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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Shaun of the Dead (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Shaun of the Dead (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Universal // R // July 31, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 22, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Y'know, I'm starting to think that there's some kind of unspoken rule that if you have a DV camcorder, a recipe to churn out a couple barrel drums of stage blood, and enough gray makeup to pancake on a gaggle of your pals, you're honor-bound to make a shitty zombie flick. Giving the genre an elbow to the ribs may seem kinda beside the point these days when you can hit up the video store for a zombie bank heist, zombie clowns, undercover zombie policewomen, or snakeszombies on a plane -- the genre drove past self-parody a couple exits back -- but turn the clock back a few years to those warm, sunny, halcyon days of 2004. Fresh off the success of Spaced, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost turned their sights from the BBC to the big screen, banging out a movie that's more than just another spoof and a hell of a zombie flick in its own right.

The tagline of this import from across the pond reads "A romantic comedy. With Zombies.", and...yeah, that pretty much sums it up. There isn't so much in the way of romance when the movie opens, though. Y'see, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is trudging through life with a dead-end sales job, whiling away his evenings at the same lifeless pub every night with his flatmate Ed (Nick Frost), too disinterested to notice how miserably bored his girlfriend is of the same stale routine. Having clued in quite some time ago that this relationship was at a dead-end, Liz (Kate Ashfield) gives Shaun the boot.

Shaun's still stinging from the breakup when London's kind of...y'know, overrun by the ravenous, reanimated corpses of the recently dead, even if the world doesn't look all that different the next bleary, hungover morning. He'd scribbled down a couple of simple goals on the whiteboard on the fridge in a drunken haze the night before -- give Mum her months-delayed Mother's Day bouquet, win back Liz, and put his life in order -- and a plague of flesh-eating corpses gives Shaun just the kick in the ass he needs to knock out all three in one fell swoop. Shaun and his slovenly flatmate engineer a daring scheme to grab all their friends 'n family: a spacey mum completely oblivious about the world being knee-deep in armageddon (Penelope Wilton), a stodgy stepfather (Bill Nighy) who's already been nibbled on by the walking undead, along with Liz and her two flatmates, failed actress Dianne (Lucy Davis) and her pessimistic significant something or another (Dylan Moran). They need someplace safe...someplace familiar...to hole up, and Shaun's plan is...surprise!...a trip to the Winchester. The seven...well, six of 'em slog their way through half of suburban North London to get there, but when they finally do make it to the pub, they find themselves overrun by the undead and trapped in whatever the British equivalent of Spam-in-a-cabin is.

Horror-comedies have one of the bleakest track records of any sub-sub-genre, almost without fail winding up not particularly funny and not particularly scary either. Shaun of the Dead is among a select few that manages to work on both counts. It's a hell of a comedy, relying on a razor-sharp wit and character-based humor rather than leaning on the usual easy gags. Shaun of the Dead plays astonishingly well as a horror movie in its own right, though, deftly transitioning as the end draws near to an unnervingly tense climax that packs a genuine emotional wallop. It's such a smooth transition in tone that when I first saw the movie, I was so engrossed that it took me a while to realize I was knee-deep in an actual horror flick.

Shaun of the Dead's too smart to be shrugged off as just a genre spoof. Part of what makes the movie works so well is that it's clearly the handiwork of a cast and crew with a deep, abiding passion for zombie flicks. It's teeming with subtle homages, and even when Shaun of the Dead is at its most gruesomely dire, it works about as well as any of the more unflinchingly brutal movies that inspired it. I've devoted a disturbingly large portion of my adult life to zombie movies, and I've watched enough of the undead feasting on the living to feel comfortable saying that Shaun of the Dead ranks up with the best of 'em. Highly Recommended.

Video: Even if this HD DVD doesn't sport the same hyperpolished sheen as the Spaced crew's genre-ribbing follow-up, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead's 2.39:1 high-def visuals still teeter on perfection. The film's faintly grainy texture hasn't been smeared away, and fine detail and color saturation remain strong throughout most of the movie. The image degrades a bit during the dimly-lit climax at the Winchester, appearing grainier and flatter than the rest of the flick, but that almost certainly stems from the way those scenes were originally shot and shouldn't be considered a flaw with this HD DVD. No flecks of dust, assorted wear, edge haloing, or compression hiccups could be spotted throughout. Pretty much perfect and a tremendous step up from the standard definition DVD.

Audio: Shaun of the Dead's high-bitrate Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack boasts a powerful low-end, bolstering the streams of gunfire, the meaty thuds of zombies being whacked in the head, and the eerie, John Carpenter-inspired electronic score that attacks every speaker. Ed continually peeling rubber in a couple of borrowed cars tosses in some strong directionality, and the moaned chorus of the undead, swirling flames, sprays of bullets, and the claustrophobic atmosphere as hordes of zombies swarm the Winchester also take advantage of the slew of channels on-hand. The thick accents make a handful of lines a bit difficult for me to fully discern even in my eight hojillionth time through the movie, but the dialogue is reproduced perfectly anyway, and it's never drowned out in even the most chaotic scenes. Great, great stuff.

Universal tossed out the Spanish audio and subtitles from the DVD, but the French audio options remain intact along with an English subtitle stream.

Extras: Though it's still not quite as fat-packed as the British DVD, lopping off a couple of audio commentaries and losing some of the international trailers and TV spots, this HD DVD of Shaun of the Dead does carry over all of the bells and whistles from the domestic release. None of the extras are in high definition, and only a couple of 'em are even in anamorphic widescreen.

Even if the tracks with Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, and the, um, hordes of the ravenous undead didn't make the cut, that still leaves two audio commentaries on the disc. First up is a chat with Shaun of the Dead's writers: star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright. It's as quippy as the movie but manages to touch quite a bit on how it all came together, including nicking the opening music from Romero's Dawn of the Dead, explaining some of the less obvious jokes and the oddities shambling about in the background, the foreshadowing in seemingly throwaway lines of dialogue, bucking convention by making a "bleary, hungover Sunday morning film" rather than the usual horror flick cloaked in shadows, the less than cheerful costume design of the undead, and how their cheerful little blood-spattered family was torn apart after one key character was butchered. Any commentary that labels the flick as a "zombie bukkake movie" and poses questions like "maybe we should get rid of the black baby with the sombrero?" gets a shiny gold star from me.

The commentary with the cast crams Simon Pegg, Dylan Moran, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, and Lucy Davis into a stuffy recording booth. It's not as meaty as the writer-slash-director track but is still enough fun to make it worth a listen. The five of 'em go around the table doing Bill Nighy and Al Pacino impressions, note how they shut down the local Starbucks, continue debating whether or not dogs really can look up, point out their favorite zombies and how pretty the ladies look even in the flick's most gruesome moments, and, yup, squeeze in their own bukkake reference.

There are two other options that also run throughout the entirety of the movie, including storyboard comparisons that pop up after selecting a vaguely ominous looking icon that sporadically appears. The Zomb-O-Meter trivia track covers a bunch of ground missed in the two audio commentaries, identifying every bit of music in the movie and pointing out other songs that were considered, the many nods to Spaced, the second album each member of the cast had ever bought, how many times some of the actors had gotten slaughtered in other movies and on TV, and comparing early drafts of the flick to what eventually wound up splattered on-screen. Easily the best of these sorts of trivia tracks I've seen.

The bulk of the remaining extras are shoved under two headings. "Missing Bits" opens with a two minute alternate take of Pete peppering his dialogue with funk, and "The Man Who Would Be Shaun" has Ed and Shaun spouting off a few lines in hyper-squeaky voices. The eleven minute outtake reel also has a scene kinda like that, delivered this time as a couple of the Beatles, along with the cast fumbling through their dialogue, Simon Pegg continually cracking up at Nick Frost's vulgar improvs, and getting a tetherball pole snagged on a boom mike. Fifteen slight extensions -- running a little over thirteen minutes in total -- flesh out the characters' backstory and this undead world a bit more. Pegg and Wright chime in with an audio commentary that points out their favorite of these lines and why they had to give some of these bits the axe. Finally, a set of three gleefully overdramatic comic book pages fill in a few of the unexplained gaps in Shaun of the Dead, accompanied by voiceovers delivered in character.

All of the disc's featurettes are lumped under "Raw Meat". Simon Pegg's seven minute video diary follows some of the early make-up tests during pre-production, his own time getting stage blood slathered on his face in the make-up chair, some candid shots around the set, and a few too many extended glimpses of Nick Frost taking a needle to the ass. Make-up tests are also the focus of a two minute reel with letterboxed footage of zombies shambling around and before-'n-after looks at their CGI-enhanced eyes. Another effects comparison runs through the various elements of the pole impaling and Shaun's flatmate getting plugged in the head. Dylan Moran, Peter Serafinowicz, Kate Ashfield, and Lucy Davis pop up in four minutes of casting tapes, and most of the cast are also given a chance to chime in during the obligatory EPK. This seven minute featurette is incrementally more insightful than usual, touching on the unusual tone of Shaun of the Dead and what inspired them to make the movie in the first place. The, um, meatiest of the "Raw Meat" extras is a thirteen minute look at the flipchart outline that Pegg and Wright assembled before a proper script had been penned. Even if the flipchart isn't altogether formal, it's inhumanly detailed, to the point where they delineated precisely who was sitting where in Philip's Jag on the way to Liz's flat. The two of 'em quip their way through the rundown, breaking down the characters and key scenes while pointing out little notes such as the mandate that the as-yet-uncast Liz sport a set of 34Ds.

A smattering of the footage spotted on televisions throughout the flick are provided in full, including a couple of takes of a T4 interview with Coldplay gabbing about their support of Zomb-Aid, two short segments about a stormy relationship that finds its footing post-mortem on Trisha, and a minute long snippet of a zombie-fried game show. All but that last one are presented in anamorphic widescreen.

A zombie gallery packs on 42 behind the scenes photos (including some shot by former Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, whose band's music is featured at a couple points in the movie), a 2000 A.D. comic strip plugging Shaun of the Dead, and a set of poster designs. A letterboxed theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.

Conclusion: Between the two next-gen formats, we're getting Shaun of the Dead, both the original and the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and Romero's Day of the Dead all in the space of a couple of months. Toss in last year's Land of the Dead and the kinda-sorta-not-really-zombie-flicks in the Evil Dead series on HD DVD and Blu-ray, and it's a great time to be a home theater nut who takes entirely too much pleasure in watching hordes of the undead devour the living. Shaun of the Dead is a blood-spattered valentine to George Romero, standing out not just as a hell of a comedy but one of the all-time best zombie flicks. The HD DVD looks and sounds fantastic, and even if the extras are the same as the last go-around and aren't as comprehensive as the British release, there are still plenty of bells and whistles to chew on. Very, very Highly Recommended.
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