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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Shaun of the Dead Edgar Wright 2004

Brideshead Re-Animated

Ostensibly a romantic comedy wrapped up in the bloody packaging of a zombie flick, Shaun of the Dead nonetheless succeeds in being funny, gross, kinda touching, and considerably camp. And while watching lovably off-kilter Brits work out their romantic problems may not be everyone's cup of tea (read: Coupling, just about everything Hugh Grant has ever been in, save Divine Brown), here this kind of thing is far easier to take, as we can be fairly sure that some of the characters will end up splattered across the screen in the final reel.

Shaun begins with a standard "mates out at the pub" scene that establishes very quickly that this film is smarter than your average bear: through a clever series of shots, we learn quickly what our primary conflict will be: Shaun is stuck in a rut, and his girlfriend Liz wants out of it. Unable to achieve actual intimacy with his lady, Shaun seems to be unable to leave the house without his Hutt-like roommate Ed, which in turn necessitates the presence of her lame roommate and her lame roommate's lame boyfriend (these peripheral friends of course loathe each other), meaning that essentially Shaun and Liz will spend the rest of their lives in a miserable cluster-fuck. In a nutshell, Liz wants some special time or it's quits.

Shaun, being a man and a British man at that, is of course patently incapable of separating from his mates and focusing his attention on anyone, be it his mother, his girlfriend or the increasingly creepy-looking denizens of his neighborhood. In fact, Shaun is so wrapped up in his own borderline emotional autism that he seems blissfully unaware that a zombie apocalypse has broken out in London, with no signs of slowing. Shaun gets wise and pulls a couple narrow escapes, and we start to see the glimmer of the man that Shaun could be if he actually applied himself (working as a clerk at an electronics store is as far as he got thus far). But of course, when Shaun takes charge of his life and goes from passivity to action, there are going to be casualties.

This is why, in my opinion, Shaun of the Dead works. No, it's not because of a multitude of forced zombie movie references (if you laugh at the "We're coming to get you, Barbara!" line, I will slap you in public). No, it's not because of some decent gore and clever direction and camerawork (a repeated long-take handheld shot of Shaun going to the market pre- and post-zombie is efficient, if not a bit precious). It's certainly not because of the beautiful hair or teeth of the leads. No, Shaun works because it embraces the mechanics of the romantic comedy AND the mechanics of the zombie film, and proves that when boiled down they are the same story: the individual against the group. Shaun as a romantic lead must learn to stand on his own, take charge, and ignore -- or at least contextualize -- the pressures put on him by those he loves; Shaun as the leader of a ragtag band of zombie survivors prospers from the same character arc. Shaun of the Dead lovingly amps the stakes of the conventional romantic comedy with the dire and rather preposterous consequences of a zombie movie: adapt or die. The fact that while in a rom-com these terms are mitigated by a girlfriend and in a splatter flick they result from a flesh-eating holocaust is irrelevant, and when placed side-by-side in this manner, this can be played for delightful effect.

Of course, the film eventually has to come down on one side (a romantic comedy) or the other (a zombie movie), and while the softie in me with a weakness for character and clever dialogue should be happy, the horror buff in me is sad to say that it lands squarely in the "comedy" camp. There's really nothing at all scary about the film, as any potentially frightening moments are immediately diffused with humor, and even though we like these characters far much than we would in the standard zombie flick (House of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead: Redux), the movie is so damn good-spirited that it's honestly hard to get too shook up about anything, even the deaths of several main characters (these moments are touching, but don't spoil the fun). I have to say that I'm more of a fan of meaner zomedies like Return of the Living Dead and Dead Alive, which - despite its campiness - is pretty nasty and cuts to the gut at a few moments.

Which brings me to my closing topic: the gay subtext. God love the Brits. This film is so far advanced in gender politics that it doesn't NEED a gay sidekick, because the two lead characters are gay enough to do double-duty -- and I of course mean that as a compliment. Sure, they're piggish and filthy. Sure, they're unmotivated and have terrible taste in clothes and décor. Sure, they could both use a trip to the gym and a hot-oil treatment. But these guys love each other more than many gay couples I know. Shaun and Ed are the real spiritual couple in this film, and while the characters are certainly straight, they show an affection for one another that dwarfs the love story by comparison.

For example, how refreshing is it to see an antagonist make a sneering gay reference about Shaun and his "boyfriend", only to have Shaun and Ed warmly laugh it off? I can remember a time when this kind of a joke in a horror movie - even when taken lightly - would have been met with some kind of macho posturing or exaggerated camp reaction to diffuse the accusation. Here it obviously doesn't bother them in the least, which is wonderful to see: in the world of these straight men, being called "gay" simply isn't an insult, and that's a beautiful thing. The two even joke to each other about being gay - not to ridicule each other, but because they realize how close their bond is and don't have any other way to express it.

In a time when other "cool" horror films like Cabin Fever are bandying about language like "fag!" under the pretense of being politically incorrect (when in reality there is no evidence to support that the filmmakers don't mean the slurs as spoken), the comparative maturity of Shaun is a breath of fresh air. And really, how can you not celebrate the queerness of a film that uses Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" as a major action setpiece? In all, a welcome arrival in a summer stuffed with gaseous, stale duds -- of all genres.

Rating (out of 5):