We’ll be counting down to Halloween with a new post each day about our personal favorite Halloween-inspired and horror movies. To read our past lead up to Halloween coverage, click here.
To all who know me or who maybe have read any of my prior reviews will know that I am not a fan of horror films. This isn’t because I turn my nose down on the genre or would label them all as bad films. Rather, they scare the living shit out of me and considering I already hold a contemptuous relationship with a little thing called sleep, I tend to stray away from anything that might further interrupt that process. I have made sacrifices over the years for films that are either classics (Psycho) or stressful rather than scary (Green Room) but for the most part, the way to get to me as a horror film is to disguise yourself as something else. Edgar Wright’s definitive 2004 feature film Shaun of the Dead plays homages to many a classic zombie movie but it does so with a chuckle, a heaping amount of heart and just enough self-awareness that it doesn’t tip over into the labeling of satire. It’s a funny movie about the evolution of friendship with some zombies peppered in and if this was how most horror movies were (opposed to the always popular slasher genre) then studios would have a much easier time convincing me to see these films.
Edgar Wright is one of the most talented and innovating directors of our age and while audiences bore witness to hints of this in his television series Spaced, it was really brought to the spotlight in Shaun of the Dead where his meticulous attention to detail, eye for visual comedy and understanding of just how integral a smart, tight script and kinetic camera motion is to the overall quality of a film. From the bottom up Wright has an understanding of the craft behind film, of each and every level of production and Shaun was our first real proof of the excellence he was bringing to the cinematic playing field.
At the crux of the film are the performances that manage to transcend their genre trappings. Nick Frost is a revelation, having impressed as the lovable by gun crazy Mike Watt but truly comes into his comic own as Ed, a permanent man child living on Shaun’s couch and mooching off of the benefits of being his friend. The rapport between Frost and Simon Pegg is, unsurprisingly at this point, electric, conveying the intimacy of a long seated friendship and the trials and errors that come along with it.
Dylan Moran as the uptight and pining David is equally hilarious in the film as a character who easily could have been written off but it is Pegg’s Shaun that roots the film in reality despite the supernatural surrounding him. He is very pointedly an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. All he wants to do is go down to the pub with his closest friend and girlfriend, enjoy a pint, and head on home for video games and music. His life is uncomplicated to the point of complacency, much to his girlfriends chagrin who wants him to put effort in some area of his life. This is what jump starts the film as Shaun, much to the films benefit, has become a “zombie” himself but without the bite. He’s mindlessly been making his way through his life with little to no investment. This near zombie apocalypse is what revitalizes him and also takes away many of his ties to his past self. He’s put into a position where if he doesn’t take charge and make decisions they might die (though there is a pitch dark comedic beat at the end that suggests if they had all stayed at home and locked their doors they might have all survived.)
What Pegg manages to do with the character (and would similarly go on to do with Gary King in The Worlds End) is make Shaun just relatable enough, and likable enough, that his laziness wouldn’t immediately be an instant turn off. We needed to be invested in this character and his relationships with those around him. Buried underneath the blood and guts of the zombie picture is a deeply personal one about a man pushed to make terribly difficult decisions and forced to take ownership of his own life.
This scene in particular highlights just what makes Shaun of the Dead such an enormously impressive film. There’s the comedic nature of it with the effortlessly smooth dialogue as there’s no fumbling or dropped beat, just one character picking up after another and the camera following it with Wright’s trademark kinetic motion. There’s an urgency to the scene but it never completely drops the films comedic tone, rather, adding layers upon layers of deeper emotions and tones of impending threat. As the group argues over what to do about Shaun’s mom Barbara who has been bitten by a zombie, truths are revealed (such as David being in love with Lizzie), barbs are traded as Shaun and David hold pistols to one another’s heads and Ed continues to back Shaun in any decision he makes, building upon what we’d already known was the most heartfelt relationship in the film. Beyond this reestablishing of dynamics and shifting of them as David is cast in a much more sinister light than he had been prior (when he’d simply been a bit of a prick) there’s the build of a permeating atmosphere of doom, as the sounds of the moaning zombies intensify with the argument, building into a cascading wall of noise. All of these are neat tricks that make for a stand out scene in a film full of iconic ones (the “Don’t Stop Me Now” attack sequence, the group walking through a crowd of zombies as they pretend to be them, the initial set up of the upcoming plot between Shaun and Ed at the bar and of course, Ed and Shaun’s good bye) but it’s Pegg’s absolute commitment to the scene that moves it from being not just a little funny and a little scary but also very sad.
It’s Wright and co.’s ability to meld the supernatural with the blisteringly human moments that makes him a filmmaker to be lauded past his already virtuoso like directorial abilities. He’s a genius with the camera and while Scott Pilgrim vs. the World might be his most impressive turn strictly as a filmmaker and The Worlds End might best capture his ability to use a well known genre as a Trojan horse for a deeper meaning, it was Shaun of the Dead that opened our eyes wide to the promise he held. There’s so much to be excited about when you watch a film directed by Wright and Shaun of the Dead laid the road work for a director who has grown to become one of the very best we have working today.
And yes, Shaun of the Dead scares me.