Hot Fuzz probably has the stronger reputation; The World's End is more sophisticated in all sorts of storytelling and filmmaking ways. But from where I stand, the very first feature made by director Edgar Wright, with stars Simon Pegg (who co-wrote with Wright) and Nick Frost, after the three of them moved on from their brilliant sitcom Spaced, is absolutely the best. Shaun of the Dead isn't merely the pinnacle of Wright and Pegg's series of homages to and parodies of somewhat idiotic fanboy genres, it is quite possibly the funniest and most creative comedies of the 2000s, with enough of a pointed study of character that it's more than just a collection of some of the best and most ridiculous jokes in a generation. Though, it that was all, I suspect I'd still have very nearly the same opinion. Funny trumps a hell of a lot, after all, and Shaun of the Dead doesn't ease up on the funny for even a minute.
The film sold itself as "A romantic comedy. With zombies", which is just about right, and puts them in the correct order. For this is not primarily the story of an everyman squaring off against the cannibalistic hordes of the undead, it's about an everyman trying to grow up fast enough to win back his girlfriend, and the cannibalistic hordes &c are the means by which he is able to do so (much in the same way that the nine-years later World's End isn't about an alien invasion, but about how that invasion is a catalyst for adult men to revisit who they were as teenagers; though The World's End is a great deal more forward about it). The protagonist, Shaun (Pegg), is a twentysomething Londoner who could be described, neither maliciously nor inaccurately, as a fuckup: he's got a dead-end job selling electronics, his best friend is a self-absorbed part-time drug-dealer and manchild named Ed (Frost), and in the film's opening moments, he's dumped by his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) after forgetting their anniversary, in what is presented very clearly as less an impulse of "I'm so pissed at you that I'm going to leave you out of the clear blue sky" than "I have given you every conceivably opportunity to right yourself, and I'm tired of waiting".
The very next day, a zombie outbreak occurs, and Shaun immediately starts to not notice a damn thing. In fact, it's not until after he and Ed end up fighting back a pair of monsters in their backyard that he figures out what's going on, and the two men make immediate plans to go save Shaun's mum Barbara (Penelope Wilton) from her soon-to-zombified husband Philip (Bill Nighy), rescue Liz, and hole up in their favorite pub, the Winchester. From here on out, events proceed as they do in pretty much every zombie movie since George A. Romero invented the modern iteration of the subgenre with Night of the Living Dead in 1968: running back and forth madly, living people dying because they make stupid, easily-avoidable mistakes, balletic fight scenes set to Queen songs.
On the surface, the easy thing to admire about Shaun of the Dead is how well the filmmakers know their audience; the only thing that Wright has made with a clearer program of fan-serving injokes is the "Don't" trailer from Grindhouse. The major difference between that and Shaun (or even between Shaun and Wright's sole Pegg-free project, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is that Shaun isn't just throwing out bones to fans (though there are plenty - "We're coming to get you, Barbara!" is the most overt shout-out, but there are a seemingly unlimited number of references to classic zombie films). It manages something so tricky that I can't swear to have ever seen it outside of this movie: writing jlines that are inside-baseball references, but also jokes in their own right, and additionally sincere character moments.. When, for example, a flustered Shaun yells "Dont' say the zed-word!", it's a great moment that helps develop who Shaun is (someone who tries, and is frequently successful, to ignore what's right in front of him), while working as a funny counterpoint to the moment in which it occurs (terminology is his concern right now?), and finally, it winks at the zombie fandom who know that the word "zombie" is almost never spoken in Romero's filmography, and that two years prior to Shaun, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later was released on the wings of the director insisting that we should not deign to refer to it as a "zombie film", thank you so much. Incidentally, though I think it would be incorrect to suggest that Pegg and Wright dislike 28 Days Later, they sure do love poking fun it, both in their script and in the iconography their film nabs from it.
The thing is, it would still be a great film and greater comedy totally divorced from its value as a parody, or as a sincere zombie film (and the great thing is that, like Hot Fuzz, it is both a terrific parody and a terrific example of what it's parodying at one and the same moment). Wright is a fantastic director of comedy, is the thing, and Chris Dickens, even more importantly is a great editor of comedy, and Shaun of the Dead is one of the best examples in modern cinema of how judicious cutting can extract every last bit of humor from a moment: I am especially thinking of a sequence where Shaun and Ed try to come up with a plan to save everybody and find someplace save to hole up, where the increasingly fast editing is the joke, after a fashion (it also happens to be my single favorite scene in Wright's entire career, for what it's worth). The "humor through rhythmic edits" thing is perhaps the defining element of Wright's later films (of which only Hot Fuzz was also edited by Dickens, and it's not coincidentally the director's funniest movie), and it came into being pretty fully formed right here.
What pushes Shaun of the Dead over the edge, though, is not its cleverness, nor its technical mastery of humor, but that it marries these things to genuinely likable, interesting characters - not so complex as the population of The World's End, but frankly more fun to spend time with, and that's what makes the movie special: it is a sweet hyper-violent comedy about zombies. Shaun is a tit, but he's our tit, and watching him figure out what his priorities are and should be makes the film an emotionally rewarding experience unlike literally any other zombie film I can name. And the fact that the film's overriding message is that sometimes, we actually do need to become better people to make relationships work, instead of just expecting our charming personality to make people love us, put this miles and miles ahead of almost any other romcom of the 21st Century for sheer pragmatic honesty. It's a great movie, and if it has a speckling of flaws (I think that it exhausts itself and stops, rather than "ends"; and the initial conceit that modern urban life makes all of us act so much like zombies that it's hard to tell the difference is frustratingly undeveloped), so do most things. But great comedies, great horror genre stories, and great coming-of-age tales are three of the rarest things in contemporary cinema, and that Shaun of the Dead is all three at once makes it among the most valuable British films in modern memory.
Have you helped Tim fight cancer? Donate to the 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser & Review Auction! The fundraiser ends 18 June, 2015!