Wednesday, December 17, 2014
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) DVD Review
Shaun of the Dead (2004) d. Edgar Wright (UK)
Edgar Wright’s crowd-pleasing feature debut, a zombie comedy romance (or zom-rom-com, as pundits immediately dubbed it), instantly earned its place alongside such luminaries as The Return of the Living Dead and Peter Jackson’s Braindead (aka Dead-Alive). It was, quite simply, one of the best horror films – not to mention comedies – in years, as well as a winning tale of friendship and true love.
Simultaneously sending up and celebrating not only Romero’s zombie flicks but a host of other cinematic efforts, the movie’s complete investment in the onscreen situation with nary a wink to the camera is its true triumph, elevating it beyond the sophomoric hi-jinks of Scary Movie and its ilk. There is plenty of gore for the fans, sharp witty dialogue, and wonderfully drawn characters fleshed out with gusto by the cast of loveable wackos. The hilarious relationships (what is up with Ed’s infatuation with Shaun’s Mum?) are utterly believable and we grow to so love these characters that when they meet their unfortunate grisly ends, we truly feel a sense of loss – surely a rarity for a movie of this genre, especially one with such a high body count.
When I first saw Shaun in the cinema back in ’04, the Dawn of the Dead remake had just come along (perfect timing, guys) and so the pseudo-homonymic (is that a word?) title gambit was fresh in everyone’s ears and eyes. But I was expecting something along the lines of a spoof, with the tropes of zombie film lore trotted out and skewered for our, ahem, amusement. Instead, what my popcorn-crunching compatriots and I got was a brilliant, witty, affectionate, raucous, clever, and splatterific love letter to Romero’s flesh-chomping zombi-verse and the genre fans that had grown up loving it.
I immediately went again the same week – accompanied by several fence-sitters who had had similar trepidations – and darned if it wasn’t even better the second time around, because Wright has jammed the picture with inside jokes flitting all around the perimeters of the frame. In short, it is a feast for the eyes, ears, and, dare I say it, soul of horror fans everywhere.
The plot centers on its titular protagonist (played with skittish energy and aplomb by co-writer, longtime Wright friend, and star-in-the-making Simon Pegg), a semi-slacker in his late 20s whose life consists of muddling through his retail day job, playing video games with his pudgy hedonist pal Ed (Nick Frost) and hanging out at the pub with his increasingly frustrated girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). On the fringe are Liz’s friends Dianne and David (Dylan Moran and The Office’s Lucy Davis), a not-so-happy couple who offer bouncy enthusiasm or withering commentary in equal doses. It’s a great central core of characters, and it is to Pegg and Wright’s credit that each are given their moment (or moments) of heroism, further endearing them to the viewers’ hearts. The supporting cast is no less brilliant, with Penelope Wilton as Shaun’s loopy mum Barbara, Peter Serafinowicz as Shaun’s priggish flatmate, and Bill Nighy in a priceless turn as Phil, the authoritarian stepdad from hell.
One suspects that with this much talent before and behind the camera, this sitcom-ready scenario would be entertaining enough to sustain our attention for the film’s 104 minute running time. But why let twentysomething angst suffice when you can throw staggering hordes of the undead into the mix? (Why, indeed. Who doesn’t think that Must Love Dogs couldn’t have been just that much better with a bit o’ the Bub? Who wouldn’t have welcomed a Savini biker cameo in The Notebook? How can you call a flick She’s All That without having the heroine fend off a trowel-wielding tyke? Ah, but I digress…) When people in the London suburbs start falling over dead and rising up peckish for a wee bit o’ human noshies, the challenges of job security and romantic entanglements must take a back seat to surviving the onslaught...with the stage set for a grande bouffe of daring verbal byplay, physical chicanery, and eye-popping, viscera-spraying zombie mayhem.
When the film hit DVD the following year, I introduced several more folks to the joys of London-accented flesh munching, but had never delved fully into the disc’s special features, so preoccupied was I with getting more and more people aboard the “USS Shaun.” But to commemorate Shaun's 10th anniversary, I decided to break it out for a full tour, and I’m happy to report that as passionate as the film is towards the genre it pays homage to, Universal’s release itself packed just as much loving care into its bells and whistles.
For any aficionados watching the movie (shot in 2.35.1 Anamorphic Widescreen, in homage to John Carpenter), it is immediately obvious that Wright and Pegg – who had previously worked together on their hit BBC series Spaced – are huge fans of horror, with an endless stream of allusions to Romero’s “Dead” pictures alongside nods to genre flicks such as An American Werewolf in London, Army of Darkness, 28 Days Later, and many, many more. Some are overt, such as when Ed shouts “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” to Shaun’s mum over the phone, or the Dawn of the Dead opening and closing credits music cues; others are more obscure (such as the cough-and-you-miss it reference to crop trials, from Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.) One can watch the film a dozen times and pick up something new on each viewing, and that’s without even going into the homages to non-genre films like Every Which Way But Loose, The Deer Hunter, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or Guy Ritchie’s flashy crime thrillers.
However, if you don’t have the fortitude to watch the flick a dozen times (though if you don’t, you need to toughen up), Pegg and Wright point out the majority of these references in their hilariously geeky and enthusiastic commentary track. Any that are not touched upon therein are illuminated in the “Zomb-o-Meter,” a Pop-Up Video-like subtitle function that points out numerous fun and frenzied facts as the film runs. (Who knew that Serafinowicz was the voice of Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace? Not me.) The cast commentary with Pegg, Frost, Ashfield, Davis, and Moran is slightly less enlightening and engaging, although there are a few choice moments such as when the actors trot out their best Bill Nighy impression or reference Spaced.
These latter features are but the tip of the DVD treats smorgasbord that awaits eager fanboys (and fangirls, of course) in the Special Features Menu. We’ve got “Raw Meat,” which trots out Pegg’s video diary, audition tapes, special f/x comparisons, makeup tests, promo featurette, and an extraordinary segment with a pudgier Pegg and Wright showing off their “idea flip chart” for the film in 2001. The “Zombie Gallery” has a solid assortment of photos, poster designs and the Shaun of the Dead 2000 A.D. comic strip, while “Missing Bits” has deleted scenes, extended versions, a hysterically misguided attempt to cut down on profanity by substituting “funk” for the f-word.
The glorious “The Man Who Would Be Shaun” segment has Frost and Pegg playing out a scene in their best Connery/Caine accents and, finally, as much of the info comes to the onscreen characters via the telly, these faux programs are also given their full moment in the spotlight in “TV Bits,” such as the Jerry Springer-like Trisha show and an interview with members of the rock group Coldplay for their upcoming concert, “Zomb-Aid.”
In conclusion, draw a pint, grab a packet of Hog Lumps, and settle in with your friends from the Winchester, where the Queen (on the jukebox) is loud, the records are flying in the backyard, and love and zombies conquer all.
(Portions of this review originally appeared on the Kitley's Krypt website.)