One of the nice things about doing a genre-specific project like this is that it gives me an opportunity to catch films I missed the first time around. Such is the case with Edgar Wright's SHAUN OF THE DEAD from 2004, which somehow eluded me despite the rave reviews it garnered upon release. I was almost guilty about letting this one slip past, until I finally got a chance to watch it a found myself surprisingly underaffected. Too-lofty expectations, maybe, but as I thought about it I really don't think that was the case.
What lies at the heart of my disappointment is the fact that in spite of the classic zombie-movie trappings, SHAUN is really about a young man getting his shit together. And that's fine, it is an homage/spoof rather than an out-and-out horror film, but so much of the film's throughline feels tired and too-familiar--the unfulfilled girlfriend and her disapproving friends, or the loutish buddy who holds Shaun back from fully developing into an adult--that it takes more than zombified window dressing to make them fresh. (It also doesn't help that the movie's allusions are limited mostly to Romero's original trilogy, THE EVIL DEAD, and Fulci--references themselves that have gotten a bit long in the tooth.) Making matters worse is that these FRIENDS-friendly elements are are resolved in too sentimental a manner for my taste; nothing ruins a good zombie-fest than a dose of the "awwww"s.
This doesn't mean that I hated the movie, far from it. There's quite a bit to like, from the all-around solid performances (especially Simon Pegg as the endlessly likeable Shaun) and clever gags (including probably my favorite riff on "They're coming to get you, Barbara") to the respectful tone of the movie's in-jokes. I particularly liked the story's slow build, with Pegg being so absorbed by his mundane troubles that the zombie epidemic is in full swing before he even realizes it. Fans of British humor will probably get more out of this, since many of its elements--namely, the significance of the pub-as-sanctuary--have more resonance on the other side of the pond (though I must say that when Dylan Moran buys the farm in a nod to Joe Pilato in DAY OF THE DEAD the tone, and the gore, aren't quite outrageous enough to translate into humor, and this scenes comes off as uncharacteristically grim). Wright and Pegg also give their supporting players a little more depth than usual, though I wish they'd delved a little further into Shaun's relationship with his stepfather, one of the film's more non-traditional aspects.
A reverent tribute to the classics in the zombie-film cannon, SHAUN OF THE DEAD may have more of an impact if it hadn't come out during the recent undead boom. Not a bad film by any means, it still wasn't good enough to leave the mark of a truly enjoyable film.