Shaun of the Dead

(2004) *** 1/2 R
99 min. Focus Features. Director: Edgar Wright. Cast: Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost, Dylan Moran, Lucy Davis.

Shaun of the Dead—a so-called "rom zom com" (romantic zombie comedy)—affectionately replays zombie-movie archetypes from an overtly comic perspective. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead had plenty of satirical humor, but co-writers Simon Pegg (who also stars) and Edgar Wright (who also directs) add snappy dialogues, painfully funny situations, and literal slapstick in the form of the hero's bloody cricket bat.

In the first act, Wright and Pegg carefully establish the characters while only teasing the zombie mayhem to come. Pegg plays Shaun, an underachiever nestled into a comfortable rut. Shaun shares a flat with his slovenly pal Ed (Nick Frost) and an uptight spoilsport named David (Dylan Moran), who reminds Shaun, "We're not students anymore." Every day, Shaun virtually sleepwalks to his demeaning job at an appliance store (where he must wrangle snide teenagers). Every night, Shaun crashes with his mates at his pub of choice, the Winchester. Citing a lack of direction and one too many broken promises, Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) dumps him, leaving him to cry in his beer with the marginally comforting Ed.

When all hell breaks loose, so to speak, Shaun must rise to the occasion. Shaun concludes that the Winchester remains the ultimate destination: if barricaded, the pub can serve as a safe haven. After rounding up ineffectual compatriots—including David's girlfriend Dianne (Lucy Davis of The Office), Shaun's "don't mind me" mother (Penelope Wilton of Calendar Girls) and his testy father-in-law (Bill Nighy of Love Anything)—Shaun leads the motley crew through North London, now a bloody jungle of lurching, staggering zombies.

For Shaun, the crisis is a chance to discover his inner hero; for Ed, it's a chance to fulfill all his fantasies, including speeding in a luxury car and killing wantonly, as he only could before in his beloved video games. Pegg and Wright pepper the film with sly social satire, from the notion that desensitization to violence isn't necessarily a bad thing to the old chestnut that we're zombies already in our homogenized capitalist cultures. Wright orchestrates a hilarious pair of Steadicam shots: the first establishes Shaun's morning routine (including stumbling on the same bit of pavement) while the second shows that a zombie epidemic in his path fails to break Shaun's pre-programmed stride.

Shaun of the Dead features impeccable performances all around. Pegg—who looks like a funhouse David Morse—sets the standard with his subtle comic tics, crack timing, and fully committed emotional reality. Frost's uber-sidekick unleashes a hilarious stream of practical jokery and an incompetence which is somehow as endearing as it is stupid; like most of the characters, his belated grounding in the mortal horror of the situation carries surprising weight. With considerable aplomb, Davis pulls off the delicate role of flighty and fragile Dianne. The level Ashfield and squirmy Moran nail their "straight man" roles, while veterans Wilton and Nighy effortlessly serve up comedy and catharsis as two people who now know they've seen it all.

Despite its outlandish scenario, Shaun of the Dead is an often understated study in contrasts; Wright and Pegg drain much of the hysteria from horror movies to significant comic effect. When zombies trap Shaun and Ed in their flat, Ed asks, "What do you think we should do?" After a pause, Shaun offers, "Have a sit-down?" Shaun's father-in-law dismisses a zombie bite by explaining he "ran it under a cold tap," and Shaun's mother concludes of the carnage, "It's been a funny sort of day, hasn't it?" The soundtrack tips a hat to Romero's demented musak and employs the Winchester's jukebox for hilariously inappropriate zombie-slaying accompaniment (Queen, anyone?). Certainly, this is the only zombie flick ever to quote Bertrand Russell.

Shaun of the Dead runs on the comforting precision of filmmakers with a clear design. Neither sacrificing horror for the sake of humor nor abandoning the comedy to achieve its scares, Wright and Pegg have constructed a crossover hit which, in the U.K., outgrossed Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. A voice-over reference to that zombie thriller is one of many affectionate fan-boy shout-outs—genre fans have already embraced the film as one of their own. The filmmakers, who previously collaborated on the Britcom Spaced, have collected the blessing of Romero and endorsements from Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro. Horror plaudits aside, Shaun of the Dead is out in front as the funniest comedy of the year.

[For Groucho's interview with Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, click here, and click here to become a member of Shaun Squad!]

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 9/22/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

One of the best comedies of recent years comes to hi-def Blu-ray with impeccable tech specs. The 1080p picture is sharply defined, with accurate color and a depth of detail that the standard-def DVD simply cannot offer; as is customary for the Blu format, the film's exterior sequences look particularly life-like. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio likewise can't be beat, with great directional effects,  immersive ambience, and a clean, clear mix supporting every low moan and gunshot.

Bonus features are extensive, with everything from the previous DVDs preserved, beginning with four commentary tracks. There's a winningly funny commentary with actor/writer Simon Pegg and writer/director Edgar Wright; another commentary with Pegg, and actors Nick Frost, Dylan Moran, Kate Ashfield, and Lucy Davis; a third commentary with actors Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton; and a fourth commentary with the film's zombies. The first is the big winner, but all of these tracks have something to offer the rabid Shaun of the Dead fan.

In new U-Control bonuses, Storyboards delivers picture-in-picture scene-specific storyboards, also available as a separate supplement, while the Zomb-o-Meter is a pop-up trivia track.

Missing Bits gathers "Extended Bits" (13:28, SD), fifteen extended scenes with optional filmmaker commentary; "The Man Who Would Be Shaun" (0:35, SD) an onset goof by Pegg and Frost; "Funky Pete" (2:04, SD), an alternate take humorously replacing the F-word; "Plot Holes" (3:27, SD), which uses narration and hand-drawn sketches to fill gaps in the film's story; and a generous collection of "Outtakes" (10:47, SD).

The Raw Meat section includes "Simon Pegg's Video Diary" (6:44, SD), "Lucy Davis' Video Diary" (5:05, SD), "Joe Cornish's Video Diary" (10:16, SD), "Casting Tapes" (4:12, SD), "Edgar & Simon's Flip Chart" (13:36, SD), "SFX Comparison" (2:25, SD), "Make-up Tests" (2:20, SD), and "EPK Featurette" (7:10, SD).

TV Tidbits is a section of the television footage seen in the film: "T4 With Coldplay" (4:21, SD), "Fun Dead" (1:05, SD), "Trisha -- Your Nine Lives Are Up" (1:26, SD), "Trisha — I Married a Monster" (1:31, SD), and "Remembering Z Day" (2:32, SD).

Zombie Gallery serves up a Photo Gallery, 2000 AD Strip, and Poster Designs, while the Storyboard Gallery actually enables storyboard access during playback, with a pop-up icon signaling the availability of storyboards.

Also included are the "US Trailer" (2:29, SD), "UK Teaser Trailer" (1:39, SD), "UK Trailer" (1:50, SD), two "UK TV Spots" (0:22 & 0:23, SD), and the "Fright Fest Trailer" (1:30, SD).

Though fans could hardly ask for more, here it is: the disc is BD-Live enabled and D-Box equipped. With this high-def upgrade, Shaun of the Dead certainly will live on.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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