So, it’s happening. I’m doing all of Edgar Wright’s movies, though I guess not in any particular order. There aren’t that many, since Fistful of Fingers never got distributed and he got kicked off of Ant-Man, and I probably won’t review Spaced unless it’s requested. I do like the show, though not as much as the subsequent films, I just am already regretting the shows I’m currently set to review… especially since I plan on doing an actual live review of the next season of Doctor Who. But, for now, I’ve got some more amazing movies by a visionary director to review.
This was the first of the Cornetto Trilogy and also the least-earning one at $30 Million, though on a $6 Million budget, it still was profitable… though it earned less money that year than Christmas with the Kranks, Fat Albert, or Catwoman, a fact that should kill your soul.
Slight format change: I’m putting a synopsis here, and a full summary after the “read more” page, so you can just read the analysis and not have to wade through the movie. If you want the summary, just go to the bottom and read it first. Let me know if you think this is better.
Shaun Riley (Simon Pegg) gets dumped by his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), because he’s so dispassionate about life that he only wants to drink at the same pub, the Winchester, with his slovenly roommate, Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun decides he’s going to get his life together, but unfortunately he’s been missing the fact that the zombie apocalypse has come. Shaun and Ed form a plan to get his mom, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), kill his step-dad Philip (Bill Nighy) who has been bitten, rescue Liz, and head to the Winchester.
However, things don’t go as planned. Shaun can’t bring himself to kill Philip, Liz brings along her flatmates David and Dianne (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis), Ed screws up most of the plans by being reckless and irresponsible, Barbara is bitten, and Philip becomes a zombie. They finally make it to the pub, but are surrounded by hordes of zombies. Eventually, David, Dianne, and Barbara are killed, Ed is bitten, and Shaun and Liz prepare to go out fighting, but are rescued by the military. Six months later, Shaun and Liz are engaged and Shaun keeps zombie Ed in the shed to hang out with, their relationship mostly unchanged.
Something painfully occurred to me during this re-watch: In terms of re-watchability, this is the worst of the Cornetto Trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still fun to watch again, but Edgar Wright’s films are notoriously good to watch a second, third, or tenth time. Hell, the other two movies in the trilogy, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, are arguably BETTER when you see them a second time. This one is about the same. Still good, but about the same.
Part of that is that this movie has less of the foreshadowing and repetition that are in the other two films, because this was the first one. Sure, they’re in the film and they’re done great, but they just aren’t as polished as they are in the others. But, none of that makes this film any less amazing, because when you consider that this is an underfunded first outing of a director who had previously only done television, this is basically watching Babe Ruth’s first home run.
Like the best zombie movies, the point of the movie is to use zombies as a metaphor. In Night of the Living Dead it’s Vietnam-era America (and a dash of racism from the living), in Dawn of the Dead it’s consumerism, in Day of the Dead it’s a lack of communication, in Land of the Dead it’s the nature of power to eventually be countered, and in Dead Alive it’s so that someone can kick ass for the Lord (if you don’t get this reference, ask me to review the movie). Shaun of the Dead actually takes it a step further and just points out that so many people are effectively already zombies that the actual zombification is really secondary. Hell, at the end, Noel (Rafe “I was the bad guy in Jurassic World 2” Spall), the jerk that worked with Shaun, is basically doing the same job now that he’s a zombie.
Shaun feels the way that many people feel. He’s given up doing anything he’s passionate about (like his deejaying) because he has bills to pay. He instead chooses to just do the same thing over and over again, drinking with Ed and Liz at the same bar, never trying to be stimulated, because when you know your dreams are dead, what the hell’s the point in doing anything else? And, like many of us, he’s just existing, he’s not really living. He’s not depressed or suicidal, he’s just dispassionate and doesn’t know what to do since he can’t do the thing that he actually wanted. It’s like most people whose passions are art or theater but aren’t lucky enough to do them for a living, you end up just working a job to keep a roof over your head, and you don’t want to dedicate all the energy for a hobby. You know that you could, but you also know it’d be super hard for little reward, so you don’t, and then you’re even more miserable by choice.
To summarize: You’re not living, but you’re not dead.
I’m going to add a clip from the show Steven Universe here, because there is a song that perfectly encapsulates what I’m saying.
The key to the movie is stated by Liz at the end: ” You did something. That’s what counts.” When Shaun actually starts to do something instead of just going through the motions, everything goes wrong, which is exactly the thing that most people fear so much that it stops them from doing anything. But, that’s also exactly what allows Shaun to start being a more complete person at the end of the movie. He hasn’t stopped hanging out with Ed, hasn’t stopped going to the Winchester, but he’s also doing other things that have some risk and discomfort. And that’s how you really feel alive.
As for the technical qualities of the movie itself, the foreshadowing and repeated dialogue is amazing, partially because it almost all functions as clever wordplay and partially because recontextualizing things is an easy way to convey meaning by inherently drawing comparisons. The big one is Ed’s speech about what they’ll do the next day:
“… Have a Bloody Mary first thing. Get a bite at The King’s Head. Grab a couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here and bang! We’re up at the bar for shots. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?”
Aside from Ed’s speech telling the plot of the movie (Bloody Mary is the first zombie they kill, a bite at the King’s head is Philip getting bitten, grab a couple at the little princess is picking up David, Dianne, and Liz, back to the Winchester for shots is… self-explanatory), there’s also Ed telling his other roommate Pete (Peter “I’m the Tick” Serafun… Seramichelle… Serafinowicz) that the next time he sees him he’s dead and Pete telling Ed to live in the shed.
The repetition is pretty great, too. Shaun’s dialogue to Ed when he’s playing the game is mirrored with Ed saying the same to Shaun when he’s shooting zombies. There’s a shot in the beginning of the film when Shaun closes his bathroom mirror and Pete is there as a jump-scare parody, which later is duplicated with the zombie Pete. “You’ve got red on you” naturally takes on two meanings. Shaun’s walk to the bodega near his house is similar both times, except the second time the apocalypse has happened. When Shaun tells David to turn the jukebox off, he says “kill the Queen,” (because the song is by Queen) which becomes a conflict when David tries to kill Barbara, who, as the King’s wife, would be the Queen. Additionally, almost every character seen in the first half becomes a zombie in the second.
Another hallmark of the film is that there are sharp, dramatic cuts with powerful sound effects for the most mundane things, like adjusting a tie or washing hands. Like with the repeated dialogue, this actually helps to convey the metaphor by saying that the scenes that normally would feature the zombies feature the mundane aspects of Shaun’s life.
There are tons of references to other zombie and horror movies, with businesses being named for George Romero, Lucio Fulci, John Landis, and their films. Much like in the original Night of the Living Dead, the zombies are never actually explained, although the proposed causes are borrowed from other zombie movies.
Other than that, the movie’s just funny as hell. Every performance is pretty much spot on, although I have a special love for Penelope Wilton as Barbara. She was always so gentle and loving that it was honestly heartbreaking to watch Shaun kill her.
Also, last thing, I finally looked up what Noel’s dialogue means when he says he only has an “Henry.” That’s Cockney rhyming slang for pot, because it’s Henry the Eighth -> An Eighth of Pot. Cockney rhyming slang is always fun.
Well, two down, 3 to go.
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If you want to read the Summary, click below:
The movie starts with Shaun Riley (Simon Pegg) not paying attention to his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), as she brings up his relationship with his roommate, Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun and Ed are basically codependent, with Ed going out with the couple on dates (including the one they’re on). In response, Liz constantly has to bring out her roommates, David and Dianne (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis), so that she doesn’t feel like the third wheel in her own relationship. Liz and Ed get along okay, but Shaun and David do not, mostly due to David’s obvious crush on Liz.
It’s revealed that Shaun also just isn’t that great of a boyfriend, mostly forgetting their anniversary, not particularly wanting to do things aside from go to the Winchester pub (usually with Ed), and just generally not putting effort into it. He hasn’t even introduced Liz to his mother after four years. Shaun promises to change and be better, starting with a nice dinner for two the next night.
The title sequence begins and I’ll be damned if it isn’t clever. It’s basically just a sequence of people moving around like zombies while doing normal human things. I’m gonna try to post it down below for everyone who hasn’t seen it.
Shaun shuffles into his living room for the morning with Ed who is hard at work playing videogames. Shaun tries to join him, only to be reminded that he has an actual job. On his way out, Shaun is stopped by his other flatmate, Pete (Peter “I’m the Tick” Serafun… Seramichelle… Serafinowicz). Pete, much like Liz, thinks that Ed is just a deadweight on Shaun’s back, because he’s just a low-level drug dealer who slacks off all day. Shaun tries to defend Ed, but there’s not much to defend except that Ed makes him laugh.
Shaun makes his way to the local bodega, seeing headlines about a “super-flu” that’s been killing people (and apparently is blamed on GMOs and a downed satellite), but stops reading when he checks out. As he heads to work, he sees a small woman faint but doesn’t find out what’s happening. At work, Shaun is in charge because his boss is sick, but he is openly disrespected by a young coworker named Noel (Rafe “I was the bad guy in Jurassic World 2” Spall). Shaun also puts a red pen in his pocket without the cap, leading people to say “You’ve got red on you.”
Shaun manages to miss all the news reports about the zombie outbreak starting and is visited by his stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy), who reminds him that he is supposed to visit tomorrow and that he forgot Mother’s Day. Liz then calls him about changing their reservations for the evening, but Shaun is too focused on not letting Noel disrespect him to pay attention. While buying his mom some flowers, Shaun misses a businessman running for his life, but almost sees a homeless zombie eat a pigeon. He then is oblivious to all of the signs of a public panic as he makes his way home. He runs into his friend Yvonne (Jessica Hynes), who accidentally reminds him of his lack of progress and ambition, before also reminding him that he forgot to make the dinner reservations. Unable to get a table, Shaun proposes going to the Winchester, resulting in Liz hanging up.
Shaun goes to Liz’s place and tries to apologize, but this was the last straw. He apparently has promised to be better dozens of times and has never followed through. Liz lays out the fact that Shaun is basically just a drain on her due to the fact that he never wants to do anything more than drink at the Winchester and breaks up with him. He then goes to the Winchester and meets Ed. Ed tries to cheer him up and get him drunk as they close down the bar. He then outlines what they’re going to do the next day:
“… Have a Bloody Mary first thing. Get a bite at The King’s Head. Grab a couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here and bang! We’re up at the bar for shots. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?”
Kids, this is how you do foreshadowing well.
They leave the bar, missing the now really, really obvious signs of zombies due to their intoxication. Back at their apartment, they’re playing music loudly with Shaun acting as a DJ until Pete angrily stops them. Shaun tries to calm him down, but Ed provokes Pete, leading Pete to tell him to go live in the shed. Shaun tries again to defend Ed, but Pete just points out that Shaun just wants someone around who’s a bigger loser than he is before telling him to sort his life out. It’s also revealed that Pete got bitten by a “mugger” earlier that day. Shaun passes out after writing a message to himself to sort his life out.
Getting up, Shaun runs to the same bodega, missing that the streets are empty except for zombies, corpses, and a few fleeing citizens and also the bloody handprints on the case at the shop. Returning home, Shaun flips through the television which somehow still conveys the message about the zombies. Ed alerts him to a girl, Mary (Nicola Cunningham) in the garden. He and Shaun think she’s drunk at first, even when she attacks Shaun, but Shaun accidentally pushes her backwards and impales her on a pipe (that apparently is the remnant of a clothesline). Surprising them both, Mary gets back up, undeterred, with a giant hole through her stomach. They try to retreat but are blocked by a fat zombie with blood on his face. They still make it inside.
They check the news and find out about the outbreak, but a one-armed zombie in a wedding outfit comes in through the door that Ed continually leaves open. They end up killing him and are told by the news that the only way to keep a zombie down is removing the head or destroying the brain. They go out to confront the two zombies, but don’t bring appropriate items to crush a skull. Eventually, they get into the shed and grab a cricket bat and a shovel, which they use to dispatch the undead interlopers. Shaun then gets a call from his mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton) who tells him that his stepfather was bitten, something that Shaun doesn’t really mind. He resolves to save his mother and Liz, resulting in them planning to pick them up and take the group to the Winchester. On the way out, he finds a zombified Pete in the bathroom, but runs rather than killing him.
First, they head to his mother’s place, where he finds that Philip is not yet a zombie, resulting in him being unable to kill him. However, his mom refuses to leave without Philip, so they all leave together in Philip’s Jaguar after Ed intentionally crashes their car. Zombies attack them again, biting Philip’s neck, but still not killing him.
They make their way to Liz’s apartment, where he talks her into his plan to go to the Winchester. The group packs in the car, where Shaun and Philip have an emotional moment where Philip says that he’s always loved Shaun before expiring. Ed, who has intentionally taken wrong turns so he can keep driving the Jaguar and hitting zombies, pulls over, at which time Philip reanimates and tries to kill them. Now with no vehicle and Ed’s loud music attracting all the nearby zombies, they try to walk through some back rows to get to the Winchester. Along the way, he runs into Yvonne again, who is with an almost identical group of people, including her boyfriend Declan (Martin Freeman) and Cousin Tom (Matt Lucas). They head off in the opposite direction.
Barbara gets separated and is attacked by a zombie. Shaun ends up impaling it to a tree. Realizing there is a horde of zombies in the way, the group tries to make their way to the pub by pretending to be zombies. It actually works fine right until they get to the bar, at which point Ed takes a call from one of his drug dealing friends, angering Shaun so much that he finally starts yelling at Ed for always letting him down, which attracts the attention of all of the zombies. Shaun distracts the mob as the others get inside, running off.
Inside the Winchester, David starts to try and take over the group until Shaun returns. They wait at the bar for hours until nightfall, at which time Shaun tries to restart the power and accidentally alerts an army of zombies at the back door about their presence. He reports it to Liz and they both decide they need to be extra quiet, at which time Ed makes a loud commotion with the slot machine, bringing all the zombies to the window and the zombie of the owner, John (Steve Emerson), into the room. As “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen comes on the jukebox, Ed, Shaun, and Liz try to kill John with pool cues in one of the best scenes in cinema. David tries to turn the jukebox off, but instead flashes lights for all the zombies in the area. They finally kill John by shoving his head into the jukebox.
Recovering the Winchester rifle that gives the bar its name, Shaun gives a heroic speech including a quote from Bertrand Russell that he got off of a beer mat. Liz tries to get Barbara to a safe place, but it’s revealed that she was bitten earlier. The group tries to collectively operate the rifle to kill the zombies coming into the pub, but having no experience makes it difficult to pull off headshots. Shaun goes to check on his mom, who thanks him for the lovely flowers before she starts to die from the zombie virus or blood loss. David then points the rifle at Barbara and prepares to shoot her in the head, prompting Shaun to try and block him and Ed to threaten him if he goes through with it. David points out that she’s going to change and kill them, but Shaun says it’s just because David hates him and is in love with Liz. Everyone but David, including Dianne, acknowledges that David loves Liz and is a twat.
Liz finally resolves the situation by telling Shaun that David is being an ass, but he’s still right. At that point, Barbara comes back to life, forcing a tearful Shaun to put her down for good and punch David when he rubs it in. David says that he’s leaving. He starts to unbolt the door and unblock it before he’s finally stopped by Dianne. David apologizes to the group, before the zombies finally break through one of the windows and pull him out, disemboweling him and ripping him apart, leaving Dianne holding his severed leg. Dianne, desperate, opens the door and runs out, finally allowing the zombies into the pub.
Shaun, Liz, and Ed use improvised molotovs and the rifle to try and deal with the mob, but they end up being overwhelmed and Ed ends up being bitten by zombie Pete. The three, including the dying Ed, make their way to the cellar of the pub through a trapdoor but they can’t get out onto the street. Shaun and Liz reconcile and prepare to die, before finding the button that operates the lift onto the street. Ed stays behind, playing one last fart joke on a tearful Shaun. Shaun and Liz prepare to fight to death against a horde of zombies… only for a convoy of military trucks to show up and kill them all. It turns out that Yvonne, rather than waiting at a pub, went to find help, found the army, and has been helping them exterminate the zombies.
Six months later, Britain has mostly recovered and is now repurposing the leftover zombies, using them in the service industry (including that prick Noel) and as fodder for entertainment television. Shaun and Liz now live together, Shaun has gone back to deejaying, and, judging by the ring on Liz’s finger, they’re now engaged or married. They discuss their plans, which, while more outgoing, are still fairly relaxed. Shaun takes a moment to pop out to the shed, where it’s revealed that the zombified Ed is chained up and playing the same video game from the beginning. Ed weakly tries to bite at Shaun, but a playful yell makes him start playing the game again.