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There have been a lot of smaller films that generate a lot of buzz before us hicks here in Atlanta get a chance to see them, and more often than not that buzz leads to expectations that can't be lived up to. Fortunately, this was not the case for SHAUN OF THE DEAD.
This film appealed to me for several reasons, the main ones being my fondness for zombies (and really, is there anyone out there who doesn't like zombies?) and my weakness for campy horror flicks. SHAUN OF THE DEAD looked to fulfill both of those promises, as well as provide for some good old fashioned comedy. The tagline itself says it best: "A romantic comedy. With Zombies." And that's basically what the movie delivers, and manages to get both halves of it right.
The title character, Shaun, is a 29-year-old working stiff who stumbles home from the same bar every night and goes to his menial job every morning. His girlfriend, Liz, wants more to life than this, and she basically gives him an ultimatum: choose between The Winchester, the local speakeasy that he frequents, or her. When Shaun fouls up an important anniversary dinner, Liz dumps him and he goes on a drinking binge with his slacker friend and flatmate Ed.
But while all of this is going on, there's talk of the apocalypse coming from every news source. The walking dead are out in droves, attacking slow-footed victims all over the streets of London. In his hazy, hungover state. Shaun takes an entire trip to the corner store without realizing that he's surrounded by zombies. In fact, he and Ed are about the last two residents of the world to not realize what's going on.
Eventually, they do figure it out, and try to formulate a plan to rescue Ed's family and Liz. Their idea involves them locking themselves into their favorite hideaway, The Winchester. They fetch Shaun's loved ones, as well as Liz's roommates, and attempt to find shelter from the zombie madness. All the while, they bicker about like schoolchildren, almost as if the zombies are secondary to their own personal issues.
The way the film balances comedy with horror is almost seamless. It doesn't feel like it's mismatched or that either element of the film is forced. It fits together beautifully and even exhibits a little bit of a heart. In fact, if I have any criticism at all of the film, it's that it actually might get a little too serious and emotional in a few moments of tension. But none of that's enough to distract from the film's good points, which it has in spades.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD really earns points with this critic for keeping the zombie thing simple. Too many zombie flicks of late have been trying to make zombies these quick little bastards who go so far as to even use tools and weapons. That ain't a zombie in my book. The zombies in SHAUN OF THE DEAD exhibit the classic traits of zombiedom: slow, methodical movement; low guttural moans, and a pure hunger for flesh. No ridiculous backstory or confusing scientific explanations; just a virus that turns the living into the dead and turns the dead into the walking dead. George Romero would be proud.
A lot of comedy is done with well-timed gags and some completely original ideas. Hysterical scenes include Shaun and Ed letting a zombie complete a line in Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines", the same two trying to determine which of Shaun's records are crappy enough to hurl at their assailants, and some clever channel-surfing bits that put together the story that the pair seem to be missing out on.
Another place where SHAUN OF THE DEAD excels is in the performances. Chances are that you've never heard of any one of the actors here, but they all do their roles justice. Their interactions are completely natural and you really wind up rooting for most of them. You'll probably even want to cheer when a particular one of them becomes lunch for a pack of the reanimated antagonists.
One element of the film that might be lost on audiences is the idea that it's a social satire rather than a genre satire. The real butt of the filmmakers' jokes are elements like romantic relationships, broken families, Playstation culture, blue-collar jobs, and media sensationalism. The fact that it's a zombie movie doesn't mean they're trying to parody zombie movies. The entire last segment of the film, which takes place six months after the events of the movie, shows the media reflecting back on "Z-Day", which is a subtle barb at us Americans for sensationalizing anything and everything.
There are tons of nods to the film's influences, including a few that may have gone over the heads of certain members of the audience. I think I was the only one in my theater that laughed at one particular joke. I won't spoil it here for you, but I will give you the hint that Shaun's mother is conveniently named Barbara. But while it certainly does a lot to pay homage to the ones that came before it, SHAUN OF THE DEAD is actually quite fine being put in that same category. As a zombie movie, it's up there with a lot of the classics.
Want a second opinion of this film? Take a look at theJK's review over at Living Corpse dot com!
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