Combustible Celluloid
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With: Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Nick Frost, Dylan Moran, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Jessica Stevenson
Written by: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Directed by: Edgar Wright
MPAA Rating: R for zombie violence/gore and language
Running Time: 99
Date: 03/28/2004

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Zombie of Errors

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Scholars have recently begun arguing over the greatest single year in cinema history. Two of the camps have chosen 1939 and 1962 as possible contenders. Those years notwithstanding, I would submit the year 1985, not necessarily as the greatest movie year of all time, but definitely as the zenith of zombie movies.

That year saw the extraordinary and underrated conclusion of George A. Romero's trilogy, Day of the Dead, as well as the exceedingly clever zombie spoof The Return of the Living Dead.

In the 19 years since, the zombie movie has languished, including the various Return of the Living Dead sequels, the ill-fated 1990 remake of Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, Danny Boyle's derivative 28 Days Later and this year's Dawn of the Dead remake. I maintain that not a single zombie movie has lived up to the promise of 1985.

Until now.

I sat down to Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead with a certain resign. It had been so long since the last great zombie movie and I was on the verge of giving up hope. But within moments, Shaun of the Dead erupts with a magical zest, and resurrects the poor, shambling movie genre back into some semblance of life.

In short, with the exception of Romero's trilogy -- the Godfather of zombie movies -- this is the best zombie movie ever made.

Shaun of the Dead gives us the improbable 29 year-old Londoner Shaun (Simon Pegg) as its hero. Shaun works in a department store, wearing a shabby short-sleeved dress shirt and a nametag with a leaky red pen in his pocket. One of the movie's best running jokes has helpful neighbors pointing out, "You've got red on you."

Shaun lives with two flatmates, the responsible Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) and the sloth-like Ed (Nick Frost). David has a grown-up job and constantly berates Ed to at least pick up his mess or take down a phone message once in a while. But Ed's life consists of watching the telly and playing video games, while consuming the occasional pint. Ed still gets a lot of mileage out of various fart jokes.

Stuck between the two, Shaun longs for the carefree bachelor life but doesn't want to lose his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). She's tired of hanging out at the same pub all the time and wants to start doing more grown-up things, which includes leaving Ed behind.

The movie carefully and humorously sets up this essential conflict before springing the zombies on us. As in Romero's films, we understand completely who we're dealing with before the zombies come, so we can follow them ever more closely into battle. As confused and indecisive as he is in his normal life, Shaun turns out to be a natural leader during a crisis.

"Shaun of the Dead" earns even more points with its deadpan treatment of the zombie invasion. Shaun wakes up, hung over on a weekend, still wearing his work clothes from the day before. He shuffles off to the market for a dubious breakfast of soda and ice cream, completely unaware of the copious dead bodies, blood and lurching zombies all over London. (He mistakes one for a homeless man.)

Once it occurs to Shaun and Ed what's going on, they formulate a plan. Gather up their loved ones and convene at the pub, where they can listen to music, eat crisps and drink until the whole thing blows over.

Meanwhile, through trial and error, they decide on an anti-zombie weapon of choice. One of their early attempts includes throwing LP records. In one of the movie's greatest scenes, Shaun and Ed go through Shaun's collection, deciding which albums to sacrifice. The Stone Roses? No. Prince's Batman soundtrack? Throw it.

Directed by Edgar Wright from a screenplay he co-authored with star Pegg, Shaun of the Dead never stops being clever and inventive, as well as brisk and funny. Since it's partially a horror movie, Wright and cinematographer David M. Dunlap keep their Cinemascope frame teeming with useful or funny information without ever letting it get cluttered. They handle the "action" scenes with gorgeous clarity. A very funny sequence takes place just before Shaun and Ed devise their grand plan; they come up with a couple of failed ideas first, and Wright shows them to us in imaginative flash-forwards with whooshing camerawork and snappy editing.

Even more improbably, Wright gets in a few serious moments as the characters mourn for lost friends and loved ones, without tipping the film's balance.

Pegg (The Reckoning, 24 Hour Party People) gives a marvelously tough performance, handling the comedy and the pathos -- and maneuvering between both -- with grace. The rest of the cast is also aces, notably Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Underworld) and Penelope Wilton (Calendar Girls, Iris) as Shaun's mum and stepdad.

Even the ending is spot-on, avoiding the usual "twist" that Hollywood is so fond of these days and settling instead for a couple of very funny codas.

With the exception of Kill Bill and Spider-Man 2, I've hardly seen a more skillful, more exciting or more utterly alive movie this year. It's one of the few I'd be happy to see again and again. It could be a major cult discovery along the lines of Memento or Donnie Darko, but with Romero himself singing its praises, it deserves to be a phenomenon.

Universal/Rogue's DVD release comes with tons of extras, and most of them good for a change. The making-of features were produced by the cast and crew instead of the usual faceless HBO people, and the bloopers and outtakes are actually funny. In one bit, the actors perform their lines as Michael Caine and Sean Connery. It also includes the full-length "television shows" from the film's hilarious epilogue, one of them featuring the band Coldplay. No complaints about the widescreen transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The cast and crew provide two commentary tracks, and lots more. One of the year's best.

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