Shaun is pushing thirty. He has a dead-end job, an antagonistic stepfather, a fat, dead-beat best friend named Ed who came for a visit several years ago and still hasn’t left, and an increasingly fed up girlfriend. While he knows that something has to change, slacker inertia is such that only the most apocalyptic upheaval is likely to make any difference. That upheaval comes in the form of a plague of the living dead, but since these are traditional George A. Romero living dead – i.e., slow, stupid, and given to low-voiced moans rather than shrieks – and since Shaun is in the self-absorbed throes of losing his girlfriend, it takes him awhile to notice. "I don’t have any change," he says dully, brushing past an ambulatory corpse who accosts him on the street.
Once he and Ed do figure it out, however, Shaun springs into action with the air of someone who has suddenly been awakened to what’s truly important. That would be rescuing and winning back his girlfriend, Liz – after he’s rescued his mum, of course. In a ruined city besieged by the dead, Shaun comes into his own as a man of action, leading a small band of survivors to the one place he’s sure they’ll all be safe: his favorite pub.
Shaun of the Dead is described in its ads as a romantic comedy. It is that and everything a zombie movie should be. There’s loving attention to detail, references to other zombie films, and violence so over-the-top it becomes comic.
The early scenes, in which Shaun is only dimly aware that there’s something going wrong beyond his love life, are reminiscent of the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with quick disturbing vignettes in the background. An apparently terrified man runs down a city street. A homeless person may or may not have just bitten the head off a pigeon. When the dead finally become impossible to overlook, they are depicted as individuals with implied back-stories. One is still wearing her nametag from work, another, minus one arm, is in the formal wear of a wedding guest. There’s a bit more sentimentality than one usually finds in a zombie flick — every major character who gets kicked off is apparently required to make a touching dying speech first – but after all it is supposed to be a romantic comedy.
And Shaun of the Dead has that most vital ingredient of any good zombie film, an underlying layer of social commentary that gives the script a brain. In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, it was consumerism, in its 2004 remake it was hopelessness, and in 28 Days Later it was Rage. In Shaun of the Dead, it’s obliviousness. By the end of the film it’s obvious that the difference between zombification and the unaware numbness of everyday life is merely one of degree.
Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Edgar Wright, is delightful as Shaun. Nick Frost is first revolting, then sympathetic, then revolting again as Ed. There’s also the forbiddingly British Bill Nighy as Shaun’s step-father and Penelope Wilton as Shaun’s relentlessly cheerful mother. Various British media celebrities like Trish Goddard and Jeremy Thompson appear as themselves in brief clips showing TV coverage of the crisis. Most American viewers probably won’t recognize them, but the vignettes are funny and pointed enough to stand on their own as satire.
It’s still early in this year’s horror film season, but Shaun of the Dead movie will probably qualify as one of the year’s best of its kind.