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  War of the Stone Roses
Shaun of the Dead
Dir. Edgar Wright, UK, Universal

Zombies are shambling down the streets of London, infecting everyone they bite and banging into lampposts likes drunks in dodge-ems. One mediocre middle youth man has a plan. Shaun must rescue his flatmate, girlfriend, and Mum and bring them to his local pub to survive the cannibalistic onslaught. Hopefully, one of them will buy the first round of drinks.

The Specials are singing. They’re singing their 1981 UK hit “Ghost Town,” a song that in its day attacked the social exclusion and economic policies of the then- incumbent Conservative government (which then Prime Minister Margaret “Maggie the Milk Snatcher” Thatcher led by the collar) which was tearing communities apart through unemployment and reactionary law and order enforcement. The track’s inclusion near the beginning of Shaun of the Dead though has less subversive intentions. Selected like much of the other alternative Eighties British music that scores this film (accompanied by the occasional riff lifted from Romero film soundtracks) it affirms that this is a uniquely British take on the zombie sub-genre. The seaside organ twinkle of the Ska band’s backing tune, the spook-house pomp of trumpets signal this is horror movie-as-pantomime, British cinema as nostalgic sitcom. Rom-Zom-Com as the makers so eloquently put it. Unlike Danny Boyle’s recent 28 Days Later, which styled itself on the X-Box Generation’s interpretations of survivalist horror within haunting English environs, Shaun of the Dead’s comedy and rare moments of actual horror come from how the dead rising would be treated within the rat-race grind of modern everyday London life. The credit sequence emphasises just how zombie-esque the half awake, apathetic dwellers of a capital city’s leafy brick borough are before the mindless monster mash begins. If Shaun of the Dead has any political message it is how lifeless and automatic person-to-person interactions are these days.

What makes Shaun of the Dead significant in terms of British cinema is that a) its actually entertaining as opposed to merely very hyped and b) it doesn’t live up to the normal stereotypes that we export internationally. Shaun of the Dead doesn’t feature stripping/tap-dancing Northerners doing their bit for some extra cash, and it doesn’t orbit around some upper-class twit falling for an American tourist. It focuses on people in McJobs, buying milk and beheading undead intruders with spades and swing ball poles. At times it approaches documentary. The goals of the accidental hero, Shaun, are not to save the world or avenge injustices but merely keep the status quo running during a time of crisis. His master plan is essentially to get his social circle to the pub where they grudgingly spend every other night anyway. The reason why an essentially average piece of filmmaking with no artistic pretensions has been so embraced and accepted by the British public (Shaun was a modest box-office hit over in Blighty but can be overheard being discussed in pubs six months later whether in Glasgow or Brighton) is that it is recognizably British.

The brainchild of a relatively obscure star from British alternative sitcom land, Simon Pegg (who co-writes and plays the eponymous Shaun) it represents the first (there are more in the pipeline) collective big-screen outing of the various personalities who have been the vanguard behind the renaissance of the six-episode-a-series British sitcom. Over the past few years, reality TV may have flooded UK screens but a small band of comedic outsiders have cross-pollinated each other’s TV shows to bring us a varied bunch —the fly-on-the-wall tragedy of Ricky Gervais’s The Office, the gothic horror rapes Monty Python disturbia that is The League of Gentlemen, the cross-dressing catchphrase cornucopia of Little Britain, and the sci-fi reference-heavy flat-share spoof Spaced (from where Pegg and his director Edgar Wright hail). The latter is fondly remembered by cultists as being the home to many a John Carpenter or James Cameron reference but it is also where Pegg and Wright honed their style of respecting their homage’s source material as opposed to merely inserting a knob joke somewhere within a shot for shot parody, à la Scary Movie. Shaun of the Dead may be a comedy set within the confines of a horror film but it never ridicules the genre. Rather Pegg and Wright celebrate the form, allowing the laughs to fall from the characters’ “ordinary” reactions to extraordinary situations. When a zombie girl proves to be almost unstoppable, all that the hungover lads can do is wind the camera to take another souvenir photo.

Unfortunately the film’s television origins also explain why it’s often unimaginative outside of its comedic mise-en-scène, poorly characterized when there isn’t a running gag to support a decent arc, and somewhat bogged down whenever it tries to inject some genuine pathos into the death riddled final act. So what saves it apart from being a spot-on assessment of British life and its reverent xeroxing from better films? That’d be the aforementioned soundtrack. Edit or exposition is a mix tape of feel good hits and party floor fillers. The use of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” as the Winchester Pub is finally breached, and defense by synchronized pool cue beatings proves to be the only option, brings such a moment of rhythmic pleasure (Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is owed a bag of Pork Scratchings for the influence) that one would expect Chaplin or Keaton to have choreographed. But what would one expect from a film that includes a scene where vinyl is selected to throw at the approaching corpse automaton killers on order of its musical credibility.

Ed: Stone Roses?
Shaun : No.
Ed : ...Second Coming?
Shaun : I liksd it.
Ed : Dire Straits?
Shaun : Chuck it!

Any movie with priorities that would make fellow North Londoner and author Nick Hornby proud must be worth 90 minutes of anyone’s dead time.

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