The thing about zombie movies, after having sat through a bunch in one form or another since March, is that if you've seen one set of extras in gross makeup pretending to sleepwalk, you've probably seen them all.
Thirty-five years after the first of George Romero's "Living Dead" allegories, where should a zombie picture take us? Should we even care, as long as it's fun? Edgar Wright's and Simon Pegg's "Shaun of the Dead" is a British zombie flick that works not because of the crowds of undead, but because the guy trying to exterminate them was himself running out of reasons to live.
Dumped by his girlfriend, Liz, (Kate Ashfield), disliked by his stepfather, (Bill Nighy), disrespected at his management job at an electronics store, Shaun (Pegg) is basically the star of his own sitcom. He hops from one canned demoralization to the next. Liz, who's already fed up, sacks him after he screws up the dinner reservation for their anniversary, which means yet another night at his favorite pub. This happens in part because his fat headache of a roommate, Ed (Nick Frost), messed up the phone messages.
Pegg and Wright co-wrote the movie, which Wright directed, and they assume you know that a movie called "Shaun of the Dead" wants to get laughs. Something may be very wrong in the movie's little London suburb, but Shaun and his friends miss the news reports and the odd weirdo staggering around town. Shaun is too busy feeling sorry for himself to even notice the zombie that walks in through the front door.
Every moment, up to and including this scene, is a cleverly constructed live-action joke on aloofness: The world is ending, and these people are too self-centered to notice. The "dead" of the title isn't merely supernatural, it's generational. And chaos is kept just far enough on Shaun's periphery to make for both a great running gag and the swell eureka moment wherein the undead finally creep into Shaun's foreground.
From here the movie turns into a frantic, manically unhinged race. Our hero speeds around his neighborhood, rescuing his dithering mother (Penelope Wilton) and Liz, her roommate David (Dylan Moran), and his girlfriend Dianne (Lucy Davis) for a drive in his stepdad's new Jaguar. They speed through a hilarious, halfway harrowing nightmare that allows its makers to blend shlock and schmaltz. This movie is often not for the squeamish.
A lot of this has to do with express-train editing and NASCAR-swift camera work, which swoops in on fingers punching doorbells and a knife swinging jam across a slice of toast with jet speed. But the performances also come at a fever pitch, especially once Shaun and company wind up at a favorite pub to square off against the zombies -- and start in with all kinds of petty bickering.
Pegg, a popular comedian in England, is particularly good. He's easy to overlook because he's mostly reacting (in just about every scene his mouth crashes open like a broken drawbridge). But he plays self-involvement as a form of exasperation. And as a measure of Shaun's development as both a character and a citizen, you prefer him when he's fighting for his life as opposed to wasting it.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shaun of the Dead