In 1968, George Romero changed the face of horror with the sharp satire and tense characterizations of 'Night of the Living Dead.' Produced on a shoe-string budget of $114,000, the cult hit went on to gross an estimated $30 million worldwide over the ten years following its original release. As you might expect, such commercial success begot a string of imitators, but none were able to top Romero's original vision.
Except for Romero himself. His 1978 horror masterpiece 'Dawn of the Dead' set the bar even higher -- terrifying audiences, while still taking the time to comment on American consumer culture. In fact, it was so good that it unintentionally put a cap on the zombie subgenre, simply because nothing else could top it. For more than twenty years, scores of filmmakers (including Romero himself) worked hard to reinvigorate this classic staple of horror cinema, but failed at every turn.
Leave it to the Brits. Writer/director Edgar Wright and writer/actor Simon Pegg had just wrapped up the run of their British television series "Spaced" when they decided to bring their own unique blend of satire to the zombie subgenre. The resulting love-letter to George Romero -- 'Shaun of the Dead' -- did what others had been unable to do for so many years, despite the fact that their film was a comedy instead of a straight horror flick.
As the story goes, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a sad-sack salesman who would rather hang out at the pub with his best mate Ed (Nick Frost) than invest quality time in his career or his romantic relationships. After a night of heavy drinking, Shaun decides to get his life on track and win back his ex-girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield). Unfortunately, Shaun wakes up to a world engulfed by a zombie plague.
He rises to the challenge and resolves to avoid old routines and instead embrace the new reality of a world in crisis. Working to become a new man, he fights to save his friends and family including his naïve mother (Penelope Wilton), his domineering stepfather (Bill Nighy), his ex-girlfriend, and a couple with marital issues (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis). But his newfound motivation comes to an abrupt halt after he packs everyone in his favorite pub for safe-keeping, and he begins to realize he has no clue what to do next.
The thing that makes 'Shaun of the Dead' so instantly endearing is that it avoids direct parody and instead concentrates on finding genuine humor in the midst of its zombie-infested set-up. The film never settles for easy laughs and instead layers each scene with smart references and subtle nods that combine for quite the impact. Pegg and Wright's satire is sharp and witty, and they've crafted a script to match it. When the film ultimately shifts gears and drifts into hard-edged horror in the third act, the writers have somehow managed to make this transition seem so inevitable that it doesn't feel disjointed in the least.
The performances are top notch as well -- Pegg is hilarious and the supporting cast could hold the movie on their own. In particular, Bill Nighy and Nick Frost play two characters at opposite extremes of the spectrum, but each one brings an extraordinary level of charisma to the screen.
Of course, I have to mention the zombies. As portrayed in 'Shaun of the Dead,' they're shambling, slow, and dumb, but that's the point. The slowness of the zombies lulls the film's characters into a false sense of confidence and security and make the resulting scares incredibly effective. Picture yourself in a crowded mall and imagine you had to walk through it without touching anyone. Now imagine every person trying to grab you at the same time. 'Shaun of the Dead' embraces this idea by showing Shaun and Ed's fascination with the immobility of the zombies. But when they're trapped in the pub with a horde of lumbering creatures outside, the film creates an a tension that sells the horror of the situation to great effect.
Every so often a film comes along that revitalizes its genre -- 'Shaun of the Dead' brought originality and freshness back to the zombie flick. It's both funny and tense, and will likely continue to entertain audiences for years to come. Fans of horror and British comedy are sure lap up everything the film offers. The only debate that remains is whether 'Shaun of the Dead' is better than Pegg and Wright's follow-up, 'Hot Fuzz' -- for me, it is.
Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec, 'Shaun of the Dead' looks very impressive considering its limited budget. Detail is one of the most notable assets of the transfer and remains strong throughout the film. There are a few shots when softness creeps in, but I was happy to see that Universal didn't pack the film full of edge enhancement to compensate. Since the sun rarely shines in the film, colors are occasionally washed out, but they still pop every chance they get. Reds are especially vibrant and come into play over and over throughout the film. By the time Shaun is holed up in the pub, the screen is ablaze with intense oranges as fire and destruction takes center stage.
Unfortunately, the pub scenes at night falter due to average delineation and black levels that the transfer never completely resolves. While the rest of the film boasts a high visibility in the shadows, the final battle features a reduction in contrast, detail, and color in the dim lighting.
Overall, 'Shaun of the Dead' includes an eye-pleasing transfer that isn't as beautiful or consistent as the HD DVD transfer of 'Hot Fuzz,' but on its own merits, this one still looks quite good in high definition, and is sure to leave fans of the film happy.
'Shaun of the Dead' features a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (1.5 Mbps) that's technically proficient and has a startling heft to its presence. Dialogue and effects are crisp, stable, and well prioritized within the soundscape and make it easy to immerse yourself in Shaun's quest. Zombie sounds have been distributed around the soundfield and the mix makes good use of the rear speakers in crowded scenes. Slamming doors, accelerating cars, and the satisfying "thunk" of metal on zombie-skulls are all nicely rendered with the rumbling support of the subwoofer.
As you might expect, the final battle packs the most audible punch, but the remainder of the film is meant to be quiet and droll (aside from the punctuated disruptions caused by the heightened scene transition effects). Zombie chaos rarely happens on screen and the mix is left to deal with the main characters encountering relatively minor situations. As such, this is the sort of track that certainly catches your attention at key moments, but doesn't make for the best easy-access demo material.
While 'Shaun of the Dead' hit standard-def DVD in the UK in an 2-disc release over-stuffed with extras, the 2005 US DVD included only a portion of those supplements, and this HD DVD edition follows suit. Granted, it's too bad Universal didn't see fit to super-size this HD DVD release (as they did with 'Hot Fuzz,' but both the sheer number and the quality of the supplements included here is still impressive.
Up first is a mixed bag of commentaries. The best commentary features Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright in an engaging, fascinating track that highlights their friendship, careers, and talent. I loved listening to their thoughts concerning the television run of "Spaced," Shaun's origin in a particular episode, and the film's many hidden references to Romero and other horror greats. Fans of their commentary track on 'Hot Fuzz' will feel right at home as the two friends discuss the ever-changing script for 'Shaun of the Dead,' the various stages of its development, and the filming process.
The lesser commentary includes Pegg, Dylan Moran, Nick Frost, Lucy Davis, and Kate Ashfield. Everyone seems to be having a good time and there are certainly some laughs to be had, but like many group commentaries of this sort, ultimately this track lacks focus and becomes a bit repetitive and annoying.
A section called "Raw Meat" includes a group of generally interesting and amusing supplements that detail the film's pre-production phase. First up, "Simon Pegg's Video Diary" (8 minutes) captures Pegg's interactions with a variety of cast members. "Edgar and Simon's Flip Chart" (13 minutes) allows the writers to discuss thoughts they recorded in their notebooks before the script even existed. A series of "Casting Tapes" (5 minutes) includes videos of Ashfield, Moran, Davis, and Peter Serafinowicz auditioning with Pegg. Some fairly standard "Special Effects Comparisons" (2 minutes) and "Makeup Tests" (2 minutes) showcase before-and-after glimpses of the effects. Finally, a promotional short imaginitively titled "EPK Featurette" (7 minutes) registers as the only boring supplement in the bunch.
Next comes a section called "Missing Bits," which is highlighted by a series of extended scenes (14 minutes) and outtakes (11 minutes). The extensions add a few laughs here and there, but otherwise seem to be wise trims from the final film. The outtakes are genuinely funny and show the cast having a blast together. Also included in this section is a video called "Funky Pete" that includes scenes from the film that have been ridiculously edited for broadcast television. Topping off the "Missing Bits" is another video called "The Man Who Would Be Shaun" (1 minute) that highlights the incredibly funny Pegg being incredibly funny.
My favorite supplement on this release, though, has to be the examination of the film's "Plot Holes." At only three minutes long, this one's relatively brief, but uses storyboards and voiceovers to connect the dots and explain a few of the film's errors. I love that Wright and Pegg acknowledge these mistakes and make fun of themselves with the inclusion of this supplement.
This disc also includes a group of "TV Bits" that feature complete versions of several faux-television broadcasts and news reports that are briefly seen in the film. "T4 and Coldplay" (4 minutes) is an improvised humanitarian interview with the band, "Fun Dead" (1 minute) is a clip from a fictional reality show, and "Nine Lives Are Up" (2 minutes) and "I Married a Monster" (1 minute) are clips from a British talk show.
Rounding out this HD DVD release is a "Zomb-O-Meter Trivia Track" that plays overtop the film, "Storyboard Comparisons," a "Zombie Photo Gallery," a series of poster designs, and -- last but not least -- the US theatrical trailer.
(Note that all of the above features are presented in 480i/p video only.)
'Shaun of the Dead' is both hilarious and tense -- sometimes both within a single scene -- and it holds a special place in my top ten comedies. This HD DVD release boasts an impressive transfer, a booming Digital-Plus track, and all of the supplements from its US-released DVD counterpart. As an overall package, this one can't keep up with the astounding HD DVD release for Pegg and Wright's 'Hot Fuzz,' but it's definitely worth picking up all the same.