Shaun of the Dead

UK/ USA/France 2004

Film still for Shaun of the Dead

Reviewed by Kim Newman


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

North London, the present day. Shaun (Simon Pegg), 29-year-old junior manager in an electrical goods shop, lives with Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), an uptight suit who is increasingly intolerant of the presence of Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun's slobbish, irresponsible best friend. Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) lives with a couple, Di (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran), and pressurises Shaun to do more than take her to the Winchester, a local pub where Ed is a fixture. Shaun's stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) nags him to be more considerate of Barbara (Penelope Wilton), Shaun's mother.

These characters are too self-absorbed to notice a widely reported outbreak of flesh-eating zombie activity. After another let-down, Liz dumps Shaun. Pete comes home, having been bitten by a zombie, and Shaun and Ed discover two monsters in the garden, which they kill. Avoiding the zombified Pete, Shaun and Ed set off to rescue Barbara and Liz, intending to sit the crisis out in the Winchester. David and Di come too but Philip is infected and left behind.

Barricaded in the Winchester, Shaun reunites with Liz. Barbara, bitten, becomes a zombie and Shaun has to shoot her; Di and David are dragged off and torn apart by the living dead hordes; and Ed, bitten, stays behind as Shaun and Liz escape just as the army show up to eliminate the zombies. Six months later, Shaun and Liz are happily cohabiting, with zombie Ed chained up in the garden shed.


The flesh-eating zombie genre, essentially invented by George A. Romero in Night of the Living Dead (1968), has thrown off parodies, rip-offs and tangents for three decades. The crooked backbone of the form is Romero's original if attenuated trilogy, extending to Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985) - with both Night and Dawn replicated through needless remakes. A tributary branch of the series comes via Return of the Living Dead (1984), a comic variant based on a novel by Night co-writer John Russo originally intended as a sequel treatment, and its own two follow-ups. That's not even considering the flood of Italian and Spanish flesh-eaters (notably Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, cheekily so titled because Dawn of the Dead was called Zombi in Italy) and endless computer game shoot 'em ups such as Resident Evil that 'borrow' from Romero's world, or such revisions and mutations of the form as Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1982), Peter Jackson's Braindead (1992) and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later... (2002).

One of the endearing aspects of Shaun of the Dead is that, like Young Frankenstein, it pokes fun at its inspirations but plays by their rules. A previous spin-off from the Romero franchise was a pair of anthologies edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector (The Book of the Dead, Still Dead) in which authors like Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell and Joe R. Lansdale wrote their own stories set in the world of the Dead movies; this could fit in perfectly with those efforts, extending Romero's state-of-the-nation visions (each film in the trilogy is a snapshot of America at the time of production) to take in a north London slacker world of dead-end jobs and uncongenial flatshares. In its comic approach, it certainly gets closer to the Living Dead feel than glum, direct-to-video derivatives like Dead Creatures (2000). The best joke comes early as Shaun and his circle of mates are so caught up in the ruts of their own lives that they don't notice the gradual proliferation of shambling dead people in the streets (and even, as when Shaun stumbles on auto-pilot to the corner shop, blend in perfectly with the zombies). In Night of the Living Dead, survivors gather round a TV set to gain vital information; here, Shaun channel-surfs past coverage of the crisis.

Director/co-writer Edgar Wright and star/co-writer Simon Pegg, along with much of the cast, worked on the Channel 4 sitcom Spaced; the kernel of this film was an episode in which Pegg's character briefly stepped into a zombie-killing videogame. It's to the film's credit that it gets most of its Resident Evil jokes out of the way early and homes in on gags about proper zombie movies. An obvious way of parodying the genre is to make the creatures comical, but for the most part the dead here are generic bloody-mouthed fumblers and the laughs come from the binds their presence puts the living characters into. There are broadly comic sketches, like drama teacher Di's tips on how to pass as members of the living dead, but a lot of the jokes are based on less obvious, more banal subjects: Shaun and best friend Ed debating which LPs can be sacrificed as ammo, a mini-suspense crisis caused by Shaun's car-proud stepfather's decision to retain the childproof locks on his Jaguar. Only in the epilogue are there jokes at the expense of zombies and even those are in line with the satiric jabs of the later Romero films.

The thread about Shaun's reluctant but genuine heroism in a time of apocalypse is strong enough to hold the gags but not the more extreme material: a routine about his reluctance to allow the obnoxious David to shoot his zombie mother is funny-horrible, but when he takes on the responsibility himself the film can't sustain the moment. Like Wright's first feature, the home-made Somerset-shot spaghetti western A Fistful of Fingers, Shaun is ramshackle in tone and effect, with running jokes that run into the ground, scenes that don't quite know how to end and characters who keep harping on their one-note traits. Then again, Night of the Living Dead broke with the conventional notions of a 'well-made' film to create a real-world feeling and it could be argued that Shaun is pulling the same trick.


Edgar Wright
Nira Park
Simon Pegg
Edgar Wright
Director of Photography
David M. Dunlap
Chris Dickens
Production Designer
Marcus Rowland
Music/Music Performers
Daniel Mudford
Pete Woodhead
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011