Thursday, June 5, 2014

Shaun of the Dead

Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy: Chapter 3

You've got red on you.

By this late date, I feel that zombie stories have just grown tiresome. Their ubiquity in film and on TV (though it must be said that The Walking Dead has been a deserved sensation on the AMC cable network) renders more a yawn than a spine tingle. So popular are the undead that there is even a zombie apocalypse survival guide to be found in the Nonfiction Section of your local brick and morter!  George A. Romero first immortalized the images of an army of slow moving drooling ghouls in 1968's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which later inspired many similar films, including a string of sequels by the director himself.

One of them was 1978's DAWN OF THE DEAD, laced with generous amounts of mordant humor and satire.  What with a shopping mall as its setting, the opportunities to rib consumerism were plentiful. Amidst some truly unsettling attack/gore moments, Romero had us chuckling.  In the 80s and beyond, more zombie epics capitalized on the inherent comedic possibilities of the walking dead. The dichotomy of the poignancy surrounding that sauntering piece of meat, once your beloved family member who now wants to chow down on your brains and the sheer ridiculousness of it made films like RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD interesting views.

In 2004, perhaps inspired, director Edgar Wright and lead actor Simon Pegg concocted SHAUN OF THE DEAD, a merger of the horror and slacker genres.. A cross pollination that lands us in familiar territory - the 30 somethings who are still living out their adolescence. As the title dude, Pegg plays an electronics store employee who slowly begins to recognize that a zombie uprising has overtaken London. It's a problem, but even more pressing is that his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) has just broken it off because he suggests they go to their same old pub rather than a decent restaurant for their anniversary.

There to console him is best pal/roommate Ed (Nick Frost). The next day, after a whopper of a hangover, the duo discovers a confused young lady in their backyard who turns out to be a zombie. To fend her off, they reluctantly start heaving their record collection, which allows for some funny commentary on the likes of Sade and the Stone Roses. Then more cadavers arrive, doing their agonizing drag across the neighborhood.  Even the boys' angry roommate, Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), tears out of the shower after them (seems he had been bitten the night before). Shaun and Ed race through the multiplying hordes to rescue Liz, Shaun's mum (on whom Ed has long had a crush), and other friends and family. Eventually, the heroes are trapped in the beloved Winchester pub for the inevitable standoff.

Pubs figure quite prominently in the Cornetto trilogy.  They are second homes to these characters, much as they were to the folks on Cheers. The attention given to ale and its appreciation in these films isn't merely local color, a reality of their lifestyles. It's lifeblood. A commonality that erases the many divides among Wright's and Pegg's characters. There are always the underachievers and their more ambitious counterparts, usually at odds.  The films in this trilogy are not serious sociological treatises by any stretch, but so many moments capture this idea, admittedly moreso in the later films.

We've discussed the masses represented in each film: the robots in WORLD'S END, the townspeople in HOT FUZZ, and now the zombies in SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Our writers have much to say about majority rule, going with societal flow. Nothing revolutionary, but seen within blood and entrail splattered set pieces (and at least one here is over the top enough to delight gore fans), the points are somehow even more potent. Emphasized with an urgency that might otherwise seem pretentious or didactic. Genre efforts often allow the artist to make commentaries that on their own might come off as preachy and heavy-handed. How ironic that many movies with decaying, walking meatloaves make the case better than those with arch, self-conscious characterizations that seem aware of their own symbolism.

SHAUN OF THE DEAD has plenty of violence, action, and comedy, once again expertly packaged by the guys. But the mayhem pauses long enough to allow a very poignant sequence: one of the characters becomes infected and has to be offed by Shaun's rifle before he or she begins craving their flesh. The agony of such a moment, the horrible inevitability of having to dispatch someone you love is very well played. And there's a lighthearted final scene, a real testament to come hell or high water friendship, though it may cause you to wonder if another zombie apocalypse might occur because of it.
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