The sharp-eyed zombie fan may also spot subtle nods to George Romero's Dead trilogy (yes, more subtle than the film's obvious title pun), Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. But Shaun of the Dead is its own thing; it doesn't rely on a lazy pastiche of references to other films. It has Peter Jackson's seal of approval, and those of you who were fans of Peter Jackson long before such fandom had anything to do with elves and dwarves should know what that means.
The social satire of Romero's Dawn of the Dead and its recent remake are amped up here. The suburban London area in which Shaun resides is inhabited by people who already wander around in zombielike trances, thanks mostly to sleep deprivation, alcohol or plain boredom. Shaun spends all his nights at a local pub called the Winchester (the social equivalent of a mall; Dawn of the Dead fans know where this is going) with his fat slob of a best friend, Ed (Nick Frost), who likes to play video games and pass gas and says things like "You know what we should do tomorrow? Keep drinking!" You might wonder what Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) sees in her man. Indeed, so does she, which is why she breaks up with him the night before zombies start to take over the world.
Aside from the title, we've seen the signs coming. TV broadcasts in the background talk about a space probe; people flee down the street; a convenience store refrigerator is covered with bloody handprints. But Shaun and friends are in too much of a stupor to notice or care; the first time he and Ed see a zombie, they think it's a drunk girl and try to play goofy pranks on her.
The zombie threat is taken seriously, for the most part, though the film's coda crosses the line into pure camp. The humor comes from the way stereotypical North London folk might react to such an absurdly frightening situation. Shaun's mother (Penelope Wilton) is a particularly amusing case study in stiff upper lips, solving everything with a nice cup of tea and saying after a zombie encounter, "They were a bit bitey." At the other end of the social scale is Ed, whose T-shirt reads "I Got Wood" and who fights his first undead by throwing Prince records at them.
Shaun of the Dead is good, goofy fun, but given the attendant hype not just from Peter Jackson but also from Ain't It Cool News honcho Harry Knowles, horror fans' expectations may be excessively high. So let's be clear: This isn't an all-out gorefest, and Shaun is no Ash in the slapstick caricature department. Think low-key. Think sarcasm. This is an English film, after all.
Just one minor plot point that irks, and it probably wouldn't be bothersome at all if the filmmakers hadn't taken pains to make the threat feel real. If you're in a car, driving through streets filled with zombies, and one of the people in your car dies and turns into a zombie, is it really the best idea to get out and walk? Thwarting expectations is one thing -- and Shaun of the Dead frequently does so very well -- but guys, when there are five of you in the vehicle, why not just toss the damn zombie out the door?