Caught SHAUN OF THE DEAD opening night, and am happy to report that it is the best horror film so far this year, easily better than RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE or ALIEN VS. PREDATOR.
Much of the advertising campaign has been built around emphasizing the film’s comedy. This is not a bad thing necessarily, because the film is very funny. However, it is misleading in a way, because you might be led to expect a genre parody, and that’s not what the film is at all. The comedic emphasis is not on spoofing zombie movie cliches. The film features much more character-oriented comedy.
Significantly, this British Film is from the production company Working Title, which has given us several lovely romantic comedies: FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, ABOUT A BOY, BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, and LOVE ACTUALLY. What’s most charming about SHAUN OF THE DEAD is the way it includes some of that Working Title sensibility and splices it into a really cool, really effective zombie flick. This isn’t just a horror movie with some laughs and a love story subplot thrown in; it really lives up to its advertising slogan, “A Romantic Comedy. With Zombies.”
Rather like the cult play ZOMBIE ATTACK (a midnight staple in Hollywood for years), SHAUN OF THE DEAD begins as a relationship movie, then lets the genre elements crash into the romantic plot. The difference is that ZOMBIE ATTACK intentionally used the zombies to overwhelm the relationship aspect of its story; after all, who cares whether you can sort out things with your old friends when you’re all about to be eaten alive?
SHAUN OF THE DEAD, on the other hand, pretends to do this. (“This isn’t about us,” Shaun tells the girl who just dumped him. “This is about survival.”) But really the zombie complication exists so that he can prove himself and win her back. Along the way, there are lots of gut-splititng humor and even some (literally) gut-wrenching gore. But amazlingly, there are also some keenly felt dramatic moments (e.g. Shaun’s step-dad’s deathbed speech) that work as well as any of the laughs or scares.
This deft combination of elemetns really makes the film work, with no apologies for its subject matter. This is not the kind of film like RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE or ALIEN VS PREDATOR, where you just have to roll your eyes and go along for the ride because it’s fun and you want to see the special effects even if the story is incredible. Instead, SHAUN somehow remains convincing, even while piling on the jokes and blood.
Just to be a spoil sport, I will admit that the film is not quite perfect. There are two extended sight gags that don’t work, yet the film let’s the run on as if they’re hysterically funny. In the first, Shaun and his roommate, with no convenient weapon at hand, hurl Shaun’s old vinyl records at two approaching zombies. The joke is that Shaun is picking through the albums one at a time, deciding which he wants to keep and which can be sacrificed. Although an amusing idea, it becomes immediately obvious that the records are useless as weapons, so the continuing decision-making process ceases to be funny and just becomes pointless.
In the second scene, set in the Winchester Bar where Shaun and his friends have holed up, a jukebox plays the old Queen song “Don’t Stop Me Now” while our heroes bash a zombie with poolsticks — in time with the music. This is even less funny than the vinyl record gag, and it goes on longer. The problem is that by this point in the movie, the characters know they need to smash the zombies in the head in order to kill them, but for some reason they keep beating this one around the neck and shoulders. So the zombie doesn’t die immediately, which lets the director milk the gag for a few more seconds.
Fortunately, those are the only two glitches in the film, which otherwise consists of many brilliantly executed scenes. Just to give one example: On the morning when the undead phenomenon first becomes apparent (to the audience, at least), Shaun goes through his usual morning routine (leaving home, crossing the street, popping into the local shop for a soda) in such an oblivious, habitual way that he fails to notice that the usual people he meets have all become the walking dead.
The joke of course is that the neighbors have always been zombies to some extent, and Shaun’s monotonous existence is zombie-like as well. Luckily for him, the ensuing crises knocks him out of his rut and lets him emerge as the hero.