Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 01, 2004 11:27 pm 
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No more Zed word, for now

Shaun of the Dead is an English send-up of the zombie genre which also evokes some of the climactic moments of such classics as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The paradox is that while the movie’s saying the genre’s kaput it’s also showing how viable it still is, because its own main energy comes from standard zombie situations: the world gone mad; streets full of stumbling, hungry ghouls; a dwindling supply of places to hide; your mum getting bitten and “turned” and having to shoot her. So the genre’s like a zombie too: it dies here, but in dying comes back to fresh sinister life. So the genre’s like a zombie too: in dying it comes back to fresh sinister life.

The initial joke is twofold. Shaun (co-author Simon Pegg) and his slob roommate Ed (Nick Frost) don’t notice the “zed” invasion at first because they’re such lazy, incompetent slackers. But they also don’t notice it because they’re Brits: English sangfroid is another thing keeping them from seeing anything gone wrong in the streets of North London. It’s just bad form to notice other people’s mess, even when that mess entails corpses strewn in the street or blood all over the door of the convenience store fridge. When Shaun’s stepfather’s been bitten, since he’s the steely Bill Nighy, the old boy keeps right on making sense. What more can Shaun’s mum (Penelope Wilton) do but make a nice cup o’ tea? This is a hymn to both the hidden virtues of slackerdom and the old English art of muddling through.

The filmmakers draw enough humor out of Shaun, Ed, their less friendly roommate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), Shaun’s disappointed girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), and Liz’s self righteous best friends Dianne and David (Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran) to create solid scenes throughout where zombies aren’t needed except as a buzzing, gurgling chorus outside the walls forcing the group to keep together and be brave.

Shaun of the Dead is also the story of an underdog hero. Physically Shaun is like Vince (Craig Kelly) in the original English “Queer As Folk,” but without quite Vince’s level of charm. Like Vince, Shaun’s shy, deferential, and not the most dashing guy around, but inside there’s a plucky, reliable survivor just waiting to be let out.

For quite a while Shaun and Ed generate smiles with how despite constant radio and TV coverage they manage to disregard the zombie invasion in favor of electro music and video games. They’ve got to discover a girl ghoul in their own garden, which happens after an all night drunk to forget Liz’s rejection of Shaun, before they finally get the picture. Their immediate reaction to the stumbling, menacing, staring creature is to think she’s drunk too, but then the dead-fish eyes and bloody mouth are a tip-off. This is the best moment — when the first really horrible thing happens, but the pals are still arguing over which classic vinyl disk they can spare from their collection to bash out the zombie chick's brains with.

Once Shaun and Ed have joined the fray and Shaun turns into a hero, leading his little band to that center of English (and slacker) life, the local pub, the film becomes in many ways a standard zombie flick, except that it’s a bit brighter and more character-driven. The ending looks just as conventionally apocalyptic as any of Romero’s at first. But there’s a sequel six months later, where Shaun and Liz have survived and live together (Ed and Pete got “turned”) and remaining zombies have been kept around to be used for industrial jobs and certain sports. The unambitious day ending at the pub that defined Shaun is now Liz’s idea of a good time too: through his heroism in defending the fortress of the Winchester, he has shown that English and slacker values are the same. Without the last good laugh of the postscript that turns zombies into a joke again where it was in the opening sequences, the movie would have succumbed to the genre it’s offing. Instead zombie movies have been put to rest. For now.

Not a great film but a cheery one Shaun of the Dead's more coherent than Danny Boyle’s popular 28 days Later, which was all flash and no follow-through.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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