In 2004, Edgar Wright teamed up with Simon Pegg to create the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead. Rife with deadpan British wit, Shaun of the Dead pitches a world in which Londoners slowly rise to the occasion in bludgeoning an onslaught of brain-dead zombies.
Since George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), zombie films have long acted as rich material for satire. Romero and horror filmmakers inspired by him have used the undead to draw comparisons to the way people conform blindly to consumerism and mass media. In this way, Shaun of the Dead succeeds where Jim Jarmusch arguably failed with his recent star-stuffed satire The Dead Don’t Die (2019), which released to mixed reviews.
Jarmusch used a sleepy southern town as the epicenter for a zombie apocalypse, portraying residents who take the invasion in stride with heavy sighs and head-scratching ambivalence. Jarmusch appears to argue that the dead aren’t that different from the people yet to die, but a sense of urgency never seems to settle in, and the film suffers for it. Alternatively, Shaun of the Dead balances the irony of Shaun’s (Pegg) ignorance and slow realization, with pacing and editing that leaps to a break-neck pace when the story demands it.
Early on, Shaun lopes over to a corner store, disregarding evidence of a zombie infestation as he pulls a Coca-Cola from a shop fridge and slips on a puddle of blood. As he crosses the street, a zombie lunges for him, but he simply brushes it off with a quick, “Sorry, haven’t got any change.” The film milks the dramatic irony of Shaun’s incomprehension as long as it can, with clever television exposition and a backyard zombie that they mistake for a woman who’s had too many drinks. It isn’t until Shaun and his roommate, Ed (Nick Frost), accidentally impale their “drunk” neighbor — and she clumsily regains her footing — that they start to realize something has gone terribly wrong.
Shaun of the Dead’s sharp wit clicks along with the help of clever cinematography and Wright’s penchant for deliriously fast editing. A simple ten-second scene of Shaun and Ed starting a car is broken down into twenty quickly chopped cuts between close-ups, medium-shots, and point-of-view angles as Shaun’s head whips around at all the zombies approaching their vehicle. The editing, acting, and tight framing all convey the urgency required, and makes the viewer feel like they are right there in the weeds with the titular hero.
A big reason why Shaun of the Dead still holds up today — and feasibly influenced later films in the horror comedy genre, like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010), Cabin in the Woods (2011), and What We Do In The Shadows (2014) — is because the elements of horror and comedy work in tandem rather than in opposition to each other.
The zombie make-up, ravaged costumes, and bleak set design are expertly done, supporting the film as a credible horror movie. At the same time, the comedic performances of the actors and the intelligence of the writing doesn’t feel out of place, comes off well-deserved, and is a welcome respite from scenes that legitimately aim to terrify.
Outside of its non-direct influences in horror comedy, Shaun of the Dead is also the unofficial first installment in the affably named Cornetto Trilogy — a trio of comedies directed by Wright that star Pegg and Frost, and are loosely tied together with a throughline of cornetto ice cream. The sequels, Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2013), use science-fiction elements, Pegg’s trademark humor, and Wright’s enviable directing style to create their own kind of cinematic universe.
Although all of the Cornetto films are highly rated among critics, Shaun of the Dead has a marginal lead on the other two, and is a favorite for many Wright fans. Fifteen years later, the jokes still hit just as well, and the journey is just as fun as it was the first time around. Shaun of the Dead finds itself in a unique cross-section of being a beautifully filmed, hilarious buddy comedy with truly horrifying blood and guts at its core.