Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorite movies. No matter how many times I watch it, and I watch it a lot, I discover new things to love about it. My wife and I caught it on cable a few weeks ago, so naturally we left it on. It was on this viewing that Simon Pegg’s performance stuck out to me in ways it never has before and it left me wondering why.
It’s not like I didn’t respond to him before; quite the opposite actually. It’s the performance that put him on the map for me (I hadn’t seen Spaced yet) and I loved him immediately. He’s at the heart of some of my favorite scenes in the movie, from the always hilarious slip-on-the-blood moment in the convenience store, to his delivery of “Thanks, babe.” Also, whenever my wife and I hear the name Pete, we instinctively turn to each other and cautiously say in our best Pegg voices, “Pete… Pete…”
My point is I’ve always loved him as the titular Shaun, but this last time around his performance became something else to me.
I’ve always given Shaun of the Dead -- and specifically Edgar Wright -- credit for brilliantly balancing the funny with the horror, tonal shifts that are seamless. Obviously more credit needs to go around, like to Pegg as co-writer with Wright on the script, and the cast as a whole deserves a lot of love as well. For the purposes of the piece, however, I’ll single out Pegg, along with Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton, as being responsible for the two big emotional, gut-punch moments in the film when Shaun is forced to confront his mother and step-father’s deaths.
So rarely in horror films do we actually care about the characters when they die, let alone give a shit about the characters having to deal with the deaths of their loved ones. Shaun of the Dead does that better than most and these scenes proves that out.
The real gut-punch moment comes later when Shaun discovers his mother, Barbara, has been bitten. As she lay dying in Shaun’s arms, he pleads with her not to go. And while the emotional scene with Nighy relied on Pegg’s facial expressions to react to his stepfather’s last moments, in this scene Pegg is allowed to really break down and lay everything out. The next few minutes are a wild ride that end with a heartbreaking, “I’m sorry, mum.” I could spell out beat-for-beat what happens in this scene and why it works, but as hard as I try I can’t find the words to do it justice. I’ll advise you to just throw Shaun of the Dead on and let the performances speak for themselves.