When Shaun of the Dead was released in Spain the title was changed to Zombies Party, with the tagline “A night… of death”. That rather misses the point, doesn’t it, and not just because the film takes place mostly in the day. Eventually there is a night of death, but that’s hardly what the film is about. The original tagline sums things up perfectly:
A romantic comedy… with zombies.
So the comedy comes first, at least for the majority of the film, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are geniuses at that. Many fans of horror films have their own fantasy plans for the zombie apocalypse; it’s a discussion I’ve had with friends. Shaun is much the same. As soon as he realises what has happened he forms a plan of action. What can possibly go wrong? Then he has to constantly adapt his plan as real life stubbornly fails to match up to his expectations, but the main goal always remains the same: get to the pub.
The comedy throughout is hilarious, but there are two standout scenes: firstly when Shaun wakes up on the first day of the zombie apocalypse and goes about his normal business, hungover from the night before, failing to notice anything that is going on around him; and secondly that gloriously British battle with the zombies in the pub with darts and pool cues, in time to the music of Queen’s Don’t Stop me Now.
In fact, the Britishness is partly the key to the film’s success. The genre that inspires (or rather is parodied by) Shaun of the Dead is overwhelmingly American, and seeing that translated into our own culture is a magnificent subversion. There is only one gun used in the whole film, and even that is unrealistic. In reality it would probably be impossible for any of the characters in the film to gain access to a loaded weapon. Using pool cues, darts, beer glasses and vinyl records is exactly how we would fight zombies in Britain!
The very British approach to a zombie film paid off. This made back about five times its original investment and was a huge worldwide hit. It’s not difficult to see why. It actually rewards repeat viewings, and is one of the few films I can happily watch again and again, always spotting some things I missed before. Nearly everything that happens has some significance, every little detail. Every character we see pre-apocalypse turns up again as a zombie, and the masterstroke of the film is that they retain something of their human characteristics, allowing for a wealth of small moments of visual humour, such as the shopkeeper Shaun owes 15p to turning up as a zombie with his hand outstretched to collect the debt.
The film also makes a huge virtue of how ill-suited the characters are to deal with the apocalypse, contrasting them amusingly with a group of parallel characters (all cameos from well-known British comedy actors) who are actually capable, as if there is another movie going on elsewhere and this is the comedy b-plot. It reminds me a lot of The Zeppo, the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that focusses on Xander while the other characters are fighting the apocalypse off-screen. For me, it is a slight misstep that the plot is eventually resolved by those parallel characters rather than Shaun and his friends beating the odds. In the end they are always ill-suited to the situation and they remain so. We don’t get a moment of triumph that it feels like the film should be building up to, when Shaun proves that his quintessentially British approach is just as valid as the military with their weapons. That doesn’t happen. In the end, the solution is an entirely external one, and that’s a shame.
But sadly this is very much a film that collapses in on itself. While it is actually living up to the tagline and being a romantic comedy with zombies it is completely brilliant, but the cut-off point is the pool cue battle. After that it becomes a zombie movie with a little bit of comedy, and that’s when things go wrong. The film becomes increasingly bleak and focusses on the horror, as things go downhill in a spiral of death and gore and despair. But even the weakest part of the film is more watchable than most horror films, or indeed most comedies. Simply put, Shaun of the Dead is a work of genius. A team of geniuses in fact, who would go on to collaborate on several other genre-based comedies: Hot Fuzz, Paul, The World’s End, all magnificent. Another one is on the way soon, Slaughterhouse Rulez. But Shaun of the Dead will always be my perfect halloween viewing because halloween is not just about fear. It’s about fun as well. Have a happy one. RP