Fans often underestimate the staying power of Shaun of the Dead, the first of Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy. When held up against Wright’s more recent films like Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and, of course, this year’s Baby Driver, the consistent misplacement of the 2004 cult film is understandable.
But in spite of these unjust rankings, and being one of Wright’s earlier films, Shaun of the Dead is the director’s best work – the standard to compare Wright’s later films to, which sets a high benchmark for his distinctive style, tone, and pacing.
For many fans, Shaun of the Dead is their introduction to Wright’s feature film oeuvre. While the director’s TV series Spaced (the debut of the collaboration between Wright and Simon Pegg) and the satirical feature A Fistful of Fingers preceded the zombie flick, Shaun builds upon their example to create a memorable film that at once pays homage to the films that inspired it and satirises the genres from which they are born.
With references to Night of the Living Dead, the Evil Dead trilogy, and, of course, Dawn of the Dead, the first film of the Cornetto Trilogy arguably boasts the most references of any Wright film (with Hot Fuzz coming a close second). “With this film [The World’s End], it has the least references in it,” Wright told Jake Mulligan at Slant, with the director noting that Guillermo del Toro said that The World’s End is also Wright’s most “mature” film. If we’re to draw a parallel between maturity and references, Shaun could be seen as Wright’s most immature film. While this may be true, most viewers don’t watch Wright’s films for maturity. They watch them for the fun, which is the core of Shaun of the Dead.
Shaun‘s opening strongly establishes its adventurous sense of fun. Leaving his viewers in suspense, Wright comically foreshadows the zombie-infested reality through closeup shots of Pegg’s zombie-like stance and sequences of mundane reality. Shaun‘s deserving of the “Best Edgar Wright Film” moniker is in that, like all good films, it takes the reality that we recognise and bends it – this time into a controlled world of horror, gore, and adventure.
From the repetitive motions of a boy endlessly kicking his football on a wall to the universally recognisable horror of being on a busy bus, to the “red blood” of a red pen leaking, Wright quickly but thoughtfully turns the mundane into the abnormal.
As a film director, Wright found his visual voice with Shaun. As we come to the climax of the third act, Pegg and co-stars Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Dylan Moran, and Lucy Davis fight zombies against the sound of Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ playing in the background. The scene epitomises Wright’s ability to capture sincerity in the guise of a heart-racing action sequence that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Using comic book-style fight choreography (balloons with “boom” and “ka-pow” written in them would not feel misplaced in the scene), fast editing interchanged with long cuts, and perfectly-in-sync action and music, the scene shows how Wright is able to take his influences (in this case, comic books and zombie thrillers) and mould them to fit his own dynamic worlds.
Speaking about one of his key inspirations, Wright says, “Dawn of the Dead has a very similar feel [to the suburban setting of Halloween]: a terrifying premise rendered a lot less fantastical by its grim, everyday Pittsburgh settings.” Steeped in reality, the film defies categorisation. The film “isn’t really about the zombies,” says Wright. The zombies are easily replaceable; they simply serve as metaphorical obstacles that advance both the plot and Shaun’s life.
Shaun‘s concern with life’s mundanities is part of what makes it so great. The film isn’t just about zombies, but also loneliness, love, friendship, and father-son relationships. While we might not think of it as a mature movie, what Shaun truly is – thanks to its ability to defy genre boundaries – is an exploration of a person trying to grow. By wrapping up the film in the guise of a zombie horror flick, Wright ensures that “the point is not to make you feel good, but to prompt laughs of horrified recognition that we really are like that.”
While the characters are cartoonish, the film’s subjects are ultimately people we recognise. Watching Dylan Moran’s unlikable David, the innocent Diane, and the loser Shaun/foolish Ed/ex-girlfriend Liz trio fight against zombies directly places the viewer into the world of the characters, the familiarity in the personalities making the events seem not unlikely.
At Shaun‘s beginning, the titular character is merely a zombie-like creature living life on autopilot. Confronted with mirror images of himself as the real zombies begin to take over, Shaun is forced to question his relationships with his father, girlfriend, and friends. Ironically, Shaun’s life seems better than before the zombie infestation.
The zombies never seem truly threatening to Shaun because, in a sense, he has already lived life as a shambling, brainless creature. Instead, as the film reaches its climax, it becomes clear Shaun’s fear is for his friends and family. Rather than simply being a two-dimensional film about zombies, Wright ensures Shaun is more complex, the film acting as a Bildungsroman for the early thirtysomething.
In a scene from the beginning of the film, Nick Frost’s Ed unknowingly foreshadows what is to come for Shaun and co. The fact the film’s most foolish character effectively predicts the future signifies the sense of blind hope that exists in Shaun. Shaun of the Dead is not Edgar Wright’s best film because of the human-eating zombies, but because it defies the expectations set on zombie thrillers, instead becoming a tale of friendship. While Edgar Wright’s work on the Cornetto trilogy works together seamlessly in their tales of adulthood, it is Shaun of the Dead that stands strongest on its own.