Shaun of the Dead Review
The comedy horror genre is littered with dismal failures, personally I’ve always found the parody style of the likes of Scary Movie and Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th to be tired and unfunny, very much using the shotgun approach to comedy, throwing every gag they can imagine at the screen and hoping some of them stick. With Shaun of the Dead Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright took a different approach, creating a comedy with horror in, rather than a comedy about horror, and that subtle change in attitude has created the years funniest film so far, an instant cult classic and a movie the British film industry can really be proud of.
Shaun (Simon Pegg) works in a small electrical retailer, he shares a house with career minded Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) and layabout and amateur drug dealer Ed (Nick Frost). Spending all his nights either glued to the Playstation or down the local – The Winchester – it’s the ideal life for a 20 something bachelor. Unfortunately Shaun isn’t single, his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) doesn’t quite enjoy the bachelor lifestyle as much as Shaun, she wants to go places and do things, but Shaun’s ideas of going places and doing things are always the same, the trusty Winchester. In a desperate attempt to save his relationship Shaun promises Liz a slap up meal at a real restaurant, it would have bought him some time, had he remembered to book a table, instead the failed night out gets Shaun nothing but dumped. Come Sunday morning, Shaun finds himself in the aftermath of drowning his sorrows, presented with a drunken note scrawled on his fridge “Sort Life Out” but even that rather basic plan may not be easy to put into effect, as London seems to be the epicentre of an outbreak of the undead.
If it weren’t obvious from the title Simon Pegg has taken his cues from the George A Romero classic Dawn of the Dead in building the film’s structure. Although Pegg and Wright have put far more emphasis on the journey, rather than the siege, they make no attempts to hide their inspiration, instead they revel in it – though you might not notice unless your youth was as misspent as theirs. Eschewing the obvious references and parodies Shaun of the Dead is much more subtle, with cult horror directors and actors now immortalised in the names of restaurants and supermarkets, it’s a blink and you’ll miss it test for the gore hounds. That’s not to say though that the only laughs are for observant geeks, just that the real jokes can be understood by anyone, as it’s the script that drives Shaun of the Dead to greatness. Hardly a line is wasted, everything is either a joke or a keen foreshadowing of future events, which in essence makes it a joke the next time you watch the film – and it is a film you’ll watch again. Some even become in-jokes before the film is over, with several important conversations conducted in two entirely different contexts, seemingly innocent conversations become far more important, and it’s clever touches like that which keep the script bubbling.
The casting is perfect, somewhat surprisingly Pegg didn’t cast his Spaced co-star Jessica Stevenson as his girlfriend – though she does have a smaller role – but Kate Ashfield was probably a better choice, as her character is one of the few that have to deal with any kind of sensible dialogue, and she adds a seriousness to her role the Stevenson isn’t known for. She’s still funny, she just isn’t asked to be as much as most, the lion’s share of the laughs, though, don’t belong to Pegg, but Nick Frost. Best known as Tim’s army obsessed best friend Mike in Spaced, he leaves the TA behind him to create the best character in the film. Ed is lazy, insensitive, rude, and downright hilarious, he’s a fantastically inappropriate character, and almost every line he utters will have you laughing. Liz’s friends David (Dylan Moran) and Di (Lucy Davis), dragged along for the ride to The Winchester, have some great moments, though Davis is somewhat underused and Moran’s voice of cutting dissent makes an excellent verbal sparring partner for Shaun.
But it isn’t just the comedy aspects that make the film enjoyable, the team have also managed to include scares and special effects far superior to those found in many ‘straight’ horror movies. The make up department was run by Stuart Conran who was brought to Edgar Wright’s attention after he watched Peter Jackson’s Braindead – the film which set the world record for the use of the most fake blood – so that gives you an idea of what to expect. Whilst the blood flow isn’t constant, whenever there’s an opportunity to open a vein it’s grasped heartily. They’re also not afraid to kill off the cast, you never know when somebody is going to be torn limb from limb, and unlike most horror movies, you actually care when someone dies. By making the film about the characters first and the zombies second Wright and Pegg build an attachment to the characters that will lead to genuine tension, as you worry about your favourites fates.
Ultimately Shaun of the Dead does feel like Spaced: The Movie, but I can’t see how that is a bad thing. All the wit of the series has been carried over, the references have been toned down, which makes it feel like a more mature effort, but not that much more mature, it is a zombie movie after all, and being allowed free reign with the blood and language has made things far more entertaining, surely anyone that can laugh at a disembowelment will know swearing can be very funny. And if you don’t think it now, wait until Ed offers to get a round in…
Despite the huge amount of extras crammed onto a single disc, Shaun of the Dead looks excellent on DVD. Filmed in 2.35:1 widescreen (inspired by John Carpenter’s love of the ratio in his horror movies) and presented here anamorphically it can’t be faulted. The colours are muted, but this is intentional, the film used a dirty brown palette with important visual aspects highlighted by their red colour. This is a trick they attribute to Don’t Look Now rather than The Sixth Sense, but wherever it came from it works, and makes those blood splatters all the more fun.
Shaun of the Dead is a film driven by its music, every scene contains either cunningly chosen track of the fine original score, which has been inspired by horror classics. The soundtrack is presented excellently – in Dolby Digital 5.1 – it gets loud when it needs to be, witness Ed barrelling down the road in Pete’s car to the sounds ofAsh’s Orpheus, and still capture the eerie quiet tones as Shaun explores the back room of The Winchester. It’s not a showy track, but it is one that makes you want to rush out and buy the soundtrack.
Commentary from Simon Pegg (co-writer and star) and Edgar Wright (co-writer and director)
The first two commentaries on the disc suffer somewhat from the inclusion of Simon Pegg on them both, as unfortunately they contain rather a lot of overlapping information. It’s a shame as this commentary is both informative, and very entertaining, but listening to it second left it somewhat of a disappointment. The two of them are very eager to point out all the references, and even not some that weren’t but have been claimed to be by members of the press – for instance the shot through Mary’s hole was never intended as a reference to Death Becomes Her – along with all the shooting locations and there’s easily enough information here to construct your own Shaun of the Dead tour around north London. Pegg also takes great pleasure in tormenting Wright, when he foolishly mentions the Isle of Mann, Pegg is inspired to retort with “you love men?” a statement he torments Wright with for the remainder of the commentary.
Commentary from stars Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis
Although I listened to this track first, I’d recommend that the Pegg/Wright track is your first stop, due not only to the overlap, but also the enthusiasm shown. Whilst Pegg is just as talkative as he is on the other track, Kate Ashfield doesn’t seem keen to be there, and hardly speaks – at least without prompting from Pegg – and Davis had just got off a plane from America and seems to be suffering the effects of jet-lag. Moran, echoing his role in the film, uses most of his time to make sarcastic – albeit friendly – comments towards his fellow commentators. It’s a reasonable track, and does contain plenty of entertaining comments that aren’t repeated in the other Pegg track, but it just feels a little like hard work as Pegg tries to motivate everyone throughout the track. One fantastic piece of information is gleaned from this track though, there’s a possibility of a sequel – Shaun of the Dead 2: From Dusk ‘Til Shaun. You can begin getting excited now.
Commentary from stars Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton
I wasn’t sure what to make of this idea, it seemed slightly odd to have Shaun’s parents providing their own commentary rather than being present on the other cast track, but it turns out it was rather a canny move. It’s a rather quirky track, mostly because it's the kind of commentary you’d expect your parents to give, it’s rather funny to listen to them talk about how disgusting the effects are – often Wilton can’t even watch – and Nighy is certainly a grumpy old dad figure, moaning about ‘cheeky kids’ and admitting to preferring sitting at home rather than going out. They’re very complimentary of everyone – except Dylan Moran – and Nighy seems to be willing the zombies to catch him in every scene. Certainly not a must listen track, but rather funny, in a quirky way.
Commentary from “The Zombies”
Although it begins with a disconcerting cacophony of moans, worrying you into thinking this really is going to be 95 minutes of zombie noises, the participants soon reveal their true selves. Five of the movie’s zombies sit down to talk about their experiences on the film, but they don’t really have much to talk about. It’s clear they all loved making the film, and very much enjoy watching it, but too much time is spent complimenting people and pointing out the obvious, as their small roles obviously give them far less to talk about than the main cast members.
Zombie-O-Meter: Trivia Track
This subtitle track seems to be culled entirely from the commentary tracks, and largely the Pegg and Wright track. It points out all the movie references and locations, but anyone who’s listened to the commentary tracks will already be aware of all these titbits. The one advantage it does have though, is you can watch it with the regular film soundtrack, so you can enjoy the film and learn all the in-jokes.
Accessed via the subtitle menu, the storyboard comparisons don’t actually run alongside the movie, instead an icon of some scary scribbled eyes appears in the corner of the screen when storyboards are available, pressing enter will take you to them. They’re rather hastily scribbled, but the scenes do stay rather true to them – further evidence that Pegg and Wright really had this planned in their minds – but scenes that didn’t make it have been marked so you can easily flick through the pages and stop on the differing parts.
Edgar Wright told the producers he just didn’t have time to film alternate, cleaner, versions of a number of scenes, for use in the airplane version of the film, which means the scenes have to be dubbed. Here we get an example of one of those scenes, after Shaun and Ed wake Pete up at 4am, with liberal use of the words funk and prink. Not quite up to the legendary Mallrats TV version, but still funny stuff.
Watching this makes you amazed the film was shot in such a short space of time, because it doesn’t seem much time went by before someone starts laughing. Particularly good are the ad-libs Nick Frost came up with when describing the regulars in the Winchester, there was something different for every take, and he regularly catches Simon Pegg off guard. For once these are outtakes really worth watching.
The Man Who Would Be Shaun
Further proving nobody was keen to do any real work on set, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg act out a scene as Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King. Frost’s Connery is pretty awful, but Pegg does and excellent Michael Caine, and even the two of them can’t get to the end of the scene before they crack up.
Three plot holes are filled in by these comic strips, narrated by the characters they involve. This section contains spoilers, so highlight the section below to read it if you’ve already seen the film.
|First we see how Shaun evaded his undead pursuers and managed to get back to The Winchester, then we see what became of Di after she ran screaming into the throng of zombies, and finally we get to find out just how Ed escaped the clutches of the army and made his way to Shaun’s shed.|
They’re nicely drawn strips, by the same artist that drew the Shaun of the Dead strip in the 2000AD special, which also appears on the disc.
14 scenes are present on the disc, available with optional commentary from Pegg and Wright. There was actually very little cut out of the film, so these are extensions of scenes to include extra jokes. Most were cut for pacing reasons, though a few jokes were cut towards the end of the film as test audiences thought everyone was being rather flippant in the face of the death of so many of their friends.
Here we get a Pegg’s eye view of life on the SOTD set, he’s like a big kid barrelling around the set, and we get the added bonus of watching Nick Frost get an injection in his bum – which we see repeatedly – after Pegg punched him in the shoulder hard enough to require painkillers the next day.
Not really as funny as Pegg’s film, Davis is more an observer, catching the cast glued to Gameboys or Edgar Wright throwing entrails at unsuspecting extras. It probably would have been preferable to cut the video diaries together into a larger behind the scenes look, and Joe’s Diary reveals other members of the cast were also running around with cameras so there was probably a lot more good footage that could have been used.
Joe Cornish, of Adam and Joe fame, got the chance to be a zombie extra during the re-shoot of the ending (extra shots of zombie carnage were required) at Shepperton studios. This is his video diary of the day, from scraping the frost off his car before dawn – though still arriving two hours late – through make up, practicing getting shot, and filming. It’s entertaining, but the ‘day in the life of a zombie extra’ tag doesn’t really hold up, I’d imagine the non celebrity zombies have a whole lot more waiting around staring at walls to do rather than playing around with the cast members between takes.
Edgar and Simon’s Flip Chart
Filmed back in 2001, before shooting had even begun, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright present their original ideas for the film, as scrawled on a flip chart. It’s an interesting look at the genesis of the film, both to see which parts never made the final film – such as Philip’s Jaguar exploding in a ball of flames, which was one of the first things removed for budget reasons – but also to see just how clear their ideas were before they’d completed a script, as the majority of what they originally planned made it into the final cut.
This short look at the digital effects, produced by effects house Double Negative, shows how the effects of Mary getting a hole knocked through her, along with Peter Serafinowicz’s final demise, were constructed. It’s too brief a look to be of any use, and presented rather badly without any kind of narration, but then once you’ve seen one of these there isn’t really much more to learn anyway, and I’m sure most people have seen many already.
Make Up Tests
The make up tests were conducted at Ealing Studio’s months before principal photography commenced, but alleviating us from the tedium of watching makeup being applied we get to see what would appear to be Lauren Laverne making an impromptu video dating clip – in full zombie makeup.
This is the stuff of wasteful backslapping press clippings you see hacked together on TV, of course everyone knows it, and they have kindly hidden it away in its own corner. Purely promotional fluff, there’s really no reason to watch it.
Trails of the Dead
5 trailers are presented on the disc, it’s the usual stuff, although the tag line of “Residential Evil” on the Fright Fest 2003 teaser trailer was a nice addition that didn’t make it to the final campaign.
Five of the programs seen on TV in the film are shown here uncut, the highlight of which is Coldplay’s appearance on T4. After the footage seen in the film Coldplay introduce their 2 newest band members – Simon Pegg and Nick Frost – who start improvising, causing Chris Martin to have to hide his head as he tries to stop laughing, it’s very funny stuff. The other excerpts aren’t as good, we get the Fun Dead gameshow narrated by Cheggers, two episodes of Trisha and the Remembering Z-Day interview in full.
This is where you’ll find the static material, there’s a photo gallery, including pictures shot by Simon Pegg himself, the full 2000AD Shaun of the Dead comic strip and a slew of original poster designs, including a great one in Italian, as a fine nod to the ‘70s gore classics from the country.
Shaun of the Dead is the funniest film of the year so far, and is an instant classic. Like all the best comedies it has endless re-watch value, which would warrant a DVD purchase on its own, but the filmmakers have pulled together to produce a DVD more than worthy of the special edition tag. In short, this is a must-own release. There were rumours that this disc would carry a director’s cut of the film, running for an extra 9 minutes, but those have proved unfounded, but after listening to the commentaries and watching the deleted scenes there appears to be very little that hasn’t already made its way onto this release, so I would guess a second release would be very unlikely, there really is no reason to stop you from snapping this one up.