Not many films can define their genre so manifestly that they become worthy of distinctions based on scientific nomenclature, but Shaun of the Dead has certainly earned a new paradigm in its genre, where predecessors could be rebranded as ‘Before Shaun’ and successors forever proclaimed ‘After Shaun’.
By borrowing essentials from such classic zombie films as the original Dawn of the Dead and meshing them with the comedic elements of the unrelated Return of the Living Dead, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright made a film that plays the zombie outbreak straight while suffusing it with a sort of humor inherent in the genre. The type of synchronicity required to return a result like this nearly impossible to do once, although Ghostbusters is a good example of another masterpiece of mixed genres. The fact that Wright and Pegg did it twice with Hot Fuzz and deigned to aim for a perfect trilogy with The World’s End proves that ascribing their success to luck is as foolish as the notion of dogs being unable to look up.
The story begins with the eponymous hero in a struggle to set things right with his lazy best friend, domineering flatmate, loving mother, bitter stepdad, longtime girlfriend, and her two friends. Getting long in the tooth and struggling to stay afloat, Shaun is forced into a position where he has to fix all of it at once. That’s when the zombies come in.
The fact that Pegg and Wright deeply love the films they’re sending up is only one facet of this movie’s perfection; they never think they’re above the material or assume that any type of gag is beneath them, and they never break the rules by having the characters wink at the camera, doing nothing to abuse you of the notion that these are just people in a movie at whom you’re supposed to laugh. As with Hot Fuzz, nearly the entire film is a collage of repeated motifs, and as one can be taught in any film class, the repetition of a motif is intended to help the audience make a different supposition every time it’s presented; hence “You’ve got red on you”, the reappearance of the flowers, and the fact that Shaun’s buddy Ed prophesies the events of the day in drinking metaphors.
Repeated lines get funnier each time and with each additional viewing while serving the necessities of the plot; Shaun deals with every problem he has seriously, leading intractably to some moments free of humor where the actors show their dramatic chops without alienating the audience. The thing that holds together the drama, funny dialogue, physical humor, sight gags, ridiculous gory violence, and repeated motifs is the editing. There may be nothing in film harder to get right than comedy, and since timing is everything, the editor, Chris Dickens, should be looked upon as a deity.
Shaun of the Dead’s depth is simply mind-numbing, and in spite of the in-jokes, subtext, and motifs, it’s made without pretension, so everyone from the high-brow elitists to the low-brow populists of cinema can enjoy the film. It’s not often that a comedy works for everybody while simultaneously adopting perfectly incorporated elements of action and horror, so it’s no wonder that it has inspired everything from Fido to Zombieland to even The Cabin in the Woods. No inferior rip-off or send-up can ever dilute its power, however, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the film become a right of passage, as Monty Python was to my generation when we were old enough to appreciate it, while being used to teach film courses on how to do comedy right. In brief, no comedy made in the last decade is more perfect than this.
Mercifully, Shaun of the Dead is available widely on DVD and Blu-ray for cheap, but enterprising fans might want to consider picking up the attractive combo-pack steelbook or the entire Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy in Blu-ray, which is absolutely a must-have.