“You’ve got red on you.”
Let’s consider the comedy horror sub-genre. Perhaps the most easy kind of movie to fuck up. Make a straight horror film that doesn’t work and you’ve achieved the comedy unintentionally. Set out to make a horror film that’s funny and you already run into two potential – and oh-so-often blundered into – pitfalls. Either it’s not funny enough, or not dark/horrific/nasty enough.
If that’s not enough of a challenge, you then have to factor in how buggardly difficult it is to be funny, period. Bad comedians? Ten a penny. The likes of the Goons, the Monty Python team, Dave Allen, Bill Hicks or Billy Connolly – the defining comedic talents? Once a generation, pretty much. Lame, stupid, by-the-numbers movies advertising themselves as comedies? There’s probably four or five playing at a multiplex near you right now. Something that really hits the ball of the park and makes your sides hurt even while the intelligence behind the rib-tickling is actively challenging you as a viewer? ‘Four Lions’ was probably the last thing I saw that ticked all the boxes.
So: comedy horrors. Fuck loads of ’em. And some come very close to nailing it. ‘Slither’ only just misses out because of it’s mean-spirited and utterly unamusing first half hour. ‘Zombieland’ has a shedload of good ideas and intermittently hits the heights, but tries too hard. ‘Dead Snow’ mines some belly laughs out of promising material but never goes as crazy and satirical with it as you so desperately want it to. Those that get it right? The ‘Evil Dead’ films, ‘Tremors’, ‘Eight Legged Freaks’ and the absolute best of the bunch: the king of comedy horror, the monarch of mordant mockery, the sultan of scary spoofery, the god-emperor of graveyard humour: ‘Shaun of the Dead’.
‘Shaun of the Dead’ works, primarily, because everyone involved in it knows how to be funny. That’s “knows how to” in the same way that Bernard Haitink knows how to conduct, Iain Banks knows how to write novels, Slash knows how to play the guitar and the gentlemen at the Talisker distillery know how to make whisky. Co-written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, and directed by Wright, these fellows were two of the three talents behind ‘Spaced’ (the third, Jessica Stevenson, cameos in ‘Shaun of the Dead’ to terrific effect), which I’d dare anyone to argue otherwise as regards the proposition “best British sit-com” of the last twenty years.
‘Shaun of the Dead’ takes the outbreak of revivified corpses/mass panic/small group of survivors holed up against superior (undead) numbers narrative checklist of every zombie film since a certain George A Romero made a low-budget indie called ‘Night of the Living Dead’, transports them to a blandly realistic London and demonstrates how two adult males who have never truly left adolescence behind deal with the crisis. Let’s meet our heroes. Shaun (Pegg) is pushing thirty, stuck in a dead-end job and just about, as the film opens, to be given the Spanish archer (El Bow) by his long-suffering girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). Ed (Nick Frost) is Shaun’s unemployed and terminally irresponsible best mate who’s been crashing at Ed’s shared accommodation for so long that he’s long since incited the wrath of Shaun’s prissy flatmate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz).
Battling rank insubordination at work and Pete’s anti-Ed rhetoric at home, as well as nurturing resentment against his stepfather Phillip (Bill Nighy) while trying to keep things on an even keel with his mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton), Shaun prioritizes his biggest challenge as getting Liz back. And no pissy little zombie epidemic is going to get in his way!
The cleverest thing – in a movie chock-full of inspired moments – that ‘Shaun of the Dead’ does is treat the zombie threat, in its early stages anyway, as a minor irritant in Shaun’s rapidly unravelling life. The reason for the dead rising is not so much explained as turned into a brilliantly edited satirical comment on the attention-deficiency of the TV/infotainment-addled channel-hopping generation. In fact, Pegg and Wright go one step further and suggest that since cultural zombification is pretty much a state of mind for an entire cross-section of the populace (as evidenced in the low-key but conceptually brilliant opening sequence) an actual zombie attack might not be as easy to recognize as you’d imagine.
Hence the first scene in which Shaun and Ed realize that there’s something untoward about their fellow Londoners and start fighting back. I refer, of course, to the scene in the garden where they raid the shed for items to fling at the zombies’ heads in order to incapacitate them. They come upon Shaun’s collection of vinyl LPs and this ensues:
Ed: Purple Rain?
Ed: Sign o' the Times?
Shaun: Definitely not.
Ed: The ‘Batman’ soundtrack?
Shaun: Throw it.
Ed: Dire Straits?
Shaun: Throw it.
Ed: Stone Roses?
Shaun: Uh, no.
Ed: Second Coming?
Shaun (sheepishly): I like it.
Shaun: But that’s Liz’s.
Ed: Yeah, but she did dump you.
It’s the first scene in which ‘Shaun of the Dead’ lays down the gauntlet as to what the comedy horror movie can truly achieve. And then spends another hour and change more than living up to it. Take the scene where Shaun and his mates fend off their newly zombified barman with pool cues, leaping around him in some weird parody of a maypole dance with the jukebox blasts out Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. I’ll put that up with anything Scorsese, Tarantino or Richard Kelly have pulled off in the marriage-of-music-to-imagery stakes. Or the appropriation of their favourite pub (The Winchester)’s mascot – the eponymous rifle – to fight off a zombie attack. Shaun proves spectacularly useless as a marksman until Ed talks him through it as if they were playing a video game. Or the two bands of survivors who meet whilst heading in opposite directions – a sublime visual joke that not only provides one of the many ‘Spaced’ in-jokes, but niftily references co-star Dylan Moran’s wonderfully subversive sitcom ‘Black Books’.
Or the proliferation of horror movie homages, from Fulci’s Italian restaurant (Shaun’s first choice when he tries to make an eleventh hour booking for an anniversary meal) to a supermarket chain called Landis (both a nod to John Landis and a spoof of British supermarket chain Londis) to Shaun’s disapproval of Ed using “the z-word” (a sneaky allusion to Danny Boyle’s insistence, at the time ’28 Days Later’ was released, that it wasn’t a zombie film). More subtle still, Shaun works for “Foree Electrics”, a tip of the hat to Ken Foree, the iconic actor in Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ who memorably delivered the “when there is no more room in hell…” line. (And delivered it to equal effect in Zack Snyder’s remake.)
All of which is an extended way of saying that in addition to being a funny, clever and often genuinely suspenseful film in its own right, ‘Shaun of the Dead’ is a treasure trove for the genre aficionado. It trades in a brand of deadpan observational humour that is archetypically British, but seasons it with a thorough knowledge of (chiefly American) genre movies. And it handles the tension and the gore as rigorously as it does the comedy of embarrassments.