The Best Horror Movie of 2004: Shaun of the Dead

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The Best Horror Movie of 2004: Shaun of the Dead

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

American horror cinema returns to prominence in 2004, a stronger year overall than the one that preceded it, although the output from Asia is still firing on all cylinders as well. This is a particularly pan-Asian year for the genre, in fact, as the anthology Three … Extremes contains segments from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, while the year is also home to Dumplings from China (a segment of Three…Extremes made into a feature) and Shutter from Thailand. The latter would eventually receive its own American remake, as the craze for Asian horror remakes was still in full swing at the time, but director Banjong Pisanthanakun’s film has to be considered the definitive version of this urban legend-style story.

In the U.S., meanwhile, this is a year where the top few films proved to be extremely influential on the shape and tone of the next decade. Both this year’s zombie classics (Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead) and the splatter revelation of Saw would inspire waves of imitators and revitalize their genres.

Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is the hellish flipside to Edgar Wright’s uproarious humor in Shaun, a film that pulled off the task of updating George Romero’s 1978 classic far more ably than most would have expected. Most vividly, it truly captures a sense of sudden and completely chaotic societal collapse, especially in the stellar first 20 minutes, as Sarah Polley’s character Ana awakes to a world that has gone completely insane overnight. With her husband dead, she flees through the streets, which have become a charnel house of wrecked cars, flaming bodies and hordes of the fast-moving dead. Like 28 Days Later, Snyder’s film got maximum impact out of the unexpectedly profound change from “slow zombies” to “fast zombies,” altering the basic feel of Romero’s universe in a way that is pervasive but merely different, rather than damaging. Although the purists resist such an idea to this day, it gives this film a verve and immediacy that makes each encounter with the dead a true scrabble for survival. Combined with the array of colorful characters—the rooftop game of shooting zombies that look like certain celebrities is pretty funny—the film is ultimately a worthy successor to Romero’s mantle, especially in its bleak as hell ending.

Saw, on the other hand, can be seen as a progenitor of the splatter horror substyle that eventually ended up being derogatorily referred to as “torture porn,” although the original film in the series doesn’t truly feel like it deserves that label—not in the same way as the Saw sequels, or the films they inspired such as Hostel or Wolf Creek. Rather, the original Saw plays more like a fiendish mystery, of the type that might once have starred Boris Karloff as a mad scientist subjecting a group of people to a series of sadistic games of survival. Even more so than the series it directly leads into, however, the most important contribution of Saw to the modern horror landscape is likely director/super producer James Wan, who would go on to define the look and feel of 2010s supernatural horror films in the Insidious and The Conjuring series.

2004 Honorable Mentions: Dawn of the Dead, Saw, Three … Extremes, Shutter, The Village, Dumplings, Secret Window, Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed, The Grudge

The Film: Shaun of the Dead
Director: Edgar Wright

If 2002 indisputably resurrected the zombie film at cinemas via 28 Days Later, then it was 2004 that completed the comeback, offering up the best year for zombie movies since the 1980s, and perfecting the “zom-com” in the process. The current wave of zombie appreciation we rode through the 2010s and into the present day really has its roots here—via Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead for legitimate zombie horror, and Shaun of the Dead as the genre’s most perfect satire. Meanwhile, on the comics side of the equation, The Walking Dead began publishing in October of 2003, further cementing this two-year stretch as the genesis point for all our current zombie fiction.

Shaun of the Dead is a brilliant illustration of the key tenet of horror comedy: Anything can be a source of humor, depending on how it’s presented. Serial killers and slasher villains can be comic foils. Monsters can be funny. Zombies can be a laugh riot—what matters is how the protagonists react to them, which sets the tone for how the audience is meant to perceive the film’s antagonists. Films like Shaun of the Dead can still have emotional, pathos-building moments, but those moments come and go quickly, never undermining the humorous tone for too long. Whereas the overarching tone of the average Romero zombie movie is one of a ceaseless battle against entropy and hopelessness, the tone of something like Shaun of the Dead is that of a petulant teenager being forced to grow up and accept his responsibilities. The zombies here don’t actually behave any differently than those from the likes of Night of the Living Dead—it’s the characters who behave differently around them, reacting to the emergence of the undead with a tone that is more “casually unnerved” than hopeless or panicked.

The first of the three films dubbed as Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto” trilogy (the others being Hot Fuzz and The World’s End), Shaun of the Dead was an early demonstration of the traits that make Wright’s films such lively, engaging experiences. He gets an incredible amount of mileage out of visual comedy and comedy embedded within physical action and movement, helped along by dynamic editing that can turn mundane activities into comic punchlines—think of, for instance, the “paperwork” action montages within Hot Fuzz. In Shaun of the Dead, that lively and energetic editing style makes a nice contrast to Shaun’s own lazy, slacker personality, and a lack of awareness that is played for huge laughs in the long one-shot of Simon Pegg wandering through a wrecked London, failing to realize that the zombie apocalypse has occurred. Many zombie films had already made the basic observation that “we are the zombies,” but none of them nailed the cynical question of “how different is the zombie apocalypse from everyday life, really?” with this kind of cleverness.

At the same time, the film never forgets about its roots in the horror genre; nor does it try to innovate in terms of the “rules” of its movie monster of choice. These are genuine, Romero-style zombies, and they will absolutely tear you to pieces if given the opportunity. Just look at what happens to poor David, for god’s sake—it’s a sequence so intensely gory and gruesome that it’s a little hard to believe it actually happens within the framework of a comedy. Taken completely out of context, one would think this scene was an excerpt from some lost Romero classic, and that’s a major factor as to why Shaun of the Dead simultaneously works so well as both comedy and legitimate zombie film. It is truly the best of both worlds, and we never could have had something like Zombieland without it. Modern horror comedy in general has often been built with Edgar Wright’s instant classic as a blueprint, and you can hardly blame other filmmakers for turning to it for inspiration.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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