Ordinary guy Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam) gets tied up in a complex web of futuristic corporate espionage involving multiple layers of double-crossing and brainwashing. The film is stark and minimalist, both in terms of its visual style (which is reminiscent of Vincenzo Natali’s previous film, Cube), and its milieu. The (near?) future world is left blank and generic, and the two rival corporations, Sunways and Digicorp, are left faceless apart from their heads of security, who bat Sullivan back and forth like an unwitting pawn. When the mysterious Rita (Lucy Liu) offers him a way out, Sullivan has to question not only who he can trust, but also who he really is. The film’s overall pacing is a bit slow and self-indulgent, leaving you too much idle time to predict the final outcome, but the last twist is executed very tidily nevertheless. (Also, watch out for a short but excellent cameo from the mighty Malcolm Xerxes!)
Although this sets out to be a spoof of zombie films (especially the original Dawn Of The Dead), Shaun Of The Dead succeeds on many more levels than that. First of all, it completely nails the essence of the horror/zombie genre, with funny and accurate rip-offs of the stereotype characters and plot devices. Secondly, it genuinely is a “romantic comedy–with zombies.” The love story is honest and heartfelt, with even the peripheral characters being well-drawn and sympathetic. And as a horror film in its own right, the film works. In places it is genuinely scary and claustrophobic. The comedy is exquisitely timed to let you experience the thrill of a horror film before breaking the tension with a belly-shaking joke. It really is an extraordinarily well-constructed film.
Update: see also Tagline’s assessment of it.
I don’t watch many scary horror films. I can handle the lightweight, jump-out-of-your-seat stuff, like Scream, Event Horizon, or Cube, but I’m not too good with the films that really set out to disturb and unsettle. It took me months to recover from The Blair Witch Project, and after seeing the 1978 version of Invasion of The Body Snatchers as an impressionable teenager I still can’t deal with having plants in the bedroom. People keep telling me how good Ring and its Japanese original Ringu are, but I have no intention of ever seeing either. Nuh-uh.
So I’m not really sure why I wanted to see Dawn Of The Dead. Maybe I wanted to expose myself to a little zombie culture before catching Shaun Of The Dead, which looks like a blast. Maybe my inner film fan wanted to compensate for never having seen the George Romero original. Maybe it was the only alternative to Starsky and Hutch that Abi found palatable…. Whatever. We saw it last night.
The first fifteen minutes or so are intensely unsettling. Before it all gets really hectic and bloody, there is a period of quiet and uncertainty that you know can’t last. It’s just a question of when the stillness will be punctured. When that moment comes, you’ve spent just enough time building up empathy with the characters that it is thoroughly shocking and disturbing. Especially if you’re a parent whose kids have a habit of getting up and scratching at your bedroom door in the middle of the night. Thanks, Alex. That was a 4am wake up call I could have done without.
Once the zombies break cover, though, the film turns into a more conventional spot-the-survivor thrill ride. A small gang of uninfected people barricade themselves in a mall, and try to figure out how to escape. They have to overcome their own bickering and paranoia, but apart from a few moving scenes, they don’t dwell on their personal losses. Their focus is on action and hope rather than on fear and despair–for which I’m glad, because I don’t think I could have coped with a whole film that was as scary as this one’s opening act.
I’m now also reconsidering my interest in seeing 28 Days Later. I did enjoy Dawn Of The Dead, but one really scary movie every few years is quite enough for me.