A Crash Course in Horror Movies: Shaun of the Dead Review

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Nerd Much Feature Image #7 - Shaun of the DeadA Crash Course in Horror is a weekly column by our self-proclaimed horror movie noob, Noémi Pomerleau. Each week, she reviews a classic (or even “new classic”) horror movie from the viewpoint of someone who has never seen it (because, well, she hasn’t). Check out the column every Saturday morning here at Nerd Much.

I admit, it was kind of a weird choice to watch Shaun of the Dead  before I watched the zombie movies it parodies, but I feel like pop culture is so inundated with zombies these days that I already knew what to expect.

This film is part of the horror-comedy genre, in the style of Gremlins, Cabin in the Woods, and The Little Shop of HorrorsCabin in the Woods is one of the few horror films I had seen before I started this project, and despite being very funny, it was also genuinely scary and disturbing. I was hoping Shaun of the Dead would follow in its stead.

The film follows the story of Shaun (Simon Pegg), a slacker stuck in a dead-end job and struggling with his long-term girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). His roommate Ed (Nick Frost) is even more of a slacker, although he seems a lot more satisfied with life than Shaun does.

Somehow Ed seems like he's more together than Shaun just because he's content with his lifestyle.
Somehow Ed seems like he’s more together than Shaun just because he’s content with his lifestyle.

Shortly after the movie starts, Shaun is unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend. Then — with outstanding timing — as he’s laying around wallowing in self-pity over the break-up, the zombie apocalypse happens.

The rest of the film follows Shaun and Ed’s quest to survive the rise of the zombies, save their family and friends, and, in the meantime, convince Liz to take Shaun back.

Fleeing zombies - the ultimate romance(?)
Fleeing zombies – the ultimate romance(?)

Shaun of the Dead is the first film in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Cornetto Trilogy, preceeding Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. These movies are chock-full of cartoonish violence and chase scenes, pitting the heroes (always played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) against some sort of conspiracy or monster.

This formula is definitely the most natural fit to Shaun of the Dead. The plot of this film seems very realistic, assuming that a zombie apocalypse is even possible. The characters mostly win fights by panicking and swinging weapons around wildly. Most of them should not be handling guns, and they know it. And — spoiler alert — they don’t all make it out alive.

The actors in this movie all give great performances. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have solid chemistry and comedic timing, so it’s no wonder a franchise was born out of this film. They aren’t alone, either. Each entry in the Cornetto Trilogy features some excellent supporting roles, and this one’s no different. Shaun’s mum is played by Penelope Wilton (yes, you know who she is), and she is basically the most adorable lady that has ever been dragged through a zombie horde.

We all wish our mom was as adorable as Shaun's mom
We all wish our mom was as adorable as Shaun’s mom

The group is also joined by Liz’s friend, an absolutely insufferable man named David played by Dylan Moran, who has been typecast as a terrible human being by now, and lives up to the reputation. The performances make you very invested in who does (and doesn’t) make it through, which gives this film unusually high stakes for a comedy movie.

Partly for that reason, I found it to be the least funny of the trilogy. This might be because Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright had yet to perfect their writing technique, but I think it’s because it leans more heavily on horror than the other two films. Watching somebody get mauled to death doesn’t usually inspire a lot of laughs, even in something as well-written as this.

They aren't shy with the zombie makeup, either. These guys give me the shivers!
They aren’t shy with the zombie makeup, either. These guys give me the shivers!

The directing, particularly when it comes to fight choreography, is another thing that makes the whole Trilogy great, but Edgar Wright clearly had the most fun with this one. Shaun and company are completely uncoordinated zombie fighters, but the choreography doesn’t feel as slapdash as their fighting style. They grab makeshift weapons to use against the zombies, hit the zombies with a car, or run for dear life when all that doesn’t work. All the action is clearly laid out and easy to follow, which is something I appreciate in an action scene. The gore is presented in a preposterous way (or hidden off-screen) so that you laugh rather than get grossed out, but there’s a lot of smashed in heads and ridiculous violence in this movie.

Beyond the choreography and gore and blood effects, there’s nothing to write home about in terms of the production values. The sets, costumes, and sound design are exactly what they need to be in order to tell Shaun’s story. No more, and no less. Given it’s a parody, I half expected it to mimic the stylish lighting and camera work I’d seen from horror movies so far!

Most of this movie takes place in broad daylight, which helps with the comedy but cuts down on the horror. It would have been much scarier at night!
Most of this movie takes place in broad daylight, which helps with the comedy but cuts down on the horror. It would have been much scarier at night!

So here’s the real question: Shaun of the Dead may be a very successful parody of the horror genre, but is it actually scary?

For the first hour and some of the film, my answer was an absolute 100% no. There was actually a period of time while I was watching it where I reconsidered reviewing this for the project.

And then the last 30 minutes happened.

WHOA, does this film get dark in its final moments. Considering the entire thing involves zombies getting impaled or having their heads smashed in, I shouldn’t have been that surprised, but the emotional misery that Shaun and company fall into threw me for a loop. It makes the zombie attacks seem much more creepy and left me feeling really uncomfortable — and just a little bit scared.

It wasn’t enough for me to call this movie outright scary, because it clearly intends to be more of a comedy than a horror. However, It still drew an emotional response from me I wasn’t expecting, and I give it a lot of credit for that.

Buy it here!

Next week I’ll be watching a horror movie my mother outright banned me from watching when I was a teenager — not that she needed to, I wasn’t going anywhere near this thing. It’s The Shining, a Stanley Kubrick classic that I’ve apparently been completely spoiled for thanks to a certain episode of The Simpsons. It’ll be interesting to see if that kills the tension!

If you want me to review one of your favorite horror movies, please drop me a line in the comments below or on Twitter (@NoemiPOM)!

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