Ash is feeling a little bit under the weather, so I'll be taking charge." So says Shaun (Simon Pegg) to his valiant crew of appliance salespeople, but if you don't get the real meaning, you're probably not part of the target audience for Shaun of the Dead. Ash, for the benefit of readers who are woefully uncool, is the jut-jawed hero of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies, played by Bruce Campbell. By invoking his name, Shaun the character and Shaun the movie are cheekily throwing down the gauntlet, reviving the zombie-comedy genre with a distinctly British vengeance.
The sharp-eyed zombie fan may also spot subtle nods to George Romero's Dead trilogy (yes, more subtle than the film's obvious title pun), Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and possibly more, but fear not -- Shaun of the Dead is its own thing and doesn't rely on a lazy pastiche of references to other films. It has Peter Jackson's seal of approval, and those of you who were fans of Peter Jackson long before such fandom had anything to do with elves and dwarfs should know what that means.
Director Edgar Wright and star Pegg are familiar to British audiences from a sitcom called Spaced. Haven't seen it, but apparently Pegg's persona on that show as a slacker twentysomething is quite similar to his role as Shaun, although it has to be said that Shaun looks a wee bit older than 29, which he professes to be (Pegg is actually in his mid-30s). With wrinkled brow, receding red hairline and goatee, he looks more than a little like comedian Louis C.K.
The social satire of Romero's Dawn of the Dead and its recent remake are amped up here, as the suburban London area in which Shaun resides is inhabited by people who already wander around in zombie-like trances, owing generally to sleep deprivation, alcohol or plain boredom. Shaun spends all his nights at a local pub called the Winchester (the social equivalent of a mall, meaning that Dawn of the Dead fans know where this is going) with his fat slob of a best friend named Ed (Nick Frost), who likes to play video games, pass gas and say things like, "You know what we should do tomorrow? Keep drinking!" You might wonder what Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) sees in her man, and indeed, so does she, which is why she breaks up with him the night before zombies start to take over the world.
Aside from the title, we've seen the signs coming. TV broadcasts in the background talk about a space probe; people flee down the street; a convenience-store fridge is covered in bloody handprints. But Shaun and friends are in too much of a stupor to notice or care; the first time they see a zombie, he and Ed think it's a drunk girl and try to play goofy pranks on her.
The zombie threat is taken seriously, for the most part, though a final coda scene crosses the line into pure camp. The humor comes from the way stereotypical North London folk might react to such an absurdly frightening situation. Shaun's mother (Penelope Wilton) is a particularly amusing case study in stiff upper lips, solving everything with a nice cup of tea and saying of a zombie encounter that "they were a bit bitey." At the other end of the social scale is Ed, whose T-shirt reads "I Got Wood" and who fights his first undead by throwing Prince records at them. When Ed and Shaun launch into an impromptu drunken singing session of Grandmaster Melle Mel's "White Lines (Don't Do It)" with a zombie inadvertently adding the harmonies, it's a classic moment, in large part because "White Lines" seems like such an odd pop-cultural reference for English slackers to begin with.
Shaun of the Dead is good, goofy fun, but given the attendant hype not just from Peter Jackson, but also from Harry Knowles, who's been talking it up for nearly a year now, there may be a danger of excessively high expectations from horror fans. So let's be clear: This isn't an all-out gorefest, and Shaun is no Ash in the slapstick-caricature department. There are no running zombies either -- Wright and Pegg have gotten back to the basic slow, staggering things (although there is one in a wheelchair, which is a neat sight gag). Think low-key. Think sarcasm. This is an English film, after all.
Just one minor plot point that irks, and it probably wouldn't be bothersome at all if the filmmakers hadn't taken pains to make the threat feel real. If you're in a car, driving through streets filled with zombies, and one of the people in your car dies and turns into a zombie, is it really the best idea to get out and walk? Thwarting expectations is one thing -- and Shaun of the Dead frequently does so very well -- but guys, when there are five of you in the vehicle, why not just toss the damn zombie out the door?