Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright simply “get” genre comedy. They may be the only ones to really nail it since Sam Raimi, and for the same reason. What Raimi understood is that making a comedy out of a noted “serious” genre was about more than making fun of it. It was about teasing out the fundamental intersections between emotions and exploring how filmmaking – that is the literal process of shot to shot structuring of a film – could divulge different and seemingly contradictory emotions simultaneously. His preferred contradiction, of course, was between lingering dread and gut-busting Warner Bros comic anarchy. His masterpiece Evil Dead II was not simply about scaring us and then making us laugh, but about dissecting the language of film to explore the intersection of technique and emotion in prismatic, multitudinous ways. Put simply, it was about exploring the way that something, be it a shot or a performance tick or a line or the film itself, could be both funny and scary, rather than, say, take a funny scene and follow it with a scary one.
In their first filmic collaboration, Pegg, Frost, and Wright come as close to nailing this spirit as anyone since Raimi. Not that this is saying much; the landscape of the ’80s and ’90s is littered with the fallen corpses of would-be horror comedies that valiantly rode into battle with confidence and conviction only to realize they had nothing to back their gallantry up with. They had no bite. Take Scream, a mediocre slasher movie that interjects every so often with a smug reminder about the inferiority of other horror films, although it would refer to this interjection as a “joke”. Trouble is, it is so interested in haphazardly reminding how it is superior to other horror films that it never remembers to examine itself. Had it done so, it would have realized how sickly the actual filmmaking backing it up was. Most of the film is nothing more than a garden-variety slasher, but the chic, self-styled superiority serves less to elevate it than remind how its confidence is a cover-up for a hollow core. In reality, it is an under-confident film, a work afraid that someone might notice its failures as an actual film to the point where it feels the need to cover-up its mistakes with reminders that …who’d a thought…other films are actually bad too. Trouble is, Scream is bad for the same reasons, and it never treats itself as an object of its own badness. It is never self-critical. It simply stops every few minutes to make fun of other movies.
These workaday Brits, however, are the real deal. Beneath their sly slackerisms and lazy-day wit lies a deft, textured understanding of horror’s history and present, and a self-critique inspired by their simultaneous love for horror and their realization that this love is a touch on the foolish side. Their genuine passion continues on though, invoking its own silliness but never losing a sincerity something like Scream could only dream of. We never, not for one second, forget that all the ribs and jabs are really just the way these three over-sized adolescents come to terms with themselves and continue to love what they love. More than love though, they respect the genre, respect it from within and never insist on their superiority or try to weigh down on it from above.
Of course, what matters more than their obvious passion is how this passion registers on the screen. Here is where that palpable joy comes in; for all their jokes and mockery, it is plainly obvious in the framing and editing from the ground up that they are damn proud, and damn happy, to be making a horror film, and they have no shame about this fact either. While Scream always seemed to be covering itself up with reminders that it was actually clever, Shaun of the Dead is content to simply exist, and to exist with courtesy, conviction, and genuinely sharp filmmaking while it’s at it. Take the opening long take, following Pegg as he walks from his house to the local corner shop and fails to notice the shambling zombies all around him; it’s dryly comic, sure, but what’s lost in this one-sided viewing is how genuinely unsettling it is, and how studied Wright’s directorial hand shows itself. More than anything, when his camera winds around the British suburbs, he is genuinely evoking the emptiness so pervasive in George Romero’s movies, and following through with the crawling commodification that formed the backbone of Romero’s social satire. Wright genuinely understands what makes horror work, and tacitly reflects what was actually great about the films he is invoking. In its own way, this opening captures the sense of suburban emptiness and loss, and the critique of the everyday and mundane, that was the core of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. If there’s any doubt, just take a look at the way Wright casually uses linearity and symmetry to box Pegg into the rigid, inescapable geometry of suburbia, to explore, as Romero did, the way these zombies are really just us.
Plus, even if you take the horror and the horror-commentary out of Shaun of the Dead, you’ve still got at least three interwoven layers to contend with. First, there’s the gently sweet romance at the heart of this story of everyman Shaun (Pegg) and his attempt to get his life back together. Chiefly, this involves taking ownership of life from the doldrums of suburban sameness. But more specifically it involves reconnecting with his old flame Liz (Kate Ashfield), just about the only meaningful person ever to grace his life, and it also entails actually respecting her as a person for once in his life. Secondly, we have Shaun’s buddy-buddy relationship with the ever-drowning Ed (Frost, notice I wrote “just about the only meaningful person in his life” when talking about Liz), the fruits of which are a slight, fulfilling buddy comedy about friendship. Finally, of course, we have the actual spirit of the comedy, which manages to be at once kinetically spirited and lethargically largo.
That’s a lot of little pleasures to contend with, and if these aren’t as cinematically satisfying as Wright’s wondrously enticing exploration of horror and comedy as a two-sided coin, they all benefit from his sincere touch and Pegg’s easy-going flustered quality (and Frost’s knowing buffoonishness). Sure, there’s tons of zombie action and dead bodies popping up all around, but there’s a laid-back chill to the film. In fact, it derives most of its humor from this very low-key quality, utilizing the very “uncanny entering into the mundane” idea that drives horror. Wright puts a little of the mundane back in and finds humor in the way relaxation and fear intertwine at unexpected moments, fighting fire with fire and giving horror a dose of its own medicine.
Beyond all of this, it’s a surprisingly sweet, endearing slice-of-life comedy. That slice just happens to involve a zombie invasion, but again, the skill in the film is the way it emphasizes the zombie invasion as simply one more hindrance to Pegg just getting to relax, rather than a world-stopping orgasm of cinematic destruction. Still, despite Pegg’s self-deprecating performance, there’s a real sense of sympathy and even empathy with all the characters in the film, an emotional component that would be expounded upon more thoroughly and successfully in The World’s End but which bears its own fruit here. But the lighter, non-rushed quality of Shaun of the Dead, the very thing that keeps it from ever trying to sell us its characters too much, is so tied into the success of the film that I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It all seems so placid, even commonplace, that its heightened pleasures don’t jump out at us. They slowly reveal themselves, and it’s this good-natured complexity that allows Shaun of the Dead to put the (just) chilling into bone-chilling. It’s a chill-out movie, but it’s a chill-out movie with a purpose, heart, and most importantly, the knowledge and know-how to give chill-outs a damn fine name in the world of cinema.