Thursday, 18 July 2013

From the archive: "Shaun of the Dead"

With Shaun of the Dead, a self-styled "romantic comedy with zombies", the team behind TV's Spaced have made a very enjoyable big-screen debut. Electrical retailer Shaun (Simon Pegg) and his flatmate Ed (Nick Frost) are slackers on the verge of turning thirty who, while working out petty squabbles and girlfriend trouble, somehow fail to notice a mounting global crisis until it encroaches upon their own backyard; even then, they just suppose the stumbling, murmuring representative of the undead they're confronted with is a listless drunk making unseemly advances towards them.

Director Edgar Wright's whipcrack style was always going to be too kinetic to be contained by television - he made his cinema debut back in 1995, aged just 20, with the super-cheap spaghetti western spoof A Fistful of Fingers - and here charts a credible descent into zombiedom with undeniable pace and more than a little flair. An opening joke has commuters shuffling along like reanimated corpses, yawning and obsessively checking their mobiles, even before the worst happens and a GM crop virus spreads across North London, leaving Shaun and Ed to fend off the infected with the former's vinyl record collection. "The Stone Roses?," Ed suggests. "Nah," Shaun insists. ""The Second Coming?" "I like it," comes the defensive response.

Wright and Pegg's script has a way with recurring detail and dialogue ("You've got red on you"), even as it continues Spaced's project of squirrelling away pop-cultural references that feel organic rather than forced or overly showy. Just as it's claimed some football fans wear their team's shirts to the ground each Saturday in the vain hope they'll get pulled from the sidelines should a player become injured, Shaun of the Dead should provide encouragement of sorts for all those twentysomething slackers currently inseparable from their next-generation consoles, secretly preparing for the day the dead walk the earth and they're forced to put down their joypads and pick up actual shotguns and shovels.

There are some terrific gags along the way. At the heart of the film is a scene in which, lost in North London suburbia, Shaun and his motley band of survivors - Ed, Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), her flatmates David and Di (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis) and Shaun's mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton) - encounter another, almost identically dressed gang of six heading in the exact opposite direction. It's a funny encounter in itself, but even more so when you clock the actors in this second gang - Jessica Stevenson, Martin Freeman, Reece Shearsmith, Tamsin Greig, Matt Lucas - and realise that the screen at this moment contains at least one representative from pretty much every British TV comedy of note since the turn of the millennium. Very few British big-screen comedies establish one convincing reality to pursue, let alone a second - the possibility of a different film, with a different, but no less skilled, set of performers - going off somewhere else.

Wright and Pegg have managed not just a funny idea, with funny jokes, but they even manage a very funny punchline: extending the underlying assumption that we are all now zombified to some extent to an acknowledgement that the entertainment industry's default tendency to make or keep us that way would result in any zombie invasion meaning business as usual in certain sectors. Most American films in this subgenre posit how terrible and terrifying it would be should events like this come to pass, but Wright and Pegg adopt a typically English tack, and suggest how terribly embarrassing and inconvenient it would be if, say, you were forced to beat your stepdad's brains in with a cricket bat. In this world, the heroes gather their armoury in a washbasket and relax with Cornettos, and their local pub, with its lock-ins, Breville sandwich toaster and generous supply of alcoholic beverages, becomes seemingly the safest of all possible havens.

(March 2004)

Shaun of the Dead is available on DVD through Universal Pictures UK.

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