As with all review beginnings and sexual encounter endings, I’m going to start with an apology. I’m sorry that I keep dropping names of people you don’t know, but it’s predominately a test to see if my friends are reading this blog, and secondarily because I used to have quite an interesting life where I met some interesting people. It’s hard to get across in an online dating profile that you’ve had a cool life when it’s not just pictures of you standing in front of the Pyramids, or the hanging gardens of Babylon, or finding the lost treasure of Ulaanbaatar. If you were just a Camden bar manager meeting loads of popular musicians, you come across as a dick for bringing it up.
So hi, I’m a dick.
Camden doesn’t only attract the famously unwashed. It’s also a magnet for the hangers-on, wannabe hipsters, actual hipsters, tourists, fame tourists, the jet-set, the milk men, the haircuts, slackers that want to manage a bar and drink for free while exerting minimum effort, genuine cool people who enjoy having a good time and don’t think of themselves too importantly, Serbians, weekend out-of-towners that come to the bar that most resembles the pub-club that they would visit in their own town, and all other kinds of people.
Keir Mills falls in to at least one of those categories. He is legitimately one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. And while I have strong suspicions that his joviality is a façade masking a dark secret I will always think fondly of him for three reasons.
- We drunkenly agree on the correct order for best Lethal Weapon movies
- He is currently the 7th (previously 4th) listed Top Billed Cast on IMDB app for Shaun of the Dead, he was the zombie that bites Bill Nighy, the front dancer in the opening scene, and I recently learned that in 2012 he was voted “Best ever zombie” on an online poll. Very official.
- We drunkenly agree on the correct order for the best Die Hard movies
If it wasn’t for #2 I wouldn’t have a single good thing to say about Shaun of the Dead.
That may be a little harsh. And completely not true, because I have several good things to say about it, however I am a writer on the internet, so not totally immune to the temptation of hyperbole.
I did enjoy it the first time I watched it. Because it was a parody from the cast of Spaced (1999-2001) which at the time was my favourite sit-com. I had been excited about the film for over a year since I was in the audience of RI:SE (2002-2003) one morning where Nick Frost gave us a preview of his zombie acting skills. But what we got was exactly what I should have been expecting. A British parody film.
For shame Britain. For shame. Or should I say, United Kingdom. Whichever one has the least racist connotations.
Dianne: Just look at the face: it’s vacant, with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who’s lost a bet.
Type “British Parody Movie” in to google. You’ll find the Cornetto trilogy; Johnny English (which I moaned about in my Skyfall article); Austin Powers (definitely an American project); and all the Carry On… films.
So if you want to grade Shaun of the Dead against that curve, then yes, I’ll give you that, it’s an excellent film. But against other comedy films, does Shaun of the Dead deserve such standing? All it took was someone watching Dawn of the Dead (1978) and adapting it humorously for British circumstances. It’s not original, it’s just a story fed through the Spacedification prism. At least Hot Fuzz (2007) took the idea of the cultish small village movie and created scenarios that were juxtapose to the norm. They took an uncommon hero and applied him to the situation that had not seen before. Shaun of the Dead essentially took Tim Bisley (who I suspect to be remarkably similar to Simon Pegg’s real life persona) and put him in a film that Tim/Simon had fantasised about being in ever since he first saw Dawn of the Dead.
Once again, at this point I feel I need to push back against my own opinion because I also disagree with myself. Simon Pegg is amazing. He has been really good in those three Mission: Impossible films, he was great in Star Trek 1&2, I really respect his effort in writing the third, and Spaced and Big Train (1998-2002) are shows that I can watch over and over again.
But EVERY. OTHER. Film he has been in is absolute tosh. Which is forgivable, because being a British actor in Hollywood, you take what you can get. Unfortunately he keeps writing his own films, and they are all terrible. And that trend started with Shaun of the Dead. Despite what everyone says, this is not a funny film. It’s very nice, and a fine British film. But it has no place in the top 250 best rated movies on IMDb. I thought it was in the top 100, but it’s not actually in the top 250, but it is rated as 8.0, which makes it in the same ranking as 216-250.
I just don’t care for his everyman character that he plays in the majority of his films. Did anyone watch Run, Fatboy, Run (2007)? Didn’t think so.
Ok, this isn’t just a slate of Simon Pegg. Like I say, I think he’s great generally, and if he ever read this article I’d be mortified. And I’m definitely in the minority, which is why this article is in a section called “Unpopular Opinions”.
His attempt to start a catchphrase in under-seen sit-com Hippies (1999) of “get on the bus” has taken hold in my common vernacular as a way of telling people to try to be cool. We all use “skip to the end” from Spaced. And when lots of people are talking/arguing at the same time, I will slip in a “oh my god, I can’t believe it, that guy’s a WANKER” from Big Train. Amongst other things, he is such an influence on my life, I probably have a dozen other quotes that I don’t even realise are from his mouth originally.
Shaun: Take car. Go to Mum’s. Kill Phil. Grab Liz, go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?
Ed: Yeah, boyyyeee!
The story isn’t funny enough to carry itself as an amusing premise and the jokes aren’t good enough to plant themselves in the same league as an absurdist comedy like Step Brothers (2008).
After vaguely shitting on it for several paragraphs, here’s a run through of the film with some bits that I like and some I don’t.
“Ghost Town” by “the stop your messing around rudies” is a dull repetitive drudge of a song that just makes me angry. It’s almost as bad as “Electric Avenue” by “The Electric Avenue Gang” that is the opening of Pineapple Express (2008), another comedy that I hate. Ok, so maybe I just hate 80’s electric reggae ska-punk, and hearing such songs primes me to hate anything they’re connected to.
“No, what does exacerbate mean?” is a solid joke. The set-up for it and timing are actually perfect. Unfortunately it gets repeated later in a style known as diminishing returns.
The set up for the repeated joke that Ed has stinky farts. Urgh. Ok, you get half a point because it ends up being a call-back that works in a poignant moment. But really?
Farts are funny. Louis C.K. and Stewart Lee have similar bits pointing out that its some gas, that comes from your bum, that smells like shit, and makes a trumpet sound. All of those things are funny. But when viewed through the medium of film, we can’t smell it, and we’re rarely seeing it escape from the bum (the movie-in-a-movie “Ass” from Idiocracy (2006) and the underwater scene of Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993) being the only ones that come to mind) so we’re reliant on the sound. But Ed’s fart are, as we used to say, silent but violent, so we have to put up with Shaun’s reaction to it, which it seems is that it does indeed smell bad.
I hate reality TV, for many reasons, not least of which my parents are now fucking experts on figure skating and ballroom dancing. The most egregious example of being an armchair judge (I’m aware of the irony) is The Great British Bake Off (2010-). Every week millions of people watch strangers bake cakes, and then have opinions on how well they did in comparison to the other people. YOU DIDN’T TASTE THE FUCKING CAKE!!! So how the fuck would you know? Do you think deaf people tuned in to Top of the Pops (1964-2016) every week? How many blind cartographers do you think there are?!
My point being, some mediums are good for certain senses. Silent farts are not good for TV and film.
The walk to the shops is a great homage the part of all horror films where the threat is only visible to the audience. It’s the part that gets us angry for people not paying attention, but it plays for laughs very well here, especially the mild slip, presumably on blood in the shop.
Shaun: He’s not my boyfriend!
Ed: It might be a bit warm, the cooler’s off.
Shaun: Thanks, babe.
Again, the discovery of the zombie woman in the garden is done well because you have to think something logical before you would assume zombie. Annoyingly though the original line was “Oh my god, she’s so pissed” which is almost certainly what any British person would say, but they changed it to “…so drunk” to avoid any confusion with American audiences potentially thinking she was angry.
Record throwing? For fuck sake Edgar, we get it, some songs are good, and some are bad. You made that point here, you didn’t need to go and make Baby Driver (2017) as well.
“I don’t see the point of having a car in London” not necessarily a joke, but one of the most London things you could ever say. In later years it was adapted by an old friend of mine to “I don’t see the point of having a dog in London” which he would bust out whenever we’d argue with the aforementioned Keir about whether dogs or cats were better.
The crossover scene of the alternate crew (Matt Lucas, Reece Shearsmith, Tamsin Greig) is very funny because we know them all to be almost equivalent actors against those in the main team of SotD, but if you don’t know who they are, then that means literally nothing. It is almost 40 years since Airplane! (1980) was released, and there is nothing that relies on popular culture references to make the joke work. With the exception of maybe the nun reading “Boy’s life” and the boy reading “Nun’s life”. I’ve never heard of “Boy’s Life” being a magazine, but it’s right there in front of me, so I can extrapolate that it was a real magazine, so the joke of the boy sitting right next to her makes sense. Sure, having similarly dressed/type people crossing the screen is humorous, but the real joke comes from knowing that she was in a sit-com of a similar ilk, and he was in an alternative sit-com around the same time. The best comedy doesn’t need you to know the specific reference that it’s making, otherwise my dad, and apparently I, would be the best comedian’s in the world.
Kevin Smith once said that the scene in Shaun of the Dead where they’re beating a zombie to the sound of “Queen”’s “Don’t stop me now” was one of the funniest scenes in cinematic history. He either said it in a tweet, or on a talking head program, so despite my love of Silent Bob, either of those mediums is of lesser consequence than this long thought out article. Either way, he’s wrong. It’s not. It’s just a song, and the idea of hitting something while the camera is point of view from the thing being hit.
Would Jaws (1975) be the funniest film if instead of “Smile you son of a bitch” being said by Roy Scheider, we had a Bruce the shark (yes, that was his name, remember it for our Christmas Movie Quiz) P.o.V. backed by Pat Benatar’s “Hit me with your best shot”? Yes it would, because that song wasn’t released for another 3 years.
Ok, this is getting boring, let’s go to the quick-fire round…
The checking the coast is clear climb up the slide is very funny.
The auditioning to be zombies is not funny.
The shouting down of the pessimist David character is satisfying, but not funny.
The quick transition of Shaun being the hero, into having no plan is funny.
Dart in the head quite funny. However, dart in the eye from Bottom (1991-1995) was very funny.
And then it all just works out.
It has a lot of Spaced style awkward humour moments sprinkled throughout. The swapping positions to beat the zombies in the garden, Shawn being annoyed his toys have been thrown out, “we’ve got 29 bullets”, “call them shells”, “we’ve got 29 shells”.
The best, and probably only good parody movies are…
Airplane!, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking your Juice in the Hood (1996), BASEkeball (1998), I’d even stretch to Wrongfully Accused (1998) (seriously underrated). They all have that theme of Zucker/Abrahams-esqueness where they take each individual scene and break it down to all the things that can be parodied, or subverted. English films don’t have that same slapstick approach to it. We look at the whole situation and mock the general feeling of it, rather than a timeless “and don’t call me Shirley” or “the lord must really have it in for that little kid” silliness of our American cousins (not to be confused with Lincoln’s final trip to the theatre).
It’s not our fault, it’s just the way that we were raised, and the comedic influences we were brought up on from the 60’s onwards.
We have Monty Python as our God, and so waves of comedic talent come through trying to emulate them, or establish new comedic styles like Pegg/Wright did. And they succeeded with Spaced, but unlike Python they couldn’t translate their formula into film quite as successfully.
So let’s even take that as an example. Spaced undeniably put a flag pole in the world as a fresh and accessible comedic style. Life of Brian (1979) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) were perfect comedy films. But that team also made The Meaning of Life (1983) and many of them were in Time Bandits (1981). So do we give them carte blanche? No, each thing needs to be judged on its own merits.
I may not have written a compelling argument for why your favourite British film is shit, more a thesis of why British comedies aren’t great in general.
Comedy doesn’t age well, unless it’s REALLY funny. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) is still really funny, it’s sequels, not so much. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) might one day overtake Airplane! and The Naked Gun as funniest film ever. But none of those sequels has a chance because they will never feel original.
Shaun of the Dead felt like a sequel to Spaced. It is a pleasant film to watch, and I won’t begrudge you that. But does it belong in the annuls of history as one of the great funny British movies? Sure, but our offerings are weak, generally. It doesn’t belong in a conversation of funniest films of all time, against the rest of the world.
If I had to add a British entry, we’re going to have to go with The Plank (1967) which is silent(ish), and entirely slapstick. Just two guys moving a plank of wood. It’s the premise for so many other comedy references, but it still stands on its own.