If a movie is made by filmmakers who hardcore genre fans, odds are those filmmakers are going to make sure fans like them are pleased. Thus the success of Shaun of the Dead (2004) is explained. Horror comedies can be a hard sell, and a British horror comedy even more so, but since co-writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are both fans of George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy, they were going to honour the genre while having loads of fun. Fortunately for the audience, the result was a new zombie classic that was so good it earned Pegg and his frequent co-star Nick Frost cameos on Romero’s Land of the Dead.
Before the movie came out Wright the director and co-stars Pegg and Frost had already made a name for themselves in the U.K with the sitcom Spaced, but it was Shaun of the Dead that put their names on the map. It was also the beginning of their Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, named after a running joke about the British ice cream product and its supposed effect as a hangover cure. Like many international viewers, Shaun was my introduction to the trilogy. I had a ball watching the first instalment on DVD while in Quebec City with my brother, which is appropriate since you could argue this is a guy film. I had just finished high school, so I was probably the core target audience for a movie about video-game loving dudes who must suddenly get off their butts to fight zombies.
A key reason for the film’s success is that unlike most zombie movies the main characters are not action heroes, but ordinary Joes with ordinary problems. The titular Shaun (Pegg) is a man with an uninteresting job at an electronics store whose main interest in life is sitting on his couch to play video games with his best friend Ed (Nick Frost) who has no job at all. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is getting sick of Shaun’s lifestyle and of their social life, which mostly consists of hanging out with Ed at The Winchester, their favourite pub. When Liz decides to dump him, it would seem Shaun must do what slackers his age have to do and grow up a little.
Shaun’s wake up call actually comes from the last thing he would have expected: a zombie apocalypse. In one of the movie’s funniest sequences, he gets up in the morning, walks to a grocery store to buy a cornetto, and walks back home completely oblivious to the fact the dead are now walking the streets. It takes a TV news report for him and Ed to realize zombies are slowly invading their backyard and that if they want to survive the day the must do the impossible and get off the couch.
As this is a love-letter to classic zombie movies, these characters are fully aware of the rules of dealing with the undead, although are reluctant to call them “the Z word.” They try to decapitate them with old vinyl records they don’t listen to anymore, and when that fails Shaun arms himself with a cricket bat, reminding the audience this is England after all. Whereas in America they would arm themselves with automatic weapons and head to the mall, Shaun and Ed decide to go get Liz, Shaun’s mom (Penelope Winton), his stepfather (Bill Nighy), and hole up at The Winchester. Their eventual arrival at the pub leads to another reminder of the film’s British identity, as the characters fight a zombie while Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now is playing on the jukebox.
Moments like these cover the comedy aspect of Wright’s horror-comedy, but he and Pegg make sure there is plenty for horror fans as well. Even though these characters stop and argue about their relationships amidst the carnage, they are fully aware and scared that their former neighbours might tear their limbs out.
It’s a difficult balancing act, but the entire cast and crew pulls it off. This was a brilliant opening to the Cornetto trilogy and I had just as good a time watching the conclusion, The World’s End, last year on the big screen in Edmonton. A lot has changed since 2004, with Pegg now starring in the Star Trek franchise and Frost making it out on his own, but the biggest change must be how Shaun of the Dead started out as a film influenced by zombie classics and is now influencing other filmmakers. That’s the power of genre fans for you.