There’s a lot a competition for best zombie movie. Some might say the best was the racially tinged horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. They wouldn’t be far off the mark. If you’re a sixteen-year-old girl you might say it’s Warm Bodies. If you’re a bro obsessed with Bill Murray, you might go with Zombieland as your fave. Mine, and frankly the best, is Shaun of the Dead. I love Simon Pegg. In his down time from acting in blockbuster behemoths he’s always crafting together a brilliant gem close to his, and our, nerdy heart. These gems are invariable entertaining: Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, Paul—all great, but none are as brilliant as Shaun of the Dead.
A hapless dote with a shite job and a lovable slob for a best friend realize they have to save their loved ones when the zombies attack. Such a simple premise. It’s those simple premises in the hands of brilliant writers that always turn out for the best. For instance, a newly wedded couple moves into the Dakota and gives birth to the Antichrist? Done and done, Rosemary’s Baby was a hit novel, a classic horror film, and even an upcoming miniseries staring Zoe Saldana. Simple premises lead to esteemed legacies. And Simon Pegg is on his way.
Zombie movies rise several times a year, always reminding us that the dead are never really gone and that what our true natures are brutal and savage. It’s the vanquishing of the zombies, the chopping off of their heads or the burning of their rotting bodies, that reassures us that we may might just hold off the end times (that horrid moment when we devour each other) just a little longer. The human race demands an endgame, and zombie narratives (along with comets, disease epidemics, and natural disasters) are our favorite art form in which to experiment with the our own demise. And it’s the most personal. We can’t fight comets. We can try to fight aliens. We can’t see diseases, but just ask Brad Pitt what happens when the disease turns people into zombies. We can seek shelter when the tsunamis, earthquakes, and storms come, but look how well that went for the dinosaurs. A zombie apocalypse is personal because it’s us. How do we fight ourselves when we’ve suddenly become a danger to each other? I mean, besides with a cricket bat.
Taking this theme and concept to a British suburb, Shaun of the Dead is characteristic of many zombie narratives in that it uses the undead invasion as a prism in which to see Shaun’s closest, interpersonal relationships: the girlfriend he is doomed to disappoint, the loser friend he should have ditched years ago, and the mom and stepdad for whom he’ll never be good enough. While essentially a loser in the beginning of the film, he becomes the leader of his kith and kin’s survival party, showing us through humor and heart that it might just take the most dire of circumstances to reveal one’s heroic nature. This heroic nature is tester (spoiler alert) in the movie’s greatest moment in which his mother becomes a zombie and he must kill her. It’s a heart-wrenching moment tucked exquisitely among the action and humor.
And speaking of humor, we can’t forget that Shaun of the Dead is simply funny as hell. A feast for the observant nerd, the film is typical of other Simon Pegg vehicles in that subtle jokes are paid off hours later, delightfully telling details are thrown in for those watching close enough, and references to B-plots and other narratives are scattered among the bloody river of English Wit. It’s generally difficult to translate British humor into American lexicon, so I get it if some don’t find this movie as entertaining as I do. It might help to know that instead of saying a phone line is “busy” the Brits say “engaged.” It may help to also know that a common nickname for men called David is “Davs”, pronounced like “calves.” That said, most of the jokes work just fine, and what starts as a series of awkward situations slowly turns into hilarious, action-packed romp.
Actors to watch out for. Shaun’s mom? Yup, that’s Penelope Wilton, more commonly known as Mrs. Crawly, Mathew’s mother on Downton Abbey. When Shaun’s crew meets their counterparts in the alleyway? Yup, that’s Martin Freeman, before he became Dr. Watson and Bilbo Baggins, as Shaun’s doppelgänger. And be sure not to miss a sutble Bill Nighy as Shaun’s stepfather.