Saturday, February 4, 2012

Shaun of the Dead -- zombie gore, cultural parody

Director: Edgar Wright, 2004. (R) 

Before Hot Fuzz, one of my all-time favorite comedies, Edgar Wright cut his teeth with this horror comedy debut feature. Working with the same two main actors, Simon Pegg (who has gone onto fame in the Mission Impossible series) and Nick Frost (whose flame has not flared so brightly), Wright shows flashes of comedic brilliance. Seeing it for the second time it is not as funny as I remember, although it parodies English culture well.

Pegg plays the eponymous Shaun, a 29 year-old slacker with no real ambition in life. He lives in an apartment with school chums Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) and Ed (Nick Frost). Pete has gone onto adult life, while Ed is a lazy low-life, sometime drug-dealer whose time Is spent playing video games and drinking beer. Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) wants to move up in the world and is seeking more commitment than Shaun is willing to give. Shaun’s idea of a perfect night is spent with Liz and Ed drinking pints at the pub. In fact that is where we first meet these characters. All problems, it seems, can be resolved over a beer at the Winchester Arms.

This pretty much nails much of British life. Growing up, most evenings out were spent at the local pub with the mates, just like Shaun. Culture was flat, one-dimensional. Expanding one’s scope meant trying new types of beer. Yet, there is much more to life than this.

Liz tries to change Shaun, urging him to give up smoking and try red wine instead of beer. She even wants a meal at a restaurant, not the pub. But it takes a challenge greater than this to knock Shaun off his tracks. When the residents of Shaun’s London neighborhood suddenly turn into zombies, something never explained, Shaun realizes he has to do something. He seeks to save his mom (not necessarily his stepdad – Bill Nighy), his girlfriend, and his best friend.

Wright chooses to show these residents at the start, even before “Z-day”, walking slowly, almost aimlessly. And he uses unknown actors who look odd, often unattractive. So when Shaun sees them as zombies they don’t appear much different to his hungover eyes.

It takes a while for Wright to get to the action, much like in Hot Fuzz. He takes his time to set up Shaun’s character, showing him at work, at home and in the pub. Yet once the zombies are in place, he splatters the screen with gore in an over-the-top Monty Python-esque manner (think the black knight from The Holy Grail). And he gives Shaun unlikely weapons to combat the zombies: cricket bats, garden spades, and vinyl LPs.

Eventually, Shaun rises from his couch to become a hero of sorts. The film shows us that even slackers can rise up to accomplish big (or bigger) things given the right motivation. When we are faced with an employee, a family member or friend who seems stuck in a rut, clinging to the couch, we can motivate him or her by appealing to his felt needs. Better yet, give him a challenge by making him an offer he can’t refuse.

Don’t look for much more than this in Shaun of the Dead. But enjoy some laughs in this tribute to George Romero, if a zombie comedy is your cup of tea.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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