Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Bill Nighy
Release Date: September 24th, 2004
Runtime: 1 hr. 39 mins.
MPAA Rating: R
The “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” (note the British spelling is not a mistake – the title is British), a series of three movies combining the writing talents of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and the acting talents of Pegg and Nick Frost, began ten years ago with this little gem of a movie, Shaun of the Dead. Written as a spoof of zombie film classics, it combines the sensibilities of American zombie horror with British humor, and throws in a little romance for good measure. Is Shaun of the Dead the perfect comedy/horror film? Click through after the break to get my take.
In my opinion, yes. The movie is full of hits, and after viewing it more than a dozen times, I can honestly think of no misses whatsoever. Everything is played with a fine balance between comedy and horror, and the movie is full of the sort of memorable one-liners that make for cult-classic status among the kind of fan that likes to memorize his or her movies. Who needs Netflix or streaming video when you can carry the whole movie in your head? When I was at college, that movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail for me and my friends. As far as impact for its time, I’d place Shaun right up there with the Python classic, but dare I say it? Shaun is the superior film. The reason for this is very simple: it is a complete narrative, with well defined first, second, and third acts, characters that compliment each other, and a coherent plot that makes internal sense. While Python took chances, and created brilliance, as a movie experience, Shaun of the Dead is the more entertaining choice.
Nick and Simon sense the sacrilege in the above statement
That’s not to say that both aren’t well worth your time – I also intend to review Holy Grail at a later date, so you can get a clearer sense of my position then. For now, more Shaun. The movie is set in London, where we follow the rather average life of average bloke Shaun [Simon Pegg]. His best friend Ed [Nick Frost] stopped over for an all-night video game marathon about five years ago, and he’s never left. Shaun’s girlfriend Liz [Kate Ashfield] is going to leave him if he doesn’t clean up his act, his roommate Pete [Peter Serafinowicz] is about ready to murder Ed, Shaun’s job is a dead-end nightmare, and he hardly sees his mum [Penelope Wilton] because he can’t stand his father-in-law, Philip [Bill Nighy]. Thank goodness he and Ed have The Winchester, their reliable local, and each other. When a mysterious illness begins to turn Londoners into walking, flesh-hungering zombies, The Winchester is the first place Shaun and Ed think to go.
The movie plays with tropes in a knowing, tongue-in-cheek manner. Wright and Pegg work well together as a writing team, mocking man-children, horror films, romance, and British pub culture. The biggest target, however, is the banality of daily existence, which is clearly compared to the un-lives of zombies in unfavorable terms – fundamentally, the two modes of being are indistinguishable from each other. On the acting side, Pegg and Frost complement each other in every way, with Pegg’s Shaun showing a desire to grow up and take his place in the adult world, while Frost’s Ed constantly claws him back. It turns out that in order to survive the zombie apocalypse, both of their particular skill-sets will be necessary.
With a supporting cast that includes high quality British talent such as Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, Dylan Moran (as a spurned rival to Shaun, and boyfriend of Liz’s best friend Dianne), and Matt Lucas (from Little Britain) in even the smallest bit parts, nearly every beat hits. Several Wright/Pegg signature moves are introduced here, in their first film together (they had previously worked on two British television series, Asylum and Spaced), such as jumping over multiple fences, and frenetic montages in order to tell large pieces of story in short order (many of which end with pints being drawn, which is never a bad thing). In addition, several of the actors appearing here also appear in the other two movies: Pegg, Frost, Nighy, Freeman, Julia Deakin, Patricia Franklin, Rafe Spall, and Garth Jennings. Most remain in the background throughout the series; some, like Freeman, enjoy increasingly larger parts.
The series of films, otherwise unrelated thematically, were given the title “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” by Wright once the first two were already done and it was pointed out to him that Cornettoes appeared in each of the first two movies. He played on this, claiming later that the colors were an homage to Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy (check out the background here). The colors of the Cornetto appearing in the film become representative of the themes of the movies – in Shaun‘s case, red for all of the gore of a zombie film.
Shaun of the Dead was a surprise hit when it was released in 2004, and it has only gotten better with age. Of the three movies of the “Cornetto” trilogy, this one is eclipsed only by the taut ship that is Hot Fuzz, and that only just – depending on the day and my mood, I find my preference for one over the other somewhat flexible. Look for my reviews of the other two entries in the series in the coming weeks.
Steve’s Grade: A
The film that defined British humor for large sectors of the North American audience in the first decade of the Twenty-First Century, and the finest zombie-horror-comedy since Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981). A must see for fans of Simon Pegg, zombie films, or of British comedy in general.