[box cover]

Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead enjoys the weird distinction of being one of 2004's funniest comedies and one of the best zombie movies ever made — better than the same year's Dawn of the Dead remake, better than 28 Days Later, way better than Resident Evil. Improbably billed as a "romantic zombie comedy," Shaun is milk-spewingly funny, but it doesn't pull its horror-movie punches; you laugh, and then someone gets graphically torn apart by zombies, guts a-flyin'. This is nothing new, of course. Comedy and horror have been cinematic chocolate and peanut butter since Lou Costello started gibbering at the sight of Frankenstein's monster, and many of the most revered horror flicks are filled with gags — think of George A. Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead or James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein or Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 or Peter Jackson's legendary splatter-laff-fest Braindead (long-billed as the goriest movie ever made, and which features a man wading into a sea of zombies while wielding a lawn mower). But Shaun of the Dead stands proud, if that's the word, alongside those cult classics. For one thing, the movie's actually about something: Like the original Romero zombie trilogy, it uses the undead as a social metaphor — in this case for a certain brand of pathetic, late-20s slacking. Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a 29-year-old Brit who does little more than play video games, work retail, and knock back pints with his layabout housemate Ed (Nick Frost) — much to the consternation of Shaun's considerably more grown-up girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). After Liz dumps Shaun, he and Ed get so drunk at their favorite pub that they fail to notice the zombie plague that's swept London over the last 24 hours. (Their drunken sing-along with a moaning corpse is one of several hilarious bits tucked into the film's lengthy set-up.) When they finally do notice — a good 40 minutes into the movie — Shaun suddenly finds himself living a sort of undead variant on High Fidelity: Not only does he have to win back his girlfriend, prioritize his friendship with Ed, and sort out his life, he also has to brain zombies with cricket bats and keep the ghouls from busting down the doors at the very bar where he'd earlier drowned his sorrows. The script (by Pegg and director Edgar Wright, famous in the UK for their TV series "Spaced") hilariously mocks its heroes' warped priorities — Ed wants to escape the zombie plague in the nicest car he can borrow, and Shaun only wants to use the worst records in his collection as zombie-killing projectiles. And there's just something priceless about pitting the end of the world against middle-class British reserve; Shaun's mother complains to her son at one point that the undead are getting "a bit bitey."

Shaun of the Dead looks great, with a couple of long tracking shots following Shaun to the corner market before and after the plague that are Raising Arizona-audacious. The movie's also audacious in its stubborn refusal to update Romero's concepts: Pegg and Wright have declared Shaun a "companion film" to the original Dead trilogy — and old-school Dawn of the Dead fans will love that Shaun is weirdly faithful to the laws of the original Romero zombie universe. These aren't the fashionably zippy plague victims of this year's Dawn remake or 28 Days Later, but rather the foolish, easy-to-dodge, insatiably hungry zombies of yesteryear. They're also a legitimate threat: Ultimately, the film plays its horror pretty straight, with some genuine splatter-scares during a gruesome pub-siege climax. Like the best entries in the long-maligned zombie genre, Shaun never fails to balance its B-movie gore with moments that are funny, human and mercilessly "bitey."

*          *          *

Universal's DVD release is densely packed, though it omits a couple of the commentary tracks that appeared in the UK edition; Region 1 extras include a commentary track by Pegg and Wright; another "cast commentary" track with Pegg, Nick Frost, Dylan Moran, Kate Ashfield, and Lucy Davis; a running "storyboard comparison" viewing option; a trivia-packed "Zomb-o-Meter" subtitle track; "Simon Pegg's Video Diary"; casting tapes; a "Zombie Gallery"; "Edgar and Simon's Flip Chart," a presentation of the script on large sheets of butcher paper; an "SFX Comparison"; make-up tests; the film's EPK featurette; the U.S. theatrical trailer; "TV Bits" featuring some of the video segments that appear on televisions in the film (including a "ZombAid" sequence with Coldplay); plus deleted and extended scenes and outtakes. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is solid, while English, French and Spanish language tracks are all in Dolby Digital 5.1. Keep-case.
M.E. Russell



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