Tuesday, 8 June 2010

'00 Ten Part Two: "Shaun Of The Dead" (2004)

Shaun Of The Dead holds a peculiar honour, in that it is possibly the film that speaks to me the most over any other in terms of a realistic representation of the culture and society in which I live and have grown up. Peculiar indeed, considering the large amount of reanimated corpses present. But, unsurprisingly, it's not the zombies that make SOTD a film to which I can really relate, but the misfits, misanthropes and moaners who find themselves caught in the film's situation and the way in which they react to it. And it is in this respect that SOTD succeeds so comprehensively.

Let us consider the landscape of British cinema into which Shaun Of The Dead dared to tread. Big British films released around the same time as SOTD essentially fall into two distinct categories. Films in the first bracket present life in Britain, and in general, as a cross between an episode of Teletubbies and a Waitrose advert - all bright and fuzzy and colourful with absolutely no offensive content or sharp corners, and at the same time exceedingly prim, proper and upper-middle class in an oh-so-charmingly awkward yet frightfully optimistic kind of way, where the most taxing problem is who gets the last slice of Taste The Difference summer fruits torte. Love, Actually and Wimbledon are two prime candidates for this category that emerged around the same time as my chosen film. Essentially the cinematic equivalent of an overly-sugary marshmallow, with characters as one-dimensional and bastardly as they come, I pretty much despise every film that falls into category one.

Films in the second category have never been summed up better than by The Fast Show. So instead of trying to trump it, I'll just show you instead:

"Pukka", I hear you whimper. Think Snatch, think Layer Cake, and you're very much in the right area. Whilst I do find some of these films enjoyable on their own merits, the characters within them are anything but a relatable portrayal of the British people amongst whom I grew up.

So then, in 2004, came Shaun Of The Dead - so much more than just a comedy film, or even the "rom-com-zom" (romantic comedy with zombies) that its marketing purports it to be. Strip away the plague of shuffling, flesh-hungry cadavers swarming the country and Shaun Of The Dead presents to its audience the finest portrayal of - and most heartfelt tribute to - 21st Century suburban Britain.

Before we look at why this is the case, let us first cover all the other ways in which Shaun Of The Dead is cinematic perfection as well. Firstly, it's incredibly original. Looking at the film as a parody of the horror genre, it spoofs the situations and settings of horror movies, particularly zombie movies, not only incredibly accurately but also respectfully. Scriptwriters Edgar Wright (who also directs) and Simon Pegg (who plays the eponymous Shaun) lampoon the genre through clever subversion of conventions and cinematography, but also show what huge fans they are of zombie flicks through the cavalcade of references and tributes that charge at you throughout the film. Not being much of a zombie film buff myself, I picked up only a smattering of these, but a quick google reveals just how many nods there are to characters, actors, dialogue and a huge amount more from not only a great many zombie movies, but also a wide variety of other films and TV shows.

Second of all, Shaun Of The Dead is very, very funny. The basic premise of the film takes one of the most fundamental rules of successful comedy - either place extraordinary people in an ordinary setting, or ordinary people in an extraordinary setting (in SOTD's case obviously the latter) - and runs with it superbly. The humour in SOTD regularly comes organically from the inspired concept of normal people trying to deal with a zombie epidemic interrupting their day-to-day existence. To come up with an idea so simple yet so ingenious is a sublime feat in itself.

However, it's also in the finer detail that Shaun Of The Dead's comedy brilliance comes to light. The writing is incredibly sharp, with even seemingly the simplest of sequences being formulated to perfection. The opening scene is a prime example of the razor-sharp wit present throughout. We enter the film on a profile shot of a vacant Shaun sitting alone in the pub, eyes glazed and pint in hand. We quickly realise, however, that Shaun is actually in the middle of a fairly serious conversation with his girlfriend Liz (played by the fantastic Kate Ashfield). Then, as more and more of the gaps in the conversation are filled for us, it soon becomes apparent that what we perceived to surely be a private conversation between Shaun and Liz about spending time together away from their friends is actually taking place in full view and earshot of both Shaun's flatmate Ed (Nick Frost) and Liz's mates David and Diane (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis). The opening reaches its peak when Shaun softly explains to Liz that Ed is a bit of a loner, indicating one of the reasons he likes to spend time with Ed is that he feels sorry for him. Ed then comprehensively obliterates this argument, and any sympathy Shaun may have conjured for him, with the unforgettable interjection: "Can I get... any of you cunts... a drink?". Not only has Wright created a brilliantly authentic suburban London pub setting within the first few minutes of the film, but he's also set the bar for the comedy within the film incredibly high - a bar which is maintained throughout.

However, raising Shaun Of The Dead from being just a very successful comedy to one of my top ten picks of the last decade is, as I said before, its affectionate and uncanny representation of suburban England. The characters are multi-layered and authentic, but also undeniably and authentically British. Shaun as the main character provides ample proof of this throughout the film. After a night on the booze, waking to a Britain overrun with the living dead, the hung over Shaun autopilots to the newsagent oblivious to the destruction around him. Once he and Ed realise what's happening, Shaun's first choice of action is to "have a sit down". Their plan for survival involves picking up Shaun's mum (Penelope Wilton) and now ex-girlfriend Liz, then settling down with a cup of tea and waiting for "all this to blow over". Their plan only changes in beverage choice, from a cuppa to a nice cold pint, when their eventual choice for a stronghold is local pub The Winchester Tavern (as it's safe, familiar, and somewhere Ed can smoke).

Essentially, Shaun, in both his attitude towards and strategy for survival of the zombie plague, is relentlessly optimistic with a tendency to consciously downplay the severity of what's happening, and ultimately a little bit crap. In short, very British. He's a hero, but not a particularly good one. Any time he tries to be even a little bit cool he immediately falls on his face - quite literally at one point when attempting to leapfrog a garden fence as a shortcut to the Winchester. But it's not just Shaun who exemplifies Britishness in Shaun Of The Dead. Nick Frost's Ed is essentially a mischievous boy caught in a slobbish twenty-something man's body. Lucy Davis brilliantly creates Diane as a dippy optimist repressing her frustration with her boyfriend David, an irritating know-it-all almost entirely driven by ferocious jealousy of Shaun and played superbly by Dylan Moran (a wild departure from his most famous role as alcoholic misanthrope Bernard Black in Black Books, which allows Moran to really demonstrate his skill as an actor). Wilton as Barbara, Shaun's mum, and Bill Nighy as dry stepfather Philip, bring in yet another facet of Britishness - a hybrid of "stiff upper lip" and "ignore it and it'll go away" mentalities, with Philip not wanting to make a fuss over his zombie bite as he's "run it under a cold tap", and Barbara combating the zombie threat by closing the curtains.

All very British indeed. But Shaun Of The Dead is always highly authentic, never hackneyed nor offensive, in its portrayal of the British social psyche. This is down to a combination of Pegg and Wright's superb writing, Wright's direction, and the collective cast's exceptional performances. I relate to each and every character in the film not only because of the depth of writing and quality of acting, but because I recognise pretty much each one from some part of my life, from main character Shaun's underachiever and Ed's idiotic rogue, right down to those on the periphery, such as Peter Serafinowicz's belligerent killjoy Pete. But as well as recognising them, even though some characters are more obviously likeable than others, none are clear-cut as "good guys" and "bad guys". Each character is flawed, and whilst you might hate some of them for the majority of the film, you can almost always relate to their point of view.

In a perverse fashion, it is the element of Shaun Of The Dead that is most removed from the real world that demonstrates how truly special it is in reflecting the reality of British people, and humanity in general. Through each of the characters' reactions to the dead walking the earth, we see one aspect of what makes up who the British people are - illuminated in a surreal, masterful and incredibly genuine way.

No comments: