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Before There Was "Scott Pilgrim" There Was "Shaun of the Dead"

By Christopher Campbell | Spout August 11, 2010 at 4:30AM

Plenty of film directors repeat themselves with regards to plot, genre and themes. But Edgar Wright's decision to tackle "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" nevertheless left me stunned. He'd already done an excellent job with an original script that similarly -- yet more metaphorically -- is structured around a man's human obstacles standing in the way of his romantic happiness. This better, earlier work is his feature debut, the zombie-filled romantic comedy (or "zom-rom-com") "Shaun of the Dead."
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Plenty of film directors repeat themselves with regards to plot, genre and themes. But Edgar Wright's decision to tackle "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" nevertheless left me stunned. He'd already done an excellent job with an original script that similarly -- yet more metaphorically -- is structured around a man's human obstacles standing in the way of his romantic happiness. This better, earlier work is his feature debut, the zombie-filled romantic comedy (or "zom-rom-com") "Shaun of the Dead."

Released in 2004, "Shaun" was one of three brilliant films from that year dealing with a deconstruction of what love is. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" breaks it down into memories. "Birth" also concerns a cerebral aspect, though its handling of memories is less dream-like and also less memento-centric. It's more about a superficial understanding and knowledge of the romantic partner. "Shaun" looks at the people in both a character and his partner's life whom the couple must "get over" or eliminate in order to be a functioning romantic duo.

The people Wright (with co-screenwriter/star Simon Pegg) employs in his itemization of personal obstacles are, in order, the boy's flatmate, the boy's step-father, the boy's mother, the girl's second suitor, the girl's flatmate/best friend and finally the boy's best friend (also a representation of his youth/immaturity). Instead of merely working out these relationships dramatically, they are easily (though not unemotionally) disposed of by way of flesh-eating zombies. Still, some characters must be doubly defeated by "removing the head or destroying the brain" once they too become "the zed word."

I can see "Shaun" as a video game, in which the ongoing objective is to re-kill the walking dead and then each level ends with one of your ensemble being transformed into a zombie which must then be dealt with. Like many simple games, the framework of the film is rather straightforward and predictable: guy tries to survive, eliminates major enemy, tries to survive, eliminates major enemy, and again and again until the final villain is defeated and the guy gets the girl. There are complications with this analogy. Some characters aren't outright defeated, and the ending of "Shaun" is very abrupt and highly convenient. But like a video game it's not so much about the conclusion as how it's played on the way to it.

The same goes for Wright's latest movie, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," yet it has a more obvious and intended video game structure. In order to date his dream girl, the title character (Michael Cera) must literally defeat each of her seven exes in an order implying that each subsequent former squeeze is tougher than the one previous -- a la video game "bosses." Having all the obstacles represent pretty much the same thing means "Scott Pilgrim" is more tedious than "Shaun." It's also more calculable. At least with the zombie movie, which has to obey a certain narrative that gets us to a relative happy ending, there is a less specifically foreseeable ending than in the newer film, during which you're always just anticipating the final battle. But like "Shaun" it works because of the fun and witty script navigating us through the firm structure.

"Shaun" does transcend its genre better. Fans of horror and romantic comedy come together, yet it's hilariously accessible to anyone who enjoys a smart, entertaining movie that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, some of which don't even reveal themselves until secondary viewings (in my opinion it's the best intricately detailed comedy script since "Heathers"). I doubt "Scott Pilgrim" will work to as wide an audience, particularly that which isn't as immersed in (not just familiar with) comics, video games, sitcoms and other pop culture media. I'll admit that I enjoyed it more than I expected, especially being a video game hater (well, not hater so much as someone who avoids them out of disinterest). And having only seen it once, I can't say if it has fewer jokes and easter eggs to be found with multiple viewings.

I'll be looking at "Scott Pilgrim" later this week for a Spout About discussion prompt, but I will say that compared to "Shaun" it also pales with regard to character development. The earlier film sets up its players and relationships a lot more naturally whereas "Scott Pilgrim" depends on quick expository titles to tell us who each of the many characters is. Another terrific aspect of Wright and Pegg's script for "Shaun" is that it utilizes a repetition model to introduce us to people, situations and motifs which will later be revisited -- with contrasting or slightly modified details -- mostly for comedic effect but also for communication of subtle traits and conflicts going on between Shaun (Pegg) and the rest of the characters. Ultimately, we care more about the people in "Shaun" than "Scott Pilgrim."

And of course we laugh more, too. "Shaun" is one of the funniest movies of the last 25 years -- both in terms of immediate laugh-out-loud gags and more extensive, complex and subtle humor. It combines spoof, observational social commentary, black comedy, romantic comedy, slapstick and many other comedy varieties in a way that has to please everyone at least part of the time. There is absolutely no reason for you to have not seen it yet, even if you are of the squeamish sort. You'll be laughing too hard to be grossed out by the blood and torn limbs.

Those of you who have seen it, what do you love most about "Shaun of the Dead"?


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