Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a 29-year-old Londoner whose life is going nowhere. He hates his job working in an electricity showroom, he can’t get his lazy, drug-dealing mate Ed (Nick Frost) to leave his flat, and his long-suffering girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) wants him to sort himself out – or else. After Shaun forgets to book a table for their anniversary meal, Liz dumps him; that’s only the start of a bad day however, as Shaun begins to notice that London has been overrun by flesh-eating zombies.
Shaun of the Dead is the creation of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the duo behind the terrific Channel 4 sitcom Spaced. Like Spaced, it places Pegg’s character in an increasingly ridiculous situation (in this case a zombie apocalypse), and many of the early scenes feel very much like the show. Shaun has an oddball collection of acquaintances; there’s über-slacker Ed, sensible girlfriend Liz, cityboy flatmate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), Liz’s friends – uptight David (Dylan Moran) and his struggling actress girlfriend Dianne (Lucy Davis) – loving mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton) and an asshole stepdad (Bill Nighy). These are all recognisable British TV faces – Davis from The Office, Moran from Black Books etc – and they all play traditional sitcom types perfectly. In particular, Pegg and Frost have got a hilarious repartee, and build up a believable friendship that becomes more important as the film develops.
Of course, many attempts to transfer TV comedy to the big screen have failed miserably, but despite the initial familiarity of the actors and the brand of humour, Wright and Pegg make it quite clear that they’re making a film, not a TV show. The film is slickly photographed by David Dunlap with steadicam and crane shots, and Wright produces a vivid snapshot of busy north London life. The film really gets fun when the zombies start swarming through the streets – during the first half hour, radios and TVs play in the background, announcing the strange attacks that are occuring and the fact that dead people don’t seem to be staying dead, but Shaun and Ed’s first encounter is with an undead girl and a fat zombie in their garden. They’re quickly dispatched with cricket bats, and there then follows an hysterically funny middle-section as the gang attempt to reach the supposed safety of their local boozer, The Winchester. Standout scenes include Shaun and Ed trying to dispatch zombies by chucking records at them, rifling through a record box as the decide what’s worth destroying and what’s not (Sade and Dire Straits go flying), and the gang trying to fool the living dead by wandering through their midst, pretending to be zombies. All the time, Shaun has his mind on trying to get back with Liz, while Ed treats the running battles with the living dead like he would a game on his beloved PS2.
Horror comedy is a difficult act to pull off – especially if the laughs threaten to overwhelm the scares. To Wright and Pegg’s credit, they’re well-versed in the genre, especially George A. Romero’s zombie films on which Shaun of the Dead so obviously riffs. Unlike the Dawn of the Dead remake, these zombies shamble and groan just like George’s ghouls, and the film has some impressive gory effects, including one bit of gruesome torso-tearing that rivals Tom Savini at his best. As the gang reach The Winchester and the final siege begins, the film takes a turn for the darker, and if not scary as such, the climax is undeniably a tense one. The shift in tone is a little uncomfortable, but respect is due to the makers for not trying to short-change horror fans. Romero buffs will also enjoy a few in-jokes – musical cues from Dawn, the name of Shaun’s shop (Foree Electronics) and the line "We’re coming to get you Barbara!" And for all those who found that other Working Title-produced, London-set comedy Love Actually an unwatchable smugfest, Shaun of the Dead proves the perfect antidote.