The Halloween spirit is in the air — and in my stomach, seeing as I’ve already eaten enough peanut M&Ms to warrant an intervention. As we look forward to gorging ourselves on even more candy during this year’s festivities, it’s the perfect time to reflect on the thrilling, bloody and witty zombie horror-comedy that is “Shaun of the Dead.”
“Shaun of the Dead” finds its unlikely hero in Shaun (Simon Pegg), a 30-something Londoner who is, to put it lightly, a massive disappointment to everyone he knows. His girlfriend, stepfather and roommate despise his listlessness and detachment but to no avail. The only person Shaun gets a modicum of respect from is Ed, his delightfully inept best friend (Nick Frost). Shaun and Ed spend their days as metaphorical zombies, staring idly at the TV, straggling toward the pub and struggling to connect with those around them. Suddenly, the duo find themselves in the midst of a full-blown actual zombie apocalypse. Shaun and Ed, ostensibly two of the only people who have not yet been infected, must find a way to pull their miserable lives together in order to save London.
It’s a ridiculous premise, but it works. That’s because “Shaun of the Dead” is an unadulterated parody of the horror genre, specifically the zombie apocalypse niche. The title of the movie itself is a play on “Dawn of the Dead,” a 1978 horror film that has spawned many a pop culture moment. Bloody handprints, jump-scares, heroic sacrifices: you name the cliché, this movie has it. However, “Shaun of the Dead” isn’t just a zombie parody — it’s a quintessentially British zombie parody. What is Shaun’s idea of the perfect zombie refuge? Why, his local pub, of course. Shaun and Ed’s favorite hangover treatment is a Cornetto, a British ice cream cone sold in convenience stores. In fact, the Cornetto makes an appearance in all three of Wright’s films that star Pegg and Frost, which have been retroactively labelled as the “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy.” All three are parodies of some of cinema’s most infamous genres (“Hot Fuzz” is a buddy-cop movie and “The World’s End” is an alien invasion movie), united by their distinctive infusion of British middle-class suburbia with cult-fantasy elements.
What makes “Shaun of the Dead” come alive is Wright’s mad scientist-like editing choices. Wright’s editing style, which has been described perfectly as ‘kinetic’, is a character in and of itself. The film features all Wright’s signature flairs: frenetic cuts, clever scene transitions and meticulous audio-visual synchronization, among others. These ‘Wright-isms’ are pervasive and relentless: watch any five minutes of “Shaun of the Dead,” and you’ll notice at least five clever uses of visual juxtaposition, transitions, dialogue and sound. The constant visual movement imbues energy into his films, propelling the story and comedy to greater heights. Ultimately, Wright’s canon lies at the nexus of auteur cinema and popular culture, blending the two in refreshing and unique ways.
However, Wright isn’t the sole standout. Pegg and Frost, frequent collaborators of Wright’s, bring an undeniable chemistry into Shaun and Ed’s relationship. Despite their characters’ utter incompetence and immaturity, the two have share a natural and extremely strong charisma that stops the characters from being perceived as irritating. “Shaun of the Dead” may not be Wright’s magnum opus (his crown jewel, in my opinion, is “Hot Fuzz”), but it still boasts a solid script, great performances and an intriguing twist on the themes of life and maturity.
Since its release 15 years ago, “Shaun of the Dead” has gained a cult following, and deservedly so. Ultimately, “Shaun of the Dead” is less a critique of the zombie apocalypse genre than a comedic hyperbole of the genre’s most salient elements. In fact, you could say “Shaun of the Dead” has its brain and eats them, too. It both laughs at and honors the zombie apocalypse movie, resulting in an oxymoronic film that is hilariously violent and violently hilarious. Even after 15 years, the humor in “Shaun of the Dead” stays fresh and relevant because it doesn’t rely on dated references or cheap jokes. Instead, Wright’s gags rely on an interplay between visual and auditory elements that are more sophisticated and enduring. Wright’s comedic style is wholly his own — it’s not chained to a dated zeitgeist. It’s the same reason why people still love “Star Wars” after 40 years — what makes an artistic work stand the test of time lies in its ability to provide a unique insight on the human condition in all of its drama, tragedy or even comedy.
So, when Halloween’s severed head rolls around, think about settling in for the night with Shaun and company as they try to rid the world of zombies. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a snack to accompany the film, you probably won’t find any Cornettos on this side of the pond.