This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Christopher Connor.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenwriters: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Peter Serafinowicz, Rafe Spall, Bill Nighy
16 years after its release, Shaun of the Dead remains one of the best loved British comedies of the contemporary era; a release that, alongside its fellow Cornetto Trilogy entries Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, has had a profound effect on the British cinematic landscape.
The much loved sitcom ‘Spaced’ (1999-2001) launched the careers of its stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as well as director Edgar Wright. Over the past two decades, the trio have all come to have considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic, with Pegg finding major roles in both the Mission: Impossible & Star Trek franchises, Frost starring in hits like Fighting with My Family, and Wright going on to direct cult favourites like Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World and 2017’s hugely successful Baby Driver.
Rewatching Shaun of the Dead following the success later achieved by those involved is fascinating as it offers glimpses behind the success of the aforementioned trio. The film focuses on Shaun (Pegg) and Ed (Frost), a pair of unhappy late 20s flatmates struggling to get by in London – there is also heavy focus on the struggling relationship between Shaun and his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). The early parts of the film play out almost like a buddy film, or a rom-com, such is the blend of laddish humour and focus given to Shaun and Liz’s relationship.
Coming fresh off the heels of ‘Spaced’ there are clear comparisons to be drawn, and Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have mentioned how the show had a heavy influence on the film in many interviews over the years since, but much rather than it being a carbon copy of the cult favourite TV sitcom, these influences are minimal and help to provide the film with a degree of familiarity to those in-the-know, while never being overwhelming to those who aren’t – Pegg’s ‘Spaced’ co-star Jessica Hynes (then Stevenson) appears in a recurring cameo role for example, an element of Shaun of the Dead that is both in tribute to the filmmakers’ days on television but also unique to the film.
In addition, Shaun of the Dead is clearly made as a tribute to zombie and horror films, particularly those of horror icon George A. Romero – most obviously Dawn of the Dead (where this film got its name), itself a second entry into Romero’s own zombie movie series following Night of the Living Dead.
There are frequent examples underlining why Wright is seen as one of the most talented British directors of his generation in Shaun of the Dead. An extended tracking shot in the opening sequence following Shaun from his flat to the local shop is a fantastic piece of cinematography, and the choice to mirror this with the same shot later in the film once the world has been turned upside down by zombies is one that is both intelligently cinematic and truly funny. The misdirects early in the film are of the highest comedic sensibility too, with the use of imagery to evoke the pending zombie arrival providing some fantastic sight gags.
The humour is a huge part of what makes the film work and much of this comes down to the chemistry between Pegg and Frost. We are introduced to several recurring motifs from the rest of the Cornetto Trilogy with gags about shops, fence hurdling and pub fights all reappearing in some shape or form in Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. In spite of this, the screenplay of Wright and Pegg manages to blend more serious moments with its outright comedy, realising a surprising amount depth and character development for a film of its genre.
The use of music is crucial to many of Wright’s films, particularly Baby Driver, and Shaun of the Dead is no exception. Music is used to incredible effect, opening to The Specials’ “Ghost Town” and featuring multiple Queen tracks, “Don’t Stop Me Now” taking on a life of its own as the now iconic soundtrack to the pub brawl in the final act. In keeping with this marrying of music and film, one of the film’s best gags revolves around which of Shaun’s vinyl collection should be used as weapons against the Zombies, he and Ed having a back and forth regarding the importance of certain records as they fight off one of their slow but seemingly unstoppable foes.
Shaun of the Dead has amassed legions of fans in the 16 years since its release, with Empire Magazine placing it 6th in its list of Top 100 British Films and horror icon Stephen King dubbing it “10 on the fun meter and destined to be a cult classic”. It’s clear to see why this opening Cornetto Trilogy film has come to be so beloved and influential amongst comedy filmmakers, the first cinematic collaboration between Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright being a superbly written and acted film that lays an outstanding platform from which the trio have reached to great heights; one of the earliest examples of Wright’s unique brilliance at blending humour and pathos.
Written by Christopher Connor
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