Why ‘Shaun of the Dead’ May Be The Best Zombie Film Ever Made… Ever.
by Marc Patterson
There’s a lot of pain involved with writing this piece. I’m undergoing tremendous inner turmoil just plucking one key to the next typing this up. There is also a lot of risk in baring it all as I’m about to do. But here goes…
Going into this zombie weekend I pulled all the zombie films I own from my library and sectioned them off together. I went over them one by one. Some I re-watched, others I just held, looked over the DVD case and reminisced about favorite moments. I looked back over old reviews and re-read my thoughts about some of the films. I even took down some notes, re-crafted some reviews to fit my evolving tastes in cinema. Then I started to whittle the pile down. I wanted to find the one film that exemplified “absolute perfection in every way”. It came down to the following (in no particular order):
Night of the Living Dead
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue
Return of the Living Dead
Shaun of the Dead
Not too far outside these were The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, Cemetery Man, and Dead Pit. Re-Animator slid in as well.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love Lucio Fulci. There was no way I was going to reduce this pile to one remaining survivor without a supreme battle being waged. Many beers and tears went into this decimation. Okay, I don’t cry. Good call. There were emotions though, and lots of beer.
As I started delving deeper I realized I love all the “bottom five” films for their set pieces more than the movie as a whole. The Beyond is punk rock perfection. It is a gore-meister’s wet dream. Same thing with City of the Living Dead. In fact, each of these films are entirely watchable from beginning to end and, in fact, I’ve done so many times, but for them it’s individual parts that make up the whole. The films that fell into my top five grouping are simply perfection from beginning to end, in every way.
Once I was down to five I started to get really introspective. Night of the Living Dead dropped from the list first because while it was indisputably groundbreaking, and influenced just about every other zombie film that followed, I realized I enjoyed it more from a film appreciation standpoint than something I held an emotional connection to. What Romero did in 1968 was to provide an entirely new spin on the zombie film, a pattern others would go on to hone and perfect.
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue ranks as a “quiet favorite”. I don’t talk much about this film, but I love everything about it. It doesn’t take inspiration from Romero, rather creates an atmospheric film about an unlikely couple who finds themselves in a harrowing situation. It’s beautifully shot and Ray Lovelock and Christine Galbo exhibit a wonderful chemistry. I’m going to start gushing, so I’ll cut myself short. As much as I love this film I realized there were three films I still loved more.
Shaun of the Dead is a film that I didn’t expect to make the top three. It really isn’t. Going into the final ten, I figured I’d see Return of the Living Dead, The Beyond and Zombi 2 form the top three. I’m a gorehound and I love sleaze. Those two factors alone led me to assume The Beyond would drop out and see Zombi 2 take on Return of the Living Dead for the reigning spot. It would be Ian McCulloch vs Clu Gulager. It would be Linnea Quigley vs. Auretta Gay. It would be Tarman vs. the Shark Eating Zombie. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition and I certainly didn’t expect to see Shaun of the Dead keep poking its head into the proceedings. Indeed The Beyond fell to the wayside, but Shaun of the Dead kept rearing its head and found a place in the top three. Now the battle got heated.
Shaun of the Dead contains no sleaze. This was an oddly defining twist. But what it does have is a copious amount of humor, and well-done humor at that. Return of the Living Dead may have been the first proper zombie parody and zombie comedy, but Shaun of the Dead’s deadpan humor, excellent acting and sharp wit blew ROTLD out of the water on a sheer comedic level alone. Return of the Living Dead also sought to make a play on George Romero’s earlier films. The title alone makes that clear. As did Shaun of the Dead, also made clear in its title. But Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright understood infinitely more what made good parody and incorporated the elements from George Romero’s films seamlessly into Shaun’s script in a proper homage, while at the same time sculpting something completely original. Dan O’ Bannon wrote a good script, but Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright are far more well-versed in the art of humor. There was simply no contest.
When you then pit zombie against zombie Shaun of the Dead also came out on top. Tarman and his minions of undead simply can’t compete against the many memorable zombified characters in Shaun of the Dead. You have the “drunk” clerk Mary who appears in the backyard, Pete the annoying roommate who was more likable dead than alive (and who never seems to go away) and of course Bill Nighy as Philip, Shaun’s step-dad. Nevermind the many other zombies who were barely distinguishable from how they lumbered through their daily life before becoming one of the undead, which raises another point: Shaun of the Dead is a funny film, but it was incredibly smart and never missed a chance to inject social commentary as a delectable frosting to hold everything together, embodied in the hordes of the undead. Return of the Living Dead has officially been TKO’d. And then there were two…
It quickly became clear my final pair-off was no match. I love Zombi 2. It’s a wonderful film with tremendous replay value, but if everything I’ve said about Shaun hasn’t made it clear yet, then just going into the final round I knew that Zombi 2 would need to lay down and give up the fight.
Shaun is a film with layer upon layer. It’s got smarts, a wonderful story, social commentary, parody, and a killer (and I mean KILLER) soundtrack. That soundtrack gets played every Halloween, and many times in-between, whereas Return of the Living Dead tends to get pulled out on special occasions.
There is simply too much that I love about Shaun of the Dead not to give it its due. It’s a rare film that was able to bring together a completely enjoyable romantic comedy with moments of real terror. It’s a film I can watch over and over, and as much as taste is subjective, for me there really doesn’t come one zombie film that delivers on all fronts so well. Granted, there are times when I just need some blaring punk rock and Linnea buck naked in a graveyard, and there are times where I have a special need for guts getting puked out from a cute blond girl’s mouth, or a good underwater zombie vs. shark fight scene. But the quote factor, the comedy, the gore, the horror, and the music all mix so well it’s hard not to give Shaun of the Dead an honored spot as one of the best, if not the best, zombie film ever made.