarious.

It’s usually at this point that I try to inject a level of integrity into my reviews by grudgingly pointing out flaws in the film in an attempt to get myself taken seriously. I’m not even going to bother trying this time. I loved Shaun the first time I saw it, I loved it when I watched it again on DVD, and I’m sure that at any other occasion I find myself watching it, I’ll still love it. It’s a great film, and that’s enough to keep me happy.

Clare’s rating: It’s like some weird recurring daydream of Clare’s has been made into a movie with bonus points awarded for all the fun British accents, mannerisms, colloquial phrasings and cultural references. Wheeeee!

Clare’s review: As I mentioned in my review for Dawn of the Dead, I have had a long running love affair with zombies (don’t tell my husband). Occasionally when I’m exceptionally bored I will sit and fantasize about what it would be like if the undead started combing the Earth with all the shambling and incoherent moaning they can muster. It’s usually the daydream I default to after I’ve gotten thoroughly bored wondering what I would buy and/or do if I won a bazillion dollars in the lottery.

In both scenarios, all normal rules of behavior and limits as to what I’d be capable of are thrown out the window. The lottery one leads me to buying gold plated toilets and throwing huge parties on private islands and the other leads me to indiscriminately excising people’s heads from their bodies while a cool soundtrack plays in the background. Both good times. One a little bloodier than the other.

What’s that you say? Shut up about your useless daydreams and get on with the review? Okay. Here it is: Shaun of the Dead is awesome. I knew it would be because it was recommended to me by any number of people whose opinions I respect, many of whom aren’t even familiar with the fact that I dig zombie movies. Because besides all zombie related matters, most people also know that I’m big on British comedy. And Shaun of the Dead is packed to the rafters with rotting meat and cheeky, hilarious British wit. A heady brew to be sure.

But you already know all that because you’ve read the other reviews for Shaun of the Dead that came before mine. So let’s try something a little different. You know Shaun of the Dead is funny as hell (it really, really is) and you know it’s got lots of classic zombie elements in it (boy oh boy is that true). What you may not know is that it’s also got a handful of really great dramatic moments and is, for my money, a crazy great combination of horror, comedy and psychological drama.

I was howling with laughter in several parts (the impromptu zombie method acting they all do nearly killed me), I jumped and watched between webbed fingers a few times (much to the delight of my husband) and was really blown away by the emotional range Simon Pegg (our hero Shaun) displayed, particularly in the scenes with his mom towards the end. There’s a lot to take in during Shaun of the Dead and for my money, every minute of it is worthwhile. I will most certainly be purchasing this movie for my personal collection ASAP.

I’d say there have to be about a million and six really horrible ways to make a zombie comedy with elements of great drama that sucks the suckiest suck that ever sucked. So it is with great satisfaction and happiness that I am here to tell you, Shaun of the Dead packs about ten different movies into one — and all ten of them are really great.

Justin’s rating: Act now, and when you buy twelve zombies, you get the thirteenth for only half-bite!

Justin’s review: You know what makes this movie, an already fair-to-middlin’-to-groovy piece of work, even better? If, from the first frame, you mentally connect the character of Shaun with our very own Rich. It’s really not that hard. I mean, if you squint real hard, there’s practically no difference: blonde, British, vague distaste for the undead. Then this movie grows whole new levels of complexity, by which I mean to say that I once stood up in the movie theater and yelled out “Rip Rich’s head off, you worthless zombies! What am I paying you for?”

Or maybe it was, “Yay. Go, Rich.” I can’t remember, not with the amount of sugar I consumed that afternoon.

That aside, particularly if you don’t know Rich or if he owes you money and you just don’t want to give him the place of honor headlining a film, we can just get on with it. Shaun of the Dead is the sorta-parody of every zombie movie ever made (and the Dawn of the Dead ones in particular). Average bloke Shaun stumbles aimlessly through an aimless life — girlfriend on the fritz, mean stepfather, flatmate* tensions — more and less ignoring the zombie invasion that springs to life around him. This first section of the movie is by far the funniest, as the longer Shaun ignored the shuffling undead around him, the more opportunities for jokes abounded.

The zombie genre, which seems to bloat in their decomposing ranks every year, is long overdue for a bit of tongue-through-cheek jabbing. Considering that about the biggest leap forward in the genre for the past 20 years has been the sole addition to zombies running instead of shuffling (28 Days Later), horror filmmakers need this poke to wake them up to the mass of clichés they’ve been serving without fail, over and over, until it’s become the same freakin’ movie, merely with new poster art.

I’m tired of all zombie movies forcing us to look at a zombie invasion through the same perspective — a huddled group of unknowing survivors — instead of something fresh, such as the mayor of a zombie-plagued city and his all-star backup line dancers. I’m tired of the same predictable scares (yes, your mom/dad/best friend who got bitten will turn on you before it’s almost too late), and I could just about moan for hours if I saw yet another figure with their back turned to the camera as if to clearly telegraph, “HI, I’M EVIL. WHAT’S YOUR NAME?”

Shaun, his best friend Ed, and some other hangers-on go on a city-wide quest to find a safe spot in all of this unsightly peril. The funny bits, such as Shaun and Ed rummaging through a record collection, picking out which records are bad enough to use as weapons against the oncoming zombies, are priceless… when they come. For the most part, Shaun of the Dead doesn’t manage to string laugh after laugh to keep the audience rolling from start to finish; it’s more of a stop and go affair.

I think the problem is that what’s-their-name who directed this forgot in the middle of making it that they were supposed to be making a comedy first, and a horror film second. Instead, by the time the group of survivors find a pub to hole up in, the laughs are pretty much done and standard zombie action follows. You know the drill: zombies busting in through windows, getting their heads blown off, random very slow survivors getting snatched by a large crowd of these suckers anyways and eaten alive. Bleh. Let me reiterate. The last part of the movie isn’t bad, it’s merely standard zombie fare… and we’ve had more than enough of that lately.

Still, sometimes parodies are a very good thing for a genre, because there’s no clearer sign to filmmakers that clichés are running rampant in these line of films, and the audience is mocking the movies more than liking them. Hopefully, if nothing else, our next zombie flick will be something more than the moan-shoot-shuffle dance.

* I’m always very impressed with myself when I use British phraseology instead of the American equivalent. Lately I’ve taken a shine to saying “adverts” instead of “advertisements” and the kooky pronunciation of “al-u-men-i-um”. Of course, it takes an imagination to work in the word “aluminum” into every conversation I have, but that’s the sort of dedicated bloke I am.

Didja notice?

  • Cricket bats: I may not know how to play the game, but I can tell it’d be good to have one around.
  • All the “zombies” in the opening title sequence.
  • Zombies make good video gamers!
  • David: quite possibly the love child of Professor Snape and Harry Potter?
  • I love how happy Shaun’s mom looks in all the “planning” dream sequences, right after Shaun and Ed repeatedly kill her husband.
  • Dogs can’t look up.
  • Chris Martin of Coldplay makes two cameos in the movie: one as himself trying to organize a benefit concert for zombies on TV, and earlier as a zombie outside the Winchester.
  • The other group of survivors is made up of exactly the same character archetypes as Shaun’s group.
  • Shaun slipping on the convenience store floor.
  • Becoming a retail manager only requires you to be older than everyone else… funny, but true.

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