A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 375 – Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead – March 10th, 2011

Today is the start of a big weekend for us. PAX East is in town and we’re attending all three days (convenient that it’s so close to us). We did this last year when the project was brand new and we had to split one of our movies between home and hotel. Hoping to avoid that this year. But as this is a gaming convention we’ve picked some game-based movies. No, tonight isn’t one of them, but it follows along a general theme (zombies) carried over from yesterday. Andy pointed it out the other day – we really had set ourselves up for an all zombie weekend. And judging from what we both felt like after PAX last year, zombies seem pretty fitting.

Granted, this is a far different zombie movie from last night, but there are some comparisons to be made. After all, they’re both the sort of parody and homage that end up being pretty good examples of the genre they’re parodying and paying homage to. It’s just that while one goes over the top with the gore and violence (that would be last night’s Planet Terror) the other swings full into comedy, playing every zombie reveal and brutal kill for humor. And really, I’m not a zombie movie kind of gal. I’m not sure what it is, though it’s entirely possible that it’s an issue I have with tension and how it affects me and creeps into my dreams so I spend the whole night tensed up and most definitely not resting. But whatever it is, serious zombie movies just aren’t the sort of thing I generally tune into.

And that’s a problem here! It’s a real problem. Because while I totally get the parody aspect and general feel of things, I know there’s a more specific level that I’m totally missing. We hosted a guest who got in early for PAX last night and we got to talking about movies. She mentioned that her boyfriend greatly appreciates Edgar Wright as a director because he’s a fantastic craftsman. He sets up shots so carefully to mimic and pay homage to the source material he’s aping. And in Hot Fuzz I got it. Not all of it, to be sure, but there were little bits and pieces in there that I recognized immediately. And here? I simply do not have the basic knowledge to appreciate the movie for that. And I know it’s going on, because that’s how Wright works, but I won’t get it because I don’t watch zombie movies. And I feel bad, you know? I feel bad because the cleverness there is wasted on me. I hate being a bad movie viewer.

On the other hand, there’s plenty in this movie to appreciate even for me. After all, even if I’m not familiar with the specifics of various zombie movies, I do know enough about the genre to get the jokes here. Our main character is Shaun, played by Simon Pegg. Shaun works in dreary retail job, has just been dumped by his girlfriend, feels bullied by his step-father (still, even in his late 20s) and lives with two flatmates: Pete and Ed. Pete seems like a decent guy, but he cannot stand Ed, who is a total slob and who doesn’t work or do much of anything aside from play video games. But Ed (played by Nick Frost) is Shaun’s best friend. So when the people around the village start turning into zombies, Shaun is obviously going to be the unlikely hero. It’s expected, but not unwelcome. He’s not a bad guy. He’s likable. Just stuck in a rut. To be honest, he feels a lot like Run, Fatboy, Run’s Dennis.

The zombie reveal is a non-issue, which is the whole point. You see people turning into zombies in the background throughout the beginning of the movie. A woman on the bus, a guy in the park, people here and there stagger and moan. And Ed and Shaun don’t notice. Or, well, they do, at one point, but they just think the guy is drunk. It’s a total lack of tension that I adored. Once they know what’s going on, their reaction is, of course, to try and fight off the zombies. So they grab kitchen utensils and plastic flower pots and vinyl records. It is the least effective frontal assault ever and the zombies just sort of slowly shuffle towards them, posing no threat at all. Of course, the zombies do eventually gather in enough numbers to pose a real threat and Shaun and Ed have to leave their flat and go find Shaun’s mother and step-father (played by the always awesome Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy, respectively), then Shaun’s ex-girlfriend, Liz. With Liz are her friends, Dennis and Dianne and they come along to, following Shaun and Ed to the pub where they spend most of their evenings.

What I love about this movie (aside from the cast, which is hilarious and full of people I recognize from Black Books, including a cameo from Tamsin Greig and a couple of folks who had single-episode parts in the show) is that it manages to balance the parody and action. The overall plot is great, the dialogue is snappy and the little moments, like the two groups of survivors passing and being made up of the same stock character types? Those are fantastic. They’re just the right type and level of humor without taking away from the fact that the movie still has action scenes and a bit where one character gets torn limb from limb. There’s a threat, which is made clear as character drop like flies, but then there’s not a threat at the same time, since the zombies are so slow and so easy to kill. A tricky balance, and one the movie maintains admirably. If this is simply what happens when Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg get together then I hope they work together for a good long time because it’s brilliant.

March 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Shaun of the Dead

March 10, 2011

Shaun of the Dead

Our zombie weekend continues today with Shaun of the Dead. We had toyed with the idea of holding off on this movie until Halloween but seeing as we’re watching three more zombie movies (at least) over the next few days we figured it made sense to get all our zombies in at one time. I’m glad we did, too, because I’ve been trying to find an excuse to watch this with Amanda for ages. It’s got a ton of familiar faces, great humor, some pathos, and even a little social commentary thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, it is a zombie movie, or at least a spoof of one, and that’s not exactly our favorite genre so if it were not for this project Amanda might never have gotten around to seeing it. (Except that it stars Simon Pegg, who Amanda always enjoys.)

It’s a fun kind of contrast watching this movie right after Planet Terror. This movie spoofs a lot of the same sort of films, but comes at it from a slightly different angle. The humor is a lot less outrageous and the gore is more restrained. In short it’s a much dryer, more subtle, eminently British zombie spoof.

Simon Pegg is Shaun, a man-child who never quite grew out of his university days and is shambling through his life aimlessly. He lives with his best mate Ed, an oafish but affable lump who never does a lick of work (except maybe sometimes selling a little weed, though he seems fairly pants at that as a job as well) and plays video games on Shaun’s couch all the time. Shaun’s girlfriend Liz is suffocated by the mind-numbing constant sameness of Sean’s life and longs for romance and adventure. There’s some kind of bad blood between him and his father-in-law and his other flatmate is an annoying professional prick who desperately wants Ed out of their lives. Liz has two flatmates, Dianne and David, who also disapprove of Shaun and his aimless ways. Liz actually dumps Shaun right before the zombie outbreak starts to take over.

There’s a lot of clever humor to this movie. The first third of the movie or so is setting up Shaun’s monotonous life and at the same time playing with typical zombie movie tropes. The zombie apocalypse happens entirely in the background with Shaun completely oblivious to what’s going on. As a viewer, knowing it is a movie about zombies, you know exactly what’s going on, but Shaun is so preoccupied with his relationship problems with Liz and his father-in-law’s demands that he treat his mother better and with how awful his menial job is that he simply doesn’t see the shambling people around him or pay any attention to the constant sirens in the background. It’s a clever gag that works on a couple different levels. On the one hand we the viewers are waiting for the penny to drop and for Shaun to realize just what’s going on. Every time a hand reaches in from out of frame or someone stumbles towards him in the background we’re sure that the real action of the movie is going to start, but it doesn’t – and director Edgar Wright does a fantastic job of stringing this tension along. At the same time there’s a sort of wry comment about modern society and how much we all behave like zombies in our lives, mindlessly moving along oblivious to the world around us. It nods to the problems of those of us in modern urban life who are surrounded by people and isolated all the time.

Of course eventually Shaun and Ed do figure out what’s going on and immediately Shaun gets it into his head to go rescue his mother and Liz and take them to the most comforting place he can think of – his local pub, The Winchester. Of course everything he tries to do backfires horribly. He ends up with a whole entourage as Dianne and David tag along and his father-in-law Philip as well. Phillip has been bitten by a zombie and is slowly turning, which threatens to drive a wedge between Shaun and his slightly absent-minded mother.

The zombies in this movie are anything but frightening. Oh, there’s a little gore here and there, and not everybody survives to the end of the movie, but the dim-witted stumbling hordes are not really much to be feared. (Although being bitten by one very much is.) Much of the humor in the film comes from the slow stumbling of the undead and the relative ease with which they can be dispatched with anything from a cricket bat to an LP record.

Another source of delight is Edgar Wright’s distinctive directorial style. Purely by coincidence Amanda and I were talking with a friend last night about Edgar Wright and she encouraged us to pay attention to his editing and obsession with minor details, so I was looking at those aspects in particular as I watched this and comparing it in my head to Hot Fuzz (which we have already reviewed.) Wright has this cool trick he uses that involves very tightly edited sort of “flash montages” of images strung together. For example there’s Shaun preparing for his work day here or his planning process as he tries to figure out how to rescue Liz and his mother. We see similar images quickly re-played with subtle changes to show us progression in characters’ lives or thought processes. It’s a cool trick and fun to watch. The movie is also absolutely packed with in jokes and references (most of which sailed past me) to other zombie movies and other Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright projects. You would have to have listened to his commentaries or followed his web sites to really appreciate just how much here is insular comedy aimed at Edgar Winter fans… which amuses me but means that I feel somewhat as though I’m missing a lot of jokes that could improve the experience for me if I were more in the know.

I had a blast watching this movie again tonight though. Absolutely every single major character in the film is a familiar face for me and it’s just fun to see all these funny people gathered together and working on a single project. From Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy as Shaun’s mother and father-in-law to Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis as David and Dianne this movie is packed with great British comedians. It all makes me very much look forward to the mint chip flavoured third movie in the Blood and Ice Cream Pegg/Wright trilogy.

March 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment