Sunday, September 26, 2004

Shaun of the Dead

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

What Shaun of the Dead does right isn't something that this year's remake of Dawn of the Dead does wrong, exactly, but is something it sort of overlooked: It recognizes that present-day characters would recognize situations from a million zombie movies (even if, like me, they've seen very few), and be influenced by them. At the same time, though, it doesn't get self-referential to the point of the characters recognizing that they're in a movie like a Scream or There's Nothing Out There.

Like Dead an Breakfast, Shaun of the Dead is classified as horror but isn't really going to scare anybody. Unlike Breakfast, it does become, in its last act, a reasonably effective action movie. For the first half or so, it's mainly a comedy, and a clever one, even if it occasionally goes for the cheap pop-culture or gross-out joke.

That said - this is a zombie comedy with a functioning brain. The opening titles, which feature people in their everyday lives who could be mistaken for zombies at first glance, is clever, and the foreshadowing dialogue is wry but not too obvious. There's also a fair bit of wit to be found in how many of the characters are so wrapped up in their own lives that they do not, initially, recognize that the recently dead are coming back as zombies.

Before anyone dismisses it as just an allegorical thing, though, that's not all it's got. As much as someone can find more intelligence under the surface, that surface is pretty good, too. The interplay between the characters is often crude but also funny, and the slapstick is well-choreographed by director Edgar Wright. Those that like the blood and the guts will get their fill, and sharp-eyed audiences will recognize how much the filmmakers love movies, managing to tip their hats to their favorites without Shaun devolving into a "restage scenes from better movies in a funny voice" parody.

Co-writer Simon Pegg is a ton of fun as the title character. Shaun's the sort of well-meaning slacker we've seen a million times, but Pegg's offbeat appearance and easily distracted nature make it work. Kate Ashfield's Liz is probably too cute for him outside the confines of a movie, but she's got the appealling knack of looking better fighting zombies in her sweats than when made up for a night out. Nick Frost does good obnoxious slob friend. Other characters along for the ride are Lucy Davis and Dylan Morgan as Liz's roommates, plus Penelope Winton and Bill Nighy (who seems to be in every British movie these days) as Shaun's mother and stepfather. My DVD budget isn't what it used to be, but I find myself hoping Spaced gets a US DVD release, as that TV series features much of the same cast and crew as this movie.

Now, if someone from a foreign country without any knowledge of zombie movies were to stumble into Shaun of the Dead, the probably wouldn't enjoy it that much, not having a frame of reference. But I don't know how many of them there are, and most everyone else should find something they like.

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