Casting Bill Nighy as a zombie — or more accurately, a zombie to be — may not be precisely innovative (Nighy’s cadaverous charm making him the latest ideal zombie-vampire-aging rocker), but it’s clever and wholly enjoyable. And this would be the singular charm of Shaun of the Dead: it’s transparently derivative, calculatedly delirious, and often, quite fun.
Anointed by no less a personage than Peter Jackson (who knows a little something about zombies) as the “most entertaining movie I’ve seen this year,” Shaun borrows from obvious sources (Dawn of the Dead, From Dusk Till Dawn) as well as less obvious (Seinfeld). Billed as a zom-rom-com (zombie romantic comedy), the movie is appropriately raucous and disrespectful, rather exulting in the ripping of flesh and staggering of undead.
The romantic lead is 29-year-old appliance store manager Shaun (co-writer Simon Pegg), introduced as he sticks his foot in it one more time, sitting in Winchester Tavern, fretting over the loss of his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). Tired of his lack of ambition and predilection for the pub, she gives him one last chance to “change.” He promises to make a commitment, specifically, to make a reservation for their anniversary dinner, and also to stop spending so much time at the pub. That said, he promptly heads home — where he lives with his friend since childhood, Ed (Nick Frost) — and forgets to make the reservation.
A man of consummate inaction (his slightly younger, gum-smacking employees disrespect him outright, claiming that they don’t want to end up like this “granddad”), Shaun can’t possible be prepared for the coming crisis: zombies overrun London. Flipping through telly channels in their discombobulated living room, he and Ed don’t even pause for news reports or the sorts of media alerts that have alarmed survivors in Night of the Living Dead and every zombie movie that’s followed. No, the boys are content to chow down on junk food and drink colas, watch music videos, enjoy another round of Ed’s fart gag, and wait for the zombies to invade their backyard. Which they do, though not exactly with a vengeance. Everyone here, whether living or undead or somewhere in between, takes things pretty much as they come, with appropriate panic and welcome frequent wit.
So, when a zombie girl appears in their backyard, Shaun and Ed assume a plausible explanation for her staggering gait and red eyes: “She’s so drunk!” They laugh and poke at her childishly, until zombie-girl rises up and tries to take a chunk out of Shaun’s neck. Whoa. Scouting for useful weaponry (as zombie-girl is soon joined by others, as they flock to the smell of blood, or the sound of groaning, or something), Ed and Shaun discover an old crate of collected LPs, which they begin tossing like frisbees, though only after each has cleared the choice with the other. They beat back the creatures, then ponder their dire situation. Shaun makes a decision. They’ll pick up his mum and her new husband, and Liz, and they’ll head to the safest, most bunker-like place they know: the tavern.
The rest of the film follows the usual zombies versus survivors storyline, meaning that a diverse crew assembles to fight off the monsters, including Shaun and Liz’s friends Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran), his mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton), and her already-bitten hubby Philip (Nighy). Though Barbara insists repeatedly, “I don’t want to cause a fuss,” hoping to keep the crisis at bay by ignoring it, Shaun’s sudden take-chargeness grants him the surprising strength to take very difficult decisions, as to who must be killed and whom might actually support the survival project. (This might be the film’s most complicated aspect, its use of dicey mother-son relations to underline just how hard it is for a young lad to declare his independence.)
While the romantic comedy elements tend to be dull, the rambunctious bits in Shaun of the Dead are quite effective. From the shocked delight the humans take in decimating assorted zombies, and the stunty gags about body vulnerabilities and emotional meltdowns, to the many pop cultural in-jokes (based in part on Pegg, Frost, and director Edgar Wright’s previous gig, on the 1999 Channel Four series, Spaced), as well as the film’s conception as what Wright calls the “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” relationship to more familiar, more somber zombie texts, the film challenges but also reveres its sources. The “bit players” here are neither heroic nor especially resourceful, though they must be. And so they keep on, to their inevitable slam-bangy finale, committed and self-knowing at last.