The “ordinary man rises to the occasion” trope is a trope for a reason: Though we are all quite ordinary (whether we’ll admit it or not), most of us still secretly hope that somewhere deep down we can be extraordinary when it counts. Whether the last-second gunshot is on the line or a small town has forgotten how to dance, Hollywood loves to give a down-on-his-luck character a chance to prove his mettle.
For Shaun (Simon Pegg), the titular character of Shaun of the Dead, a neighborhood zombie invasion is his opportunity to do just that. The 2004 British zombie comedy, directed by Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrm vs. the World) and co-written by Wright and star Simon Pegg (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), is screening at 5th Avenue Cinema this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Shaun of the Dead’s first act goes to great lengths to depict Shaun as painfully mundane. From the opening shot, the film revels in the banality of Shaun’s existence. Here we have Shaun, fresh off work, posted up at his neighborhood pub, getting shitty with his roommate, Ed (Nick Frost). Wright gets all the details of this scene just right: The expertly-loosened tie around Shaun’s neck speaks volumes about where he’s at, and just how badly he needs a drink.
The pub, the Winchester, is Shaun’s oasis, which becomes clearer as we see just how stifling and unfulfilling Shaun’s job at a Radio Shack-style electronics store is. The Winchester not only inoculates Shaun from his soul-crushing nine-to-five but also his crumbling relationship. “Things will change, I promise,” Shaun tells his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), for what must be the umpteenth time.
The film’s emphasis on Shaun’s humdrum existence gives his life a certain clichéd quality: He drinks too much, forgets his mother’s birthday and can’t even manage to successfully book a dinner reservation for his anniversary. It’s difficult to imagine this guy starring in a getting-shit-done, “I Need a Hero”-ish montage.
Shaun’s overwhelming banality works because of the giant elephant in the room: We all know this is a zombie movie—all of us, that is, except our woefully ordinary and unsuspecting soon-to-be heroes and heroines.
Shaun of the Dead thrives on this juxtaposition, especially during its eminently watchable first half. By slowly introducing the anarchic into such a boring setting, Pegg and Wright imbue the film with vitality and vigor. Until Shaun and Ed confront their first zombie face-to-face, a rather sporting drinking game could be constructed on a Where’s Waldo?-style search for zombies in the background of shots: Was that couple snogging, or is he devouring her neck?
Pegg and Wright flash knowing winks like these throughout the film’s first act. Shaun answers that’s he’s “surviving,” well before he ever sees a zombie. We are told that “it’s not the end of the world” just because Liz dumped Shaun. And Shaun shuffles past zombiefied homeless dudes, avoiding eye contact in the practiced way of a seasoned city-goer. The gap between what the viewer knows and what the characters know gives the first half of the movie a giddy, anxious energy.
The overwhelming ordinariness of the film’s characters makes their reactions to downright insane events feel authentic. It feels only natural that Ed and Shaun’s reaction to their first zombie—a long-haired woman stumbling and swaying listlessly in their backyard—is to assume she’s off-her-ass drunk. This is the moment when the gap between what the viewer knows and what the characters know closes. For better or worse, we are now in a full-blown zombie movie. Call it an undead version of Chekhov’s gun rule: If zombies appear in act one, there must be much skull-bashing and flesh-munching by act three.
Ultimately, how much you enjoy Shaun of the Dead boils down to whether you think Wright and his cast pull off this transition from the wry, observational humor of the first half to the chaotic gore of the second half. It’s a delicate balance, to be sure, but the script’s absurdist bent and a deep cast of characters—specifically Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) and Lucy Davis (BBC’s The Office)—give the second half enough comedic punch to sustain the film’s narrative momentum.
No matter how unhinged the action gets, Shaun of the Dead maintains its skewed sense of humor and quick wit, resulting in something altogether unexpected: an understated zombie movie.
The Portland Vanguard, 01.19.12. Link: http://psuvanguard.com/arts/flesh-eating-farce/