Once upon a time, the zombie film was as dead a genre as a lumbering zombie itself. The halcyon days of George Romero’s zombie epics had passed; even Lucio Fulci’s grimy, often dreamy, zombie blockbusters were a 1980’s relic. All that was left by the turn of the century was the odd shlocker but the zombie as a movie monster was dead, outwith of the vague hope of a Romero helmed Resident Evil film. Then in 2002 came Danny Boyle’s masterpiece of British horror, 28 Days Later: the zombie genre took a massive shot in the arm, crawled out of its grave and exploded everywhere. The Walking Dead comic arrived a year later, and in 2004, the arrival of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead would ensure that the zombie film would never be the same again.
Wright had made a name of himself on Spaced, the Channel 4 sitcom – co-written by and starring Simon Pegg, and Jessica Hynes (née Stephenson) – which had proven itself a resounding success over two series. The idea for Shaun of the Dead famously comes from an episode of Spaced, and so it was that Wright and Pegg left the confines of television for cinema for their next collaboration.
What Shaun of the Dead does so well is homage, satirise, and reboot the zombie film simultaneously, while adopting the tropes of the clichéd genre of the British romcom – which producers Working Title had found success in with Notting Hill – to produce something still unmatched. Effectively Shaun of the Dead is a film about relationships, friends and growing up that just happens to be set as the end of the world kicks in.
Pegg plays Shaun, a 20-something drifting through life in a dull retail job where the younger staff dislike him. He shares a house with Pete (the always glorious Peter Serafinowicz), a friend from their university days, while crashing rent-free on the couch is another friend, Ed (played by Nick Frost, Pegg’s Bez-like friend in real life) who deal drugs, farts and lives life without a care in the world. Shaun also has a girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield) who has never met his mother (Penelope Wilson in a lovely little role) and, like her flatmates (played by Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis), is trying to move on from the life of a student to that of a grownup (or at least what they think an adult should be). It capture that confused period of tiptoeing into adulthood perfectly.
From the off Wright and Pegg make it clear Shaun is captured in between two worlds: that of Ed where sitting down the Winchester pub every night is peak aspiration, and that of everyone else where nice fish restaurants, job prospects and the property ladder are the conversation topics. Shaun has to choose where to go; either with Ed and spend the rest of his life sitting on the couch playing video games, or with Liz and end up having to become an adult? Before Shaun manages to work out how to get his life in gear, the zombie apocalypse arrives and literally tears his life, family and friends apart.
What Wright and Pegg do almost perfectly is take an ordinary person like Shaun (and there’s nothing extraordinary about Shaun in the slightest until two-thirds of the way through the film) drop him into something so horrendously fantastic as a zombie apocalypse and still keep the story focused on Shaun, rather than the flesh eating ghouls walking the earth. The zombie element of the film is slowly bled in so we get small hints before it becomes very clear what’s going on, then Wright and Pegg have some glorious gory fun – even to the point where they have the headshot in front of a white surface so we get that lovely brain and blood splatter everywhere.
I’ve not forgotten about the strength of the film’s comedy either, which is timeless. At the time of writing, the film is 12 years old and doesn’t feel dated. Pegg’s still funny (even though at this point he’s still shaking off the vestiges of his Steve Coogan influences and developing into a rounded comedy actor who can play drama well). Look at the scene near the end where Shaun has to deal with his mother and tell me that Pegg can’t do drama? That’s another strength of the film: it blends comedy with drama and horror in a way that they integrate seamlessly. The serious aspects are bled in effectively whenever necessary, with a moments that are genuinely scary and upsetting. We care about these characters, no matter how silly some of their antics may be.
Shaun of the Dead is a gem of British film-making. Nearly every performance is perfect; even the lesser performances still just about hold up. Even though this is a film that’s repeated at least once a month on one of ITV’s channels, it never gets boring. We follow Shaun’s journey from confused 20-something to a more rounded adult and it’s only taken the near end of the world for him to realise what’s really important in life.
I adore Shaun of the Dead. It did end up spawning some truly terrible zombie films, but it also helped revitalise a genre by looking at its past and giving it a fresh new spin. I don’t think there’s been a zombie film since to match it because Wright and Pegg created such a classic of high quality its going to be hard to ever match this.