Hello again everyone, and you see before you the writing of a relieved man. It's always a risky proposition to go to the cinema expecting that the evening's film will be a marvel, a triumph, a joy to behold, because then even if it turns out to be only 'not that bad after all', it'll still on some level be a disappointment. That goes double when you feel a personal loyalty, however slight or unwarranted, towards someone involved with the project. And when said project is a British comedy film, a genre with a frankly dodgy track record of late, well, you're not exactly doing yourself any favours...
The source of all this angst is Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, a rom-zom-com (romantic comedy with zombies in it) co-written by Wright and Simon Pegg. I bumped into Pegg (he said nonchalantly) last summer just as filming was about to get under way and asked him how the film was coming on. Now I'm going to sound biased and soppy here but he really was quite extraordinarily friendly and genuine towards a total stranger. Ever since then I've been looking forward to the movie and desperately hoping I could write nice things about it...
And I can! Given all of the above, you would be right to question my objectivity, but this is a great, witty, pacy film - a hilarious comedy that also manages to be an astonishingly grim horror film. It's the story of Shaun (Pegg) a coming-up-to-thirty guy whose life has never quite clicked into gear, mainly due to his own laziness. Wanting him to make something of his life is his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), while holding him back is his slovenly flatmate Ed (Nick Frost). As the film opens, Liz finally tires of her relationship with Shaun solely taking place in their local pub, and goaded on by her flatmates (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis) insists that things change.
Shaun being Shaun, he mucks it up and she chucks him. Will he be able to win her back? Will he be able to resolve his relationships with his mother and stepfather (Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy)? Will his life finally get into gear? And will the sudden collapse of society as a zombie apocalypse gets underway have any impact on all these things?
Pegg and Wright are probably best known for Channel 4's hyper-hip and knowing sitcom Spaced, and a lot of reviewers are basically describing this as Spaced: The Movie. Well, there's something to be said for that, as nearly all the Spaced gang are present and correct here: in addition to Pegg, Frost, and Wright, Jessica Stevenson has a small but crucial role, and Julia Deakin has a timy cameo. But for all that, the style is very different - Shaun has none of Spaced's genre spoofs or knowing film references (with the exception of a brief but gleefully vicious sideswipe at 28 Days Later). Wright's direction is fluid and intelligent without being overexcitable, and he handles the build-up well.
By this I mean that Shaun seems to start off as a fairly generic British relationship comedy - with the startling anomaly that nearly all the jokes are actually funny - about the troubled personal lives of twentysomething people. But gradually, other elements start to appear - odd news reports play in the background and are ignored by all the characters, and extras begin behaving very oddly indeed, until finally the film tips over into true horror territory and the dead begin to prey upon the living in earnest.
The balancing act between humour and horror is elegantly achieved, with only a few scenes uncertain in tone. It's such a gradual shift that when the film suddenly reaches a very dark place and principal characters start meeting very sticky ends indeed - depicted, by the way, entirely straight - it's a genuine shock and it all seems much more harrowing as a result. These moments have more genuine emotion than most proper horror films can muster. This is partly due to a cast almost entirely made up of performers best known for playing comedy - in retrospect, a brilliant ploy. Seeing an anonymous American leading man graphically eviscerated and devoured on screen is no more than one would expect - but when it happens to a performer one subconsciously associates with cuddly comedy dramas or quirky sitcoms, it feels like such a deviation from the norm that it is genuinely appalling and horrific.
And in a funny way Shaun of the Dead is much closer in tone to George Romero's original Dead trilogy than a certain big-budget remake reviewed in these pages only a fortnight ago. This is partly because Shaun's zombies are shambling, easily-underestimated semi-competents, rather than snarling athletes, but mainly because the film uses them as a metaphor for the drone-like existence many people in this country lead all the time (it's quite hard to tell the dead apart from the living at first, and later on Shaun and his friends settle upon the local pub as their sanctuary as the crisis deepens, only to discover all the zombies are instinctively going there too). There's also a Romero-ish quality to the desperate bickering within the group as the dead close in around them, and an outright (if subtle) steal in the suggestion that contamination from a space probe is actually responsible for the zombie phenomenon.
Smartly written, played, and directed, and making an impressive success of both the genres it attempts, Shaun of the Dead is a treat that will renew the faith in cinema of anyone unlucky enough to see Sex Lives of the Potato Men. The undead subject matter may put you off - but I beg you not to be dissuaded. This film may have cult classic written all over it, but it deserves a much wider audience, and much wider success, than that. Highly recommended.