Shaun of the Dead (2004)
A good R. A fine R. An R I will defend until my dying day. Sometimes a movie just needs to be R and that's okay. I would not show my kids this movie because it is a fine use of the letter "R".
DIRECTOR: Edgar Wright
Yeah, I watched one of my favorite movies of all time. I'm allowed. I don't always have to experience something new. Sometimes we watch things that make us happy. It also helps that I finally have this on Blu-Ray and not exclusively on HD-DVD. I've been watching my HD-DVD copy for far too long, which means I always had to watch it on the old TV in the basement. We have since gotten a 4K TV that's bigger than life itself and it is very pretty. I wanted to watch one of my favorite movies in a really pretty format on a big ol' screen. "How's that for a bit of fried gold?"
Edgar Wright is a genius. The man is absolutely brilliant and I don't think it comes across better than his first film. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg cut their teeth on their TV show, Spaced, and it has a lot of the elements that would make Wright famous later on. But Spaced is a bit rougher than the films and I kind of love that. Most directors have a first movie and it is a bit of rubbish. Yeah, the movie shows a lot of talent and that first movie eventually lets that director learn the ropes and avoid mistakes the second time out. Even early Scorsese is a bit tough to watch at times. But with Wright working out all of the bugs on Spaced, what happened with Shaun of the Dead is a bit unique. Wright had the time and patience to lay out a perfect movie before committing it to film. He's not Edgar Wright of film fame that he is today. Instead, he's a very hungry director with a passion project that he needed to get absolutely perfect before filming. He knew what pitfalls would befall him and he planned accordingly. No one from a studio is pushing him to get the film done because everything seemed to be done in pre-production. (Mind you, all of this is conjecture based on too many viewings of this film.) He's not being hounded for a second one in a franchise because he's dealing with small distributor Rogue Pictures, so he's just making the tightest film ever. While I don't normally gush about a script over the visuals when it comes to a film, perhaps Shaun of the Dead's greatest achievement is how tight the script had to have been before the film was made. I'm not saying that the film isn't beautifully shot. It is. Oh my stars and garters, it is beautifully shot. But it almost didn't need to be. The movie is so planned in terms of foreshadowing, callbacks, and plot structure that I'm agog. I don't think I've ever seen a movie so tight. When I say a few negative things about Baby Driver, it is only because it will never reach the heights of his previous film. If you haven't seen this movie, watch it. It is remarkably gory and the jokes get pretty blue, but it is nearly a perfect movie. There are no visible faults with the movie that I can point out, so put that out there.
Shaun and Ed might be my favorite protagonist / sidekick duo ever. Perhaps 2004 was a different era, full of cursing and filth, but there is something absolutely charming about Ed's dirty jokes. I don't think that something dirty necessarily makes good comedy. In fact, the joke has to be better than an average joke to make a blue joke work. I don't think anything really falls more flat than a blue joke that doesn't really have a punchline. If it falls flat, the character just comes across as a bit of a pervert. But when the dirty jokes land, they absolutely crush. (Please, world, understand that I don't want you to write dirty jokes. I just want you to appreciate a good dirty joke if you are of age and can appreciate the craft that goes into it.) Shaun's balance to Ed, in that frame of reference, is the audience. Shaun's attitude towards Ed is what ours is meant to be. Shaun is disgusted by what he says, but he can't help but laugh at Ed. As Ed says about his own personality, "I'll stop doing it when you stop laughing." That's a great way to treat Ed's dirty humor. You are aghast that you are laughing at an off-color joke, but you have to admit that you find it funny. A lot of what makes Ed work as well is Nick Frost. Shaun of the Dead is the first film in Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy. The Cornetto Trilogy are all genre parodies (a poor choice in word if not accurate. They are all loving homages) starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the lead roles. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, genuine friends in real life, play off of each other so darn well that the chemistry is always there, regardless of character dynamics. In some ways, the last film of the Cornetto Trilogy, The World's End, flips the script on the roles and has Simon Pegg play the Ed role while Nick Frost plays a more straight-laced character. But in all of the films, the dynamics really work. Frost, in everything I've seen him, has such an earnest and innocent delivery to his performance that he can do high art or dirty humor and not really treat either with the reverence or contempt normally associated with those media. I love Ed, if you didn't guess.
But Ed only really works because of Shaun. Ed could become extremely tiring as a character because he is so a foil for Shaun. Simon Pegg's Shaun is the round character that makes his internal conflict believable. The thing that makes a zombie movie really work is that the external conflict has to be simply part of the setting. The zombies force the characters to constantly move and that affects whatever internal conflict is at play. Between Dawn of the Dead (The Romero Version!) and The Walking Dead (A TV show, I know), the stories that are interesting is how people deal with real world problems with a heightened sense of tension due to the constant threat of zombie attack. The mundane becomes important and exaggerated. Shaun's issue, appropriate enough for a comedy, is his feeling of arrested development. (Hey, that's the name of the show!) He can't seem to make any decisions that are life changing, so it comes to a life and death situation for him to make a basic choice: stay or leave. I love how simple that is, yet it makes the movie feel human. It makes the movie not about heroes or villains, but rather about melodrama with a shot of adrenaline. How cool is that? Add to that stupid crushes and how these small moments seem insanely over the top, I can't get over it. The dynamics between every character is raised to eleven because of Shaun's internal conflict with all of them. Ed is fun, Liz is cool. But Shaun changes the landscape for every one of the survivors. It doesn't help that he had a stepdad that he didn't exactly care for, but understood the complicated situation that they were in.
And maybe that's what makes this more than a zombie comedy. It is an understanding that drama and character play as much of a role as jokes and laughs. This is going to sound wildly pretentious, especially considering the subject matter, but the great zombie stories are about the drama, not about the scares. Scares and jokes heal the wounds brought about the emotional scarring that come with the drama. Feeling scared and laughing adds a shot of adrenaline to the pain of feeling vulnerable. Horror movies and comedies without emotional cores are like candy. They are enjoyable, but utterly fleeting. Adding that real emotional connection to a character and the problems that he or she has makes the movie memorable. I'm always kind of ashamed to say that one of my favorite movies is Shaun of the Dead, because I can see all the "Really?" looks headed my way. But Shaun of the Dead takes the ride that Hollywood and cinema can provide in terms of entertainment and grounds it with characters that we want to become friends with. That seems silly, but every movie should have that goal. I like artsy fartsy because I want to connect with the depths of my soul, but I also want to be entertained. As odd as it might sound, Shaun of the Dead delivers on that promise more than any other movie I can think of. It is really great and, when you are ready, I hope you give it a try.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.