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Edgar Wright took the jump to international writing-directing fame with his hilarious 2004 comedy Shaun of the Dead. Actually, one of Wright's first efforts was a feature takeoff on spaghetti westerns called A Fistful of Fingers but he made his name in British TV, in particular with a popular show called Spaced that linked him with several of his partners in comedy, including Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
The post-Tarantino years created many a would-be genius director adept at quirky visuals and stuffing their scripts with in-references to their favorite movies and past associations. Edgar Wright succeeds because 1) he's so damn funny, 2) one need know nothing about his stock company of players to get his jokes, and 3) when Wright does a parody of a particular genre, it stays parodized. Wright and Pegg's follow-up comedy Hot Fuzz has a razor-keen understanding of glitzy cop-action films that organize what in anybody else's movie might be a loose collection of jokes.
Horror films run in cycles, and fans thought the genre might be eating itself up when the reflexive Scream hit in the mid-nineties. Nope, fans were happy to jump on the J-Horror band wagon begun by The Ring a few years later. Wright's Shaun of the Dead is a comic takeoff on Zombie pictures, which in 2004 didn't sound like a very fresh idea. Besides George Romero's continuing line of walking dead pictures, the multiplexes were crowded with remakes and interesting derivatives, like Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. But Wright shrewdly uses his spoof of all things Zombie in what is essentially a twisted sitcom about London twenty-somethings in dead-end lifestyles ... that make them feel like zombies even before they die.
Shaun (Simon Pegg) works at an electronics store and rooms with a flat-mate with a better job -- and Ed (Nick Frost), a layabout who plays video games all day, keeps the apartment like a pigsty and deals drugs on the side. Shaun is an easygoing guy but it looks like he's going to lose his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield from Late Night Shopping), as she's had enough of Shaun's idea of fun -- mainly hanging out with Ed and spending every evening at the local pub, the Winchester. Hoping to change his luck, Shaun sets himself up for a date Liz will appreciate. He even makes an effort to be a good son for his mother's birthday. Shaun doesn't see his mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton) much because of his disapproving stepfather Philip (BIll Nighy). Unfortunately, the day Shaun chooses to redeem his social life is one of disaster for London: a falling satellite has reanimated the city's corpses, who are going forth to eat the living. Shaun has no immediate response to this calamity, for the simple reason that it takes him several hours to realize that anything's wrong, despite the crazy people on the street and the blood smeared on the windows of the local mini-mart. But when Ed and Liz need a leader to help them fight their way to survival, good ol' Shaun is the take-charge man of the hour.
Shaun of the Dead has an excellent feel for the basic genre, for slapstick and for situational absurdities. Edgar Wright filmed it at what was the old Ealing Studios, and if you subtract the blood, gore and occasional torrent of profanity, this movie's style might be confused with Tight Little Island or The Lavender Hill Mob. The saving grace to Wright's comedy is that he's not a smart-ass, nor does he truly have a mean bone in his body. The correct #4) to add to the list of qualities above is Shaun of the Dead's basic good natured-ness. The panicked young heroes are basically nice people with the ambition to avoid becoming Zombie food; Shaun is so worried about the situation that he asks Ed not to say the word "zombie" -- it's too upsetting.
The audience has a field day watching Shaun go through his daily routine, at first oblivious to the obvious signs of utter chaos around him. They channel-hop through TV stations, ignoring the snippets of news reportage of cannibalism and mass terror; the implication is that Shaun and his peers don't really pay attention to anything on TV. When Ed and Shaun try to bombard a shambling zombie with a box of vinyl records, they can't help picking and choosing which ones they're willing to part with. The notion of misplaced priorities is more than just a joke.
All the zombie genre givens come into play as Shaun tries to get his friends to cooperate and believe in his plan for survival, a plan that evolves by way of a quick-cut series of "wishful thinking" sequences. All of these end with everyone safe and sound sipping tea in a pub. Of course, the real escape goes completely haywire. Shaun and Co. fight their way through suburban lawns using cricket bats and shovels as weapons. They imitate zombies to sneak into the Winchester, and from there find every possible way not to do the right thing when under siege. They're young, attractive (well, most of them) and in love, yet they all know darn well how zombie movies turn out.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost make a wonderful comedy duo as the frustrated Shaun and the unreliable Ed; their basic chemistry has echoes of classic Laurel & Hardy. Kate Ashfield is charming, as are Lucy Davis as Dianne and Dylan Moran as David. They're close friends that inconveniently reveal old romantic interests under the tension of the siege. Penelope Wilton is silly but endearing and Bill Nighy's input is an enlarged cameo. It's a pretty funny situation when five or six people jammed into a single car realize that one of their number has just died and been transformed into a slavering zombie -- and the car doors won't open.
Wright's direction is as impressive as his writing skills -- Shaun of the Dead moves at a breakneck pace but adroitly pays off every character gag. He kicks into editorial overdrive for certain sequences, but the pace is always linked to the sharp dialogue. We're informed that a third movie by this same group of talent is due in 2010, tentatively titled "The World's End".
Universal's 1080p Blu-ray of Shaun of the Dead really snaps. The film's precise camerawork and layered audio environment are presented with the clarity of pristine theatrical print shown in a class venue. Colors are vibrant and we see plenty of detail in the dark corners of the Winchester and during the chaotic nighttime finale. Wright's choice of music for the soundtrack is inspired, especially the Queen ballad You're My Best Friend, with its perfect refrain, "Ooh, you make me live."
The extras retain all the goodies from earlier DVD special editions: outtakes, deleted scenes, video diaries for several of the leads, casting tapes, effects comparisons. Scraps of broadcast clips include an interview with Coldplay. Galleries cover the makeup, storyboards, etc.
The likeable cast and crew contribute to a frequently funny commentary. Universal's "U-Control picture-in-picture features include an annotated and illustrated trivia track, and a PIP storyboard feature.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shaun of the Dead Blu-ray rates:
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.