Monday Morning Movie Review: Ponty’s Top Ten Best Films: #9: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Ponty has been plugging away at this Top Ten Best Films, and as I predicted, he’s suffering from an embarrassment of riches.  Doing the bad films was difficult in some ways, but if you call a “bad” film wrong, it’s no big deal—no one would watch it, anyway.

Good films, while rarer, are still abundant enough to make the selection process difficult.  Just when you think you have a sense for your list, you’re reminded of some classic that you managed to forget in the depths of your memory hole.

That was my experience when reading Ponty’s #9 pick.  I love this film (which came out when I was in college), but somehow it had slipped my mind for consideration in my own list.  What a fool I was!  As Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote (to paraphrase, since I don’t feel like looking up the exact quotation): “We don’t need to be taught so much as we need to be reminded.”  So true!

Well, Ponty did an excellent job reminding me in this impressive review.

With that, here is Ponty’s review of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead:

In my musings and deliberations for this list, I never imagined that a comedy would find its way into my top ten. Being a huge horror and thriller aficionado, notwithstanding the odd guilty pleasure, comedy as a genre would usually find itself way down on my list as a rule. I’m not against the medium but I find comedies don’t hold my attention or stick in my memory in a way other films might. However, for my entry this week, I’ve decided to go for a parody. In my opinion, the best of the Cornetto trilogyShaun of the Dead (2004). I love Hot Fuzz (2007), too, and wondered for a while which of these films merited an entry but I’ve gone for the first; the last, The World’s End (2013), well, let’s just forget about that one. It doesn’t touch how good the first two were.

The Cornetto trilogy (so called because each film features that particular ice cream favourite) was created by the dynamic duo of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (the films themselves starring Pegg and Nick Frost) and have covered zombies, buddy cop action, and body snatchers. Personally, I think they could go on with countless parodies but the Brits tend to know that too much of a good thing isn’t great and stopped at three.

Shaun of the Dead (a parody of zombie movies rather than specifically Dawn of the Dead) centres on Shaun, a 29 year old man who is stuck in a rut. His relationship isn’t going anywhere, mainly because of his general apathy to everything. He hangs out with a childhood friend who brings him down. He works in a dead end job. He goes to the same pub practically every night. That is until the dead start coming back to life and in a not so weird twist of irony, Shaun is reanimated into leading his friends and mother to safety and survival.

There are tons of things I love about this movie but my main highlight is the very British sense of humour. Take for instance Shaun and Ed’s (Frost) first encounter with a zombie. Poor old Mary, who we see at the start, bored out of her mind at the supermarket checkout, has wandered into their garden in her zombified state and the lads think she’s drunk, mocking her mercilessly until Shaun is forced into action when she comes at him. Or Philip (the excellent Bill Nighy), Shaun’s stepdad whose method of dealing with a bite is to run his finger under a cold water tap.

My favourite moment in the film is actually split into two near identical scenes; Shaun’s trip to the shop from his house, first before the dead start to rise and then secondly, when the zombies have taken the streets. Half asleep and completely uninterested, he doesn’t notice that there’s hardly anyone around, doesn’t see the bloody handprint on the shop fridge or the blood on the floor, which incidentally he slips on as he goes to the fridge, and doesn’t appear to recognise that the homeless man he gave money to the previous day or the child kicking a football are now reanimated corpses. I don’t know if Wright or Pegg were aware but in that part, they created one of cinema’s most iconic scenes. It’s flat out genius.

This movie is packed with memorable scenes and I’m sure Shaun of the Dead’s many fans would pick at entirely different parts, like Diana training the survivors to look and act like zombies or Shaun and Ed using a zombie to fill in the gaps on Grandmaster Flash’s hit song “White Lines” and getting irate when the zombie gets the lyric wrong. There’s also the classic ‘no-I-in-team/meat pie speech’ Shaun gives to his adolescent work colleagues which had me in stitches – ‘there’s no I in team but there is in meat pie, meat being an anagram of team.’ Brilliant. A roundabout way of getting to absolutely no point at all. They even get to have a dig at celebrity culture with Zombaid, the sort of idiotic campaign you’d expect from left wing celebrities keen to get their faces on camera, this charity set up by the musicians Coldplay.

The cast is superb. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost had already formed a strong friendship from their time on Spaceda show created by Jessica Hynes (who appears in Shaun of the Dead as Shaun’s old friend, Yvonne) and Pegg, directed by Wright and starring Pegg and Frost—and it shows. The two feed off each other effortlessly, their timing and intuition easy, both knowing what the other will do before they even know themselves. You really feel like you’re watching best friends in real life, the way they are with each other, and that makes their interaction, toils and trials far more believable.

Peter Serafinowicz, who plays Shaun’s long suffering housemate, Pete, performs a great turn as what could be seen as the only adult in the house, frustrated by Shaun’s lack of direction whilst simultaneously being irritated by Ed, who he sees as a layabout and a waste of space. Kate Ashfield, who stars as Shaun’s girlfriend, Liz, provides Pegg a useful buffer, ditching him when she realises she could end up in the same rut and supporting him later on when she starts to see the fight in him. Her best friends, Diane (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran) follow her around like lost puppies, David in particular who despite dating Diane is in love with Liz and wastes no time in condescending Shaun at every opportunity. His mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton, of Downton Abbey fame) and step father, Philip are the typical dowdy middle aged types, and even the excellent Rafe Spall is afforded a memorable cameo as the obnoxious teen who works at the same electrics store as Shaun.

The story is nicely paced, giving the audience a good amount of time to get to know each of the characters and invest in their journey whether to safety or death and the zombies are great – while not as dishevelled as the very visceral zombies we might be used to in, say, The Walking Dead, they still provide a menace, as we see when they snatch David through the window of The Winchester pub where they have taken refuge. The soundtrack is a nice mix of Queen, The Specials, old-fashioned hip hop and heavy metal while the backing soundtrack transitions smoothly from ditty to sinister. The writing is sharp and quick witted and the actors take to the script beautifully. Wright’s direction is as effortless as the performances, sliding through the journey of Shaun’s life with consummate ease as our titular character moves from zero to hero.

In short, everything works. Shaun of the Dead gives us a great zombie movie as well as a superb romantic comedy. Not a single member of the cast was over or under used, each taking hold of whatever amount of screen time was afforded to them and using it to the greatest possible effect, so much so that practically every scene is memorable. That is the highest praise I can give it.

If you haven’t watched this wonderful movie, you’re missing out.

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