In 2004, I was 14 years old and had idea of what my own interests were. My family never took trips to the theater, and I didn’t have the means to go on my own, but shortly after Christmas, somehow, my brother convinced our dad to bring home a DVD. That’s the first time I remember watching Shaun of the Dead and the first time I connected with a film on a substantial level. I distinctly remember after the film had ended, it was as if someone had finally laid the foundation for my personality. I watched the film on repeat for the next few months. Like any teenager, I still wrestled with other facets of my identity, but one quality-of-self was a fixture from then on: I loved film. And since Shaun of the Dead was the first film to teach me that I had that sort of passion within, it’s not just my favorite movie, but one of my favorite parts of myself.
While layered and intelligent, Shaun of the Dead is not a film that demands heavy analysis or the application of advanced film theory (though I’m sure one could manage if one were so inclined). It’s the perfect film for a teenager to carry into adulthood without having to step away from that attachment. There’s enough to enjoy here in straightforward homage and patiently crafted humor. And, just for the record, I am not comfortable with calling this a “spoof film.” It earns prominent placement on every genre shelf from which it borrows: horror to comedy to zombie flick. In anticipation of the anniversary, I rewatched Shaun of the Dead yet again, and, preparing to take notes, I found myself instead having the same strong, film-giddy reaction that I had 10 years ago, on my first Christmas watch. This preservation of value is constructed by the contributions of the craftsmen at work here.
Simon Pegg illustrates the titular character as a man completely lost in himself. Normal adult life isn’t a comfortable fit for him. He’s a sympathetic definition of the slacker motif. He is complacent with being drunk, a manchild shunning any sense of a greater ambition. The movie investigates potential causes of his disconnect: his biological father was absent, and he is constantly at odds with his judgmental, never-satisfied stepdad. His apathetic attitude toward everything sets the tone for his awakening, which comes a little too late, arriving just after his break up with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) and just before the zombie apocalypse.
Of course zombies are always a metaphor for a lazy, doomed, hive-minded culture, but the opening sequences of Shaun of the Dead show the already mundane world in which most people live. This builds to an ingenious joke constructed on the expectation established in the metaphorical foreshadowing: Ed, played by Nick Frost, discreetly tells the entire plot to the movie while having a beer with Shaun. Think about that! This was the first big feature for Edgar Wright after A Fist Full of Fingers and Spaced. This was Wright’s first time sitting at the big table, and he was playing his first hand with half of his cards turned face up, the perfect mix of assurance, audacity, and orneriness. But it all worked to perfection because it was contextualized by all of the staples for which we’ve come to love Wright: his quick cut sequences, night to day shifts, long take/follow shots, and the overall confidence that eludes some veteran filmmakers and invites participation from top-tier talent. Wright earns and applies the cameo better than any director today. In his debut, Chris Martin from Coldplay, Martin Freeman (who makes a cameo or acts in each Cornetto film), and Wright himself all make coy appearances.
The script was crafted by Pegg and Wright, and it is perfectly grafitti’d by the pair’s love of beer, video games, and film. Tekken 2 is referenced, nearly every sequence refers back to The Winchester (their favorite pub), and they name businesses after horror film’s directors and actors. The soundtrack brings it all together, calling upon the all-time great rock band Queen at one point as the characters beat a Zombie with pool sticks. QUEEN! Again with the courage!
But that courage is worth revisiting because it’s a pivotal point. It’s all in the chances that Wright and his actors take. There is no other way to explain how a movie constructed almost exclusively out of homage to other zombie films can, itself, turn out to be best zombie film ever made. That sort of accomplishment requires inventiveness, creativity, fresh perspective, and know how. The sort of thing that Wright, Pegg, and Frost provide to this film and all their others. That kind of energy can really wake something up in a person. It sure did with me.
Happy Birthday, Shaun. You’ve still got red on you.