Thursday, July 15, 2010

Have You Ever Seen Shaun of the Dead?

| by Justin Thomas |

Mention the Zed Word around me and it becomes difficult, borderline impossible, to get it out of my brain. While I am no zombie movie aficionado, zombie movies became so much more interesting after viewing Shaun of the Dead for the first time in 2005 and now I’m hooked.

I really don’t remember watching Shaun of the Dead for the first time as I watched it three times that first day because I tend to go overboard with things. Shaun deserved the attention then and deserves the attention now as I don’t remember the last time I had such a gosh-wow, what was that reaction to a movie. It was so unexpected, so tight, so funny I had to watch it again to catch things I thought I missed. That type of reaction happens so infrequently with contemporary movies I tend to go really overboard when a movie causes that type of reaction.

What do I mean by tight? There are few wasted things in Shaun. Everything that appears does so for a reason: to provide information, to develop a character, to set up a laugh, to get a laugh or to get the movie going to the next point. “You’ve got red on you,” “the next time I see him, he’s dead,” “that’s the second album I ever bought,” all set up a later laugh or later sequence. When Shaun becomes the running buffet (all you can eat) he makes a promise that he’ll return, further developing his change from slacker to hero while setting up a laugh because he might return and he might be the hero, but his survival idea will consist of eating peanuts while sitting in the dark. No bit is wasted and everything happens for a reason and I can’t describe them all so you might as well watch the movie.

The best example of how tight and well thought out it is happens with how much mileage Shaun gets out of the flowers: Shaun’s relationship with Not My Dad is established when Philip goes around the electronics store to remind Shaun to buy the flowers, when he purchases them Shaun sees one more clue about the Apocalypse, when he gives them to Liz he gets busted because she knows they’re not for her to hope her make her decision, when he tosses them into the garbage to show that he’s done with Liz, and when his mum gets them when they finally arrive at the Winchester thus showing Shaun actually does love her. All of that out of a bouquet of flowers. All indications Pegg and Wright knew exactly what they were doing.

Up to a point. It devastates me to report Shaun of the Dead is not perfect, and the little wart continues to grow with subsequent viewings because the movie breaks down at the end of Act II after Liz pulls Barbara aside and sees the bite. This happens during the first-person shooter/Star Wars bit when the zombies start to break through and the pause afterward, while the zombies should still be breaking through, gets too heavy and is too long. At this point, we see that Barbara still remembers Shaun’s real dad thus further defining Barbara, Barbara and Liz have their moment since they didn’t have one in the previous three years, Shaun and Liz have a necessary but brief moment, Shaun and David have it out, David and Dianne have it out, and the catalyst for Act III happens with David’s death all while Shaun is nearly overcome with emotion over his mother’s death and what he knows he has to do. There’s just too much happening with the walls crashing in and the tone gets way, way too heavy compared to what came before for it to work for as long as it is.

The mistake, even though I don’t know if I should call it that, is having left too many things to resolve at once without having the ability to get away from it with a laugh, a trap they avoided earlier in the movie. After Philip becomes a zombie and is locked in the Jaguar, Shaun and Barbara deal with losing him. “He’s not my dad, oh, stop it, Shaun, no I mean he was but he isn’t now.” There’s the confirmation of that relationship and acknowledgment that someone important is now dead. It’s heavy but not too heavy and they have a wonderful escape in saying there’s nothing left of the man you once loved in there just before Zombie Philip reaches forward and turns off the radio. They punctuate the heavy moment with a laugh and get out of Dodge, which they didn’t do during the standoff at the Winchester. I don’t know how to fix it given how much needed to be wrapped up, but Shaun bogs down at the end of Act II for just a few moments while it had been absolutely pitch perfect up until that point.

From Shaun, one can expect a funny movie, a well-constructed movie and a movie from which aspiring screenwriters can learn not only due to the strengths but the one weakness. Story, storytelling, character development and how to tell a joke are all included and beneficial even with the pacing issue. What I’ve never understood is how filmmakers tend to have brilliant beginnings to careers while losing their way later on, but Pegg and Wright learned from Shaun because they did not make the same mistake twice nor did they suffer the sophomore slump as we shall soon see ad nauseam.

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