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Dustin Putman

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Shaun of the Dead (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by Edgar Wright
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Dylan Moran, Lucy Davis, Bill Nighy, Peter Serafinowicz, Penelope Wilton, Jessica Stevenson, Rafe Spall, Matt Lucas, Reece Shearsmith, Tamsin Greig, Julia Deakin
2004 – 99 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, gore, and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 14, 2004.

A sleeper hit in the UK earlier this year that is now being released stateside, "Shaun of the Dead" is a spoof of the zombie genre as only the British could make. Unlike American parodies, which are usually filled with obvious puns and broad slapstick, the comedy found in "Shaun of the Dead" is as bitingly dry as a straight shot of gin but without the bitter aftertaste. Writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer Simon Pegg (both known in their country for the TV series, "Spaced") are exceedingly droll jokester whose humor is of the subtle, quick-witted variety, and they do not miss a beat at also making a statement about the more mundane sides of modern living. Indeed, if the viewer does not pay adamant attention, they may be in danger of missing some of the biggest laughs.

Armageddon is at hand, and the recently dead have risen to walk the Earth and take a bite out of anyone in their path. Danger may be lurking around them, but blokes Shaun (Simon Pegg), a senior sales rep at an electronics store, and best friend Ed (Nick Frost), a couch potato and video game fanatic, are so self-involved that they don't seem to notice for an inordinate amount of time. Once they do realize what's happening, it's a fight to stay alive, with Shaun, Ed, Shaun's on-and-off girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), Liz's friends David (Dylan Moran) and Dianne (Lucy Davis), and Shaun's zoinked-out mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton) setting out to hole up in the most ideal place they know of: a local pub.

A take-off of the title, "Dawn of the Dead," "Shaun of the Dead" has a number of laugh-aloud moments (the oblivious Shaun ignores every possible warning sign that danger is afoot, even in the face of grave circumstances and virtual neon signs all around him), but much of its humor is of the gently amusing variety. Other jokey pieces of dialogue threaten to fly under the radar, so fast and sly are they that it is easy to miss them altogether on first viewing. And, for the vehement zombie movie fans in the audience, there are a number of astute nods, particularly to George Romero's "Dead" trilogy: 1968's "Night of the Living Dead" (a cellar and a tricky play on the line, "We're coming to get you, Barbara," play parts in the action), 1978's "Dawn of the Dead" (the slow-poke walk of the undead and their goofier, dumber side are affectionately ribbed), and 1985's "Day of the Dead."

In a film that depends on the element of surprise and not knowing the specifics of director Edgar Wright's lunacy, it would be criminal to give too much away. Still, watch for the delirious but smart scene in which the group of protagonists attempt to fool their adversaries by posing as zombies themselves. Another sequence, in which a discussion on where to hide out leads to three different possible flash-forwards, gets great comic mileage out of its repetition.

"Shaun of the Dead" is an undoubted entertainment, but it is also flawed. Sporadic passages are either not quite as funny as they want to be, or make the mistake of taking things too seriously, especially during the climax. It is surprising to grow attached to some of these characters and two separate love stories—a romantic one between Shaun and Liz, and a platonic one between Shaun and Ed—but enough time is spent developing them as real people for the involvement to be well-deserved. Still, the pacing lags in spots because it is sometimes difficult to figure out what tone director Wright is going for at any given moment. More confusing are the random spurts of extreme gore, which aren't over-the-top enough to be remotely comedic.

At the least, the cast has a ball toying with conventions while simultaneously working their comic and dramatic muscles. Little-known performers Nick Frost, as the burly Ed; Kate Ashfield (2003's "Beyond Borders"), as the sweet Liz; and Penelope Wilton (2003's "Calendar Girls"), as Shaun's shellshocked mom, stand out from the pack by creating memorably charming personas. "Shaun of the Dead" isn't the godsend motion picture many Internet geeks (a term used fondly) are touting it as, but it is intelligently wicked and bloodily appealing in an agile sort of way. Those knowledged in zombie movies and acerbic British comedy will have a field day. All others might be puzzled.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman