Shaun of the Dead
dir. Edgar Wright
Opens Fri Sept 24.

Shaun (Simon Pegg) is the very definition of a normal guy. In his late 20s, he's bright, yet hardly motivated. Working at a monotonous, unfulfilling job, he comes home to a suburban house that he shares with his slacker friend Ed (Nick Frost) and their roommate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz). Besides playing PlayStation 2 and kicking it with Ed at the Winchester, their neighborhood pub, Shaun's biggest hassle is accepting the end of his relationship with Liz (Kate Ashfield), who's starting to perceive Shaun as the useless layabout he's in danger of becoming.

And then the zombies show up and Shaun of the Dead goes from being merely enjoyable to something flat-out brilliant.

A sharp, clever, and gory horror-comedy that manages to be as scary as it is hilarious, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's Shaun of the Dead shows all the marks of becoming a cult classic (and yeah, I know that sounds clichéd--but in this case, it's actually true). In the recent glut of financially successful zombie flicks--from 28 Days Later, to the Resident Evil movies, to the remake of George Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead--the UK-made (and beloved) Shaun is the clear spiritual and intellectual winner, a film that simultaneously respects and satirizes the zombie genre.

"We're massive fans of the genre," director Wright told me when I spoke to both him and his star/co-writer, Pegg. "We wanted to do something that was a zombie film and a horror film, but we just wanted to find our own spin on it. I suppose really it came out of the idea of doing a very literal 'What would happen if I woke up on a Sunday morning with a hangover and there was a zombie in my backyard?'"

And that's exactly how it plays out. Shaun--after his initial denial that "Z-Day" is actually happening--snaps into action once zombies show up in his yard. While Shaun and Ed have some success whipping Shaun's old LPs at the zombies' heads, things don't really get going until Shaun grabs his cricket bat, Ed starts swinging a shovel, and the two decide upon (or perhaps just accept) their fate as slackers-cum-heroes. Venturing out into zombie-infested London to save their friend Liz and Shaun's mum from the undead, they soon come up with a plan to hole up in the safest place they can think of: the Winchester.

"In a lot of horror films--and certainly in the zombie genre--it's always about a bunch of strangers being thrown together," Wright observes. "What we wanted to examine is when the same thing occurs to a group of friends and family... and then how the zombie epidemic exacerbates their relationships."

That seemingly-ridiculous juxtaposition--zombie infestations and familial dynamics--is perhaps why Shaun succeeds as much as it does. One moment two characters are discussing their relationship over some pints, and the next they're sizing up what makeshift weapons they have at hand to stay alive. The all-out fun of Shaun is largely due to how well those apparently disparate halves come together, creating an uproarious, surprisingly organic, (and oddly believable) whole.

But that unexpected combination and Shaun's lighthearted tone also make the film prone to another description. "We really hesitate to use the word 'spoof,' because the horror element and the zombie elements are played quite straight," Wright insists. Sure, the comedy enters in, as do the likable characterizations of the protagonists, but it's all in service to the greater, zombie-oriented cause. "We just wanted to create some believable and sympathetic characters that the audience would empathize with," Wright explains, before he throws in the punch line, "That makes it all the more crushing as they start to get picked off."

From its biting humor to its sly subtexts (when you think about it, Shaun's daily grind isn't too removed from the mindless lurching of the zombie masses, and Wright and Pegg get in a few none-too-subtle jabs at 28 Days Later and the remade Dawn of the Dead), Shaun doesn't hesitate to set itself apart from the very movies it draws inspiration from. As both a modern zombie flick and a witty postmodern treatise on prior ones, it's a film that should appeal to longtime zombie fans and newcomers alike.

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