WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Electronics shop worker Shaun has a big problem in the shape of slobbish friend Ed, who is ruining Shaun’s relationship with his housemate Pete, and more importantly ex-girlfriend Liz. But Shaun’s plans to win Liz back are hampered by her housemates Dianne and David: oh, and a sudden outbreak of the Dead becoming reanimated and taking chunks out of the flesh of the living.
Though viewers of British sitcom Spaced (also directed by Edgar Wright and also starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) will be most instantly at home, I can’t imagine anyone having a problem getting into this comedy horror, such is the simplicity of its set-up. In his late twenties, Shaun (Pegg) lives with uptight former college mate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) and finds his free time spent trying to deflect Pete’s anger about Ed (Frost), Shaun’s best friend and constant pub-and-gaming companion. Though Shaun is endlessly forgiving about Ed’s slovenly habits, mostly because he makes him laugh so much, even his patience is stretched when Ed fails to pass on a message about a date with Liz (Kate Ashfield), which leads to her ending the relationship.
Resolving to get his life in some sort of order, Shaun plans to talk Liz round, but the appearance of a zombie in the garden sets off a different train of events that take in the rescue of Shaun’s mum Barbara (Penelope Wilton), the dispatch of his stepfather (Bill Nighy) and the reluctant dragging away from their flat of Liz, Dianne and David, the last two played by Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran. Shaun’s rescue falters when Ed messes up their escape and they are forced to seek refuge in their local pub, the Winchester, whilst hordes of the recently deceased gather in the surrounding streets.
Edgar Wright infuses Shaun of the Dead with an effective sense of paranoia as strange and horrific things begin to happen around Shaun’s humdrum life, with an obvious respect for the works of George Romero that gives the film credibility. But the film works almost entirely because of the amiability of its leads. Long-time associates Pegg and Frost have an effortlessly funny rapport, giving a keen pace to the film before the zombies start appearing, and keeping it up as they attack the undead with such quintessentially British items as a cricket bat, a spade, a swingball and LPs.
The pair are given excellent support by those playing their friends and family, Wilton and Nighy nicely backing up the younger performers; credit due, too, to Kate Ashfield for making Liz feisty and vulnerable in equal measure, bringing spunk to a role – that of hero’s girlfriend – that could easily have been flat and simpering. Everyone enjoys a script that by and large escapes sitcom confines and feels as though it belongs on the big screen (luckily, Spaced was a very cinematic TV show in any event).
That said, when the straggly group get to the Winchester, the film doesn’t quite know where to lay its bets, resulting in alternate bursts of comedy and horror that are not always entirely sympathetic: though Don’t Stop me Now is a highlight, the demise of both David and Barbara pull the film in a different direction. It’s perhaps inevitable that something has to give (the alternative, tipping the horror into farce, would have been more unsatisfactory), but it’s fairly obvious all the same. The denouement, too, is a little predictable, neatly tying everything up inside 100 minutes, and here the Spaced connection is most keenly felt; Jessica Stevenson’s intervention feels natural to viewers of the sitcom, but for those who just know her from the film as Shaun’s friend, only with her own (more successful) band of followers, the resolution may feel underwhelming.
In general, however, awkward moments in the film are few and far between, and whilst Pegg particularly shines as a man ill-equipped to deal with zombies, the cast around him are excellent, reacting in very English ways to disaster, reminiscent of the good versions (ie. not the film) of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and equally funny. A perfect film for anyone who likes their horror light on everything but laughs.