Shaun of the Dead put director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost into the mainstream. The trio worked together on the amazing TV series Spaced a few years prior; however, it was this film that introduced them to the world. What started as cult status has grown in wide appreciation, both among lovers of comedy and horror. For as memorable as the movie is, with a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, it initially only made $38 million, with much of its affection coming in retrospect. It can be argued that this new love came through during COVID, as we all certainly sat at home with a cup of tea and waited for all that to “blow over”. And since the first of these turns 20 this year, I wished to discuss what I treasure about these movies beyond nostalgia.
The Unforgettable Characters and Humor
Pegg plays Shaun, a sales representative caught in a zombie apocalypse and desperately trying to rescue his friends and loved ones. Like general audiences, the comedy/horror was loved from first viewing, but upon much rewatch, the movie is cherished even more; whilst it remains my least favourite of the unofficial trilogy, the distinction is now that of a narrow one. Its genius writing stands out more so in my mature years, along with its brisk and also laidback directing and style that resonates in pure British humour. Although his American films, Scott Pilgrim and Baby Driver, succeeded in entertainment value, they just do not hold a candle to the years when the artist got to resonate in his pure sense of Britishness with the superb Cornetto Trilogy.
A Unique Take on the Zombie Genre
Although not technically a full-fledged horror, Shaun of the Dead is, in every sense, a great comedy movie because of its huge satirical and British-oriented sarcastic attitude to normal thriller/horror movies featuring zombies (sorry for using the Z word) as the main antagonists. Wright described the film as ‘the Zombie Apocalypse through the lens of the average East Londoners’, setting the stage for a wonderfully crafted parody of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (as you’ve probably assumed from the title). Gore and blood splatter frequently, but rather than in a stylised, it adheres more to ironic realism in a deprecating sense; Shaun and his flatmate Ed (Frost) attempt to become heroes that slaughter zombies effortlessly, only to throw records whilst sorting frantically which are least valuable among their collection.
The Depth of Shaun’s Journey
This is where Wright’s excellent writing comes into play; whilst its parody elements seem to dominate the opening act, a sense of individuality rises, particularly when you watch it through adult eyes. Shaun’s arc is truly remarkable because at first, you would assume the film’s dead-pan humour comes at the expense of his development. However, it’s a far more endearing tale on the hero’s journey – one in which the hero doesn’t just become a hero over one day. In a very sombre scene toward the end when the remaining protagonists are trapped in a cellar, Shaun comes to realise life doesn’t just flip on a dime and he evolves into a more assured person in one day – one must overcome their past livelihoods first, ie addictions as is the case with Shaun’s past tune with the hours at the pub. Supporting characters all help to illustrate Shaun’s development into a more assured lifestyle – of course, Ed being the unhygienic slump glued to the sofa of a flat that’s not his own serves as one foil whereas Pete, played by a scene-stealing Peter Serafinowicz, serves as the other extreme in how uptight he is. And the zombies themselves, as confirmed by Pegg multiple times, represent a wasted life. Underneath the zombie apocalypse story is a man crawling his way out of an abyss of a colourless life and its hollow inhabitants. The best scripts mean and say more than what they appear!
Technical Mastery and Legacy
On a technical level, Shaun Of The Dead is an equal marvel. Wright’s magical way of directing had its big breakthrough in this film; the immense attention to detail and fantastic style he has with constructing a visual narrative is staggering. His style keeps the movie fun and fast-paced constantly, even at some points you’re exhausted by the experience but you still feel the need to keep going. For too long has the genre suffered at the hands of writers who assume noise, and media references and leave their actors to improvise (as they are too lazy to devise a constructive joke themselves) to fill out the script. Wright is blissfully still around to prove comedy can be exceedingly intellectual (which has always been my favourite type of genre). He keeps his movies fast-paced and hides little details about the jokes, which one can notice on further viewings. And that’s another aspect of Wright’s charm, his movies always leave people coming back for more. I’ve watched Hot Fuzz and The World’s End [literally] millions of times and I still notice something new. Something else that is on point is the scent of British sarcasm in the film’s veins; it is so satirical on conventional blockbuster tropes, in which the heroic moments get slapped down by jokes (but ones that feel characteristic). But as said before, the movie eventually moulds into its own identity with genuine scenes of heartache.
Much of that is projected in the most excellent performance from Simon Pegg, who is naturally great with comedy, but I find under-appreciated in the dramatic aspect; toward the end, he gets to flex his acting muscles in tear flows that feel not at all unnatural. It’s a climax where comedy takes a back seat and anxieties run high and it works whenever viewed. Nick Frost is also great and as per usual he and Pegg have such loving chemistry and whilst his character is the unfortunate dragging-down force for Shaun, the script makes sure you never dislike Ed and his conclusion at the end is truly a noble one. Bill Nighy is stellar as Shaun’s hard-to-please stepdad and he and Pegg share a scene of beautiful acting that switches the tone superfluously.
The film’s legacy goes beyond how good it is. It remains one of the best and most popular entries in Wright’s filmography, celebrated as a subversive, highly relatable misadventure that spreads across different genres and embraces a stellar sense of humour. It continues to grow in our culture more and more.