[WARNING: The following retrospective features mild spoilers for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. If you have not watched them, I highly suggest you do. Then come back and read what I have to say. Peace!]
One of the absolute best movie trilogies of the 21st century has to be the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. Three movies, three genres, and many returning cast and crew members. All three movies are directed by Edgar Wright, written by Simon Pegg and Wright, starring Pegg and Nick Frost, and they are all comedies set in England. Fun thing is: this was not intended to be a trilogy! It unofficially became one when an interviewer pointed out the use of the Cornetto ice cream in the first two movies, and Wright jokingly said that they represent a trilogy comparable to Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy.
Today, I revisit the entire trilogy, first taking a quick look at each film and how they are relevant to me, and then diving deeper into what makes them work and thematic connections. Are you ready to get annihilated?
a) The Movies
1) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The movie is a tribute to zombie movies, such as the first three George Romero classics (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead), and Lucio Fulci’s 80s gorefests (City of the Living Dead, Zombi 2). Not only is it a zombie movie, but it is also a romantic comedy, in which our hero Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) is trying to turn his life around and get back his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield).
When I was young I was utterly terrified by anything related to horror movies: looking at the DVD covers in the shops was very hard to do, and simply catching a trailer on TV would give me nightmares for weeks on end. It was thanks to Shaun of the Dead that I managed to conquer my fear: being funny while also being gory and scary is not easy, yet it was the comedy that helped me get over not watching horror movies, and now I regularly try to watch horrors. And for that, I hold this movie near and dear to my heart.
But I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it: not only was it a critical and financial success, but it was also highly acclaimed by the likes of Stephen King, George Romero, and Quentin Tarantino. Needless to say, Edgar Wright and co. garnered the respect of a lot of people, and has since become a cult classic for both fans of zombie movies and comedies.
2) Hot Fuzz (2007)
Hot Fuzz was the first movie of the trilogy that I saw, and I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I was 10 years old, and I saw an ad for the movie in a gaming magazine; coincidentally, on that same day my parents had just rented a DVD copy of the film, seeing as it was advertised as an action-comedy. Boy, was I in for a treat! Aside from the fact that each death scene with the hooded figures scarred my young mind (remember that I was still very afraid about those things), I was loving the humour, and I was loving the action.
Pegg and Wright set out to write a script that featured every action movie cliché known to man, and not only did they succeed, but they managed to create one of the most rewatchable movies of all time. I have seen the story of perfect policeman-officer Nicolas Angel 8 times, and I still find new jokes, clever call-backs, and background details that make each viewing feel fresh.
This entry is regarded by most to be the best in the trilogy, due to being heavy on jokes and closer to a parody than the other films, and it is also the highest-grossing one. After the success of Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright went on to direct the excellent comic-book adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs The World, while Pegg and Frost worked on the Greg Mottola directed Paul. After these projects, it was time to close the trilogy, once and for all.
3) The World’s End (2013)
The story ventures into sci-fi territory, with a plot similar to films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives, but at its core it is a story about friendship and growing up: a group of childhood friends goes back to their hometown to complete the Golden Mile, a pub crawl that they failed to complete when they were young; however, there is something weird about the townspeople, and they soon find out that they might be the only ones who can save the world from a sort of alien invasion.
As of right now, this is the only Edgar Wright movie I have seen in theatres: I managed to watch it with my dad when we were on holiday in Dublin, and we both had a blast (even if, at the time, we were not able to understand every single line). This movie is widely considered to be the weakest of the trilogy, and I think that that is due to wrong expectations: after six years, everyone was ready to watch a parody of alien invasion movies, yet they got a serious and melancholic movie, focused more on telling a coherent and compelling character story than simply being a fun film. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of laughs to be had, and the cinematography and editing are my favourites out of all three films, but I guess many were let down by the whole film (even though it was still critically and commercially successful).
b) The Comedy
Before 1927, comedy was achieved exclusively through visual gags, and master comedians like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin achieved legendary status thanks to clever movies made with passion. After The Jazz Singer came out and films stopped being silent, comedy became more focused on telling jokes. Edgar Wright manages to blend both visual gags with clever lines of dialogue.
The comedy can be of multiple types: it can be achieved through editing, long-takes, quick cuts, call-backs, pop culture references, sound effects, and music cues. The pacing in this trilogy never slows down, mostly thanks to the great editing by Chris Dickens (in the first two films) and Paul Machliss: in Shaun of the Dead there are multiple ellipsis to quicken mundane actions; in Hot Fuzz there are over 5000 cuts, making fun of the overly-edited films of Tony Scott and Michael Bay; in The World’s End there are mostly longer shots, especially during action scenes, employing a more dynamic camera to showcase the great effects and stunt-work.
The humour itself is very British, coming from the school of comedy of Monty Python: swear words are used differently than Americans do, there is a bigger emphasis on visuals, and there is always something very absurd that comes out of day-to-day situations. These are the reasons why we all come back to these movies: the detailed sets, smart jokes and clever visuals make each viewing feel like the first one, and you never get tired of them.
c) The Themes
The three movies are of different genres: horror, action, and sci-fi. However, there are multiple themes that are present, and they evolve and move forward with each instalment.
The first theme is growing up. The main characters of each movie (always portrayed by Simon Pegg) represent different people who are always stuck in the past and their childhood: Shaun has accomplished nothing in life, he has a repetitive and boring job, and he always goes to the Winchester Pub with his friends and girlfriend, but during the movie he decides to change lifestyle and become a more active human being; Nicolas Angel always dreamt of becoming a police officer, and once he became part of the force he was so perfect that he was neglecting any sort of social life, focused more on working instead of spending some time with his girlfriend or watching movies; Gary King has never grown up since 1990, becoming delusional, thinking that life could never get better than the day he and his friends attempted the Golden Mile, instead of trying to go on with his life like the rest of the group did (even though they were not leading happy lives).
The past is always haunting these characters, holding them back and preventing them from becoming better persons. This is what makes each and every one of them so relatable: growing up and accepting your responsibilities is hard; the past always looks better than the present, even when, in reality, it really wasn’t; trying to achieve perfection always has its costs. Even if the movies are comedies, there is still a strong sense of sadness with their characters, elevating what could have been serviceable films to something much stronger and emotionally resonant.
Another aspect that is heavily featured is the role of society. In Shaun of the Dead it very much pays homage to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead: in today’s technological world, where everyone is always linked to the rest of the world, we are becoming more and more braindead, going through the motions of life without any real passion or reason to care. In Hot Fuzz, the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance is trying to make their hometown as perfect as possible, literally eliminating anyone who thinks or acts in a way that bothers them, just like in many groups people are not accepted for some minor flaws, thus actively being cast away into oblivion, instead of accepting everyone’s differences. In The World’s End, the Network is just like any other big corporation: creating something safe that appeals to everyone, at the cost of losing cultural identity and any sort of humanity; living in a world where everyone drinks the same beer or drives the same car gives a false sense of security, instead completely removing personal freedom and individuality. All the characters of these movies are flawed, and they live in a flawed society that is trying to reach a utopia where everyone is fine; is this really what we want from our lives?
Finally, I have to address the theme of homosexuality: if you are one of those who loves to find gay undertones in fiction, you are going to have a blast with these movies. The relationship that blossoms between the characters of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost has always been to me the perfect portrayal of two best friends, who are so close that their bond is borderline romantic. Fun fact: in Hot Fuzz, Nicolas Angel was supposed to have a love interest, but that character was removed completely, instead giving some of her lines to Andy.
With the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, Wright, Penn, and Frost have inspired a multitude of up-and-coming filmmakers. The movies have revitalized the comedy genre and have shown once again how powerful the medium can be when every aspect of it is used to its fullest potential. Not only that, but they also created genuinely effective movies in their respective genres! For all of these reasons, the Cornetto Trilogy remains my favourite trilogy of all time: whenever I watch one of them, I feel the need to watch the others right after. They work as standalones, but they are even better when watched back to back, for they tell an overarching story of personal growth that, ironically, has helped me grow up and turn my life around.
How’s that for a slice of fried gold?