The zombie genre returns to life in `Shaun of the Dead'

This mutation enters realm of romantic comedies

Movies: On Screen/DVD/Video

September 23, 2004|By Phoebe Flowers | Phoebe Flowers,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

Just about everything you need to know about Shaun of the Dead, one of the brightest, funniest and most cheerfully revolting movies opening this fall, can be summed up by the movie's advertisements: It's a romantic comedy. With zombies.

The marriage of youthful relationship struggles with the flesh-eating living dead might seem inherently troubled. But in the playful hands of British co-writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer-star Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead seems like a logical amalgam of genres.

A lot of that has to do with Wright and Pegg's roots. Avid fans of George Romero's classic zombie trilogy -- Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead -- the duo also created a British sitcom, Spaced, which focused on the young and listless. In one episode, Pegg's character finds himself trapped in the video game Resident Evil 2, confronting zombies. According to Wright, that was when the idea of Shaun was spawned.

The horror-comedy furthers the pair's professed goal to create antidotes to a "chocolate-box view of London," as typified by the films of Richard Curtis (Love Actually), whom Wright and Pegg seem to casually regard as the Antichrist.

They're not too fond of English sitcoms, either. "We wrote Spaced because we were sick of those sort of twentysomething sitcoms where everyone is really beautiful and hangs out in wine bars and talks about sex all the time," Pegg says, referring to the BBC hit Coupling, which was unsuccessfully remade last year by NBC. "If you've watched Coupling, you should really watch Spaced, because it will take the nasty taste out of your mouth," Pegg adds, as Wright laughs. (Spaced, meanwhile, seems unlikely to ever be released on DVD in North America, due to the issue of music clearances.)

Like Spaced, Shaun of the Dead is set in the suburbs of North London. It follows a few very eventful days in the life of Shaun (Pegg), a 29-year-old struggling to stave off the boredom of his retail job and the gradual collapse of his relationship with Liz (Kate Ashfield). Liz has grown tired of Shaun's inability to grow up, and his insistence on spending most of his time at a seedy pub with his preternaturally lazy best friend, Ed (Nick Frost).

But these mundane problems take a back seat when London is overtaken by flesh-eating zombies, and Shaun and Ed find themselves in the unlikely roles of crusading heroes.

Coming on the heels of last summer's British hit 28 Days Later, and this year's surprisingly inventive Dawn of the Dead remake, Shaun of the Dead seems positioned to capitalize on zombie interest.

"We found out about 28 Days Later during the writing process, and I spoke to Andrew Macdonald, the producer, and I said, `Oh, I'm making a zombie film,'" Pegg says. "And he said, `Oh, so am I, kind of.' We were both, like, so distraught, because we each thought we were the only zombie film in production. Fortunately, 28 Days is a nice take on some of the conventions of the zombie film, but it's not a zombie film, you know, it's a sort of virus movie."

Wright agrees that Danny Boyle's thriller has actually been a boon. "It helps us in some respects, because with young viewers who maybe haven't seen the original Romero version, they've got a much more current point of reference," Wright says. "They've got 28 Days Later and they've got the Dawn of the Dead remake. What's nice is, in the U.K. we came out two weeks after the Dawn of the Dead remake. They were really sort of sandwiched together. It's great, because it created a zombie sort of zeitgeist."

Though the film is comedic, the zombies in Shaun of the Dead are played straight and adhere to the Romero school of staggering around very, very slowly. "The Dawn of the Dead remake bizarrely decided to emulate 28 Days Later and have their zombies running around like crazy things," Pegg says. "Which meant that we managed to at least retain our sort of retro originality -- which is not originality at all -- by appealing to the George Romero fan. Here's a sort of slow, useless, almost nonaggressive zombie." The reason, he says, was simple: "Slow zombies just give you so much of a chance to characterize them."

In fact, both Pegg and Wright talk about zombies with a rhapsodic sincerity that is surprising from guys who have put such a hilarious spin on the genre. "The fact is, they are us," Pegg says of zombies. "And that's what makes it so fascinating.

"They're us. They're walking embodiments of our greatest fears: a) death, and b) the fact that all we are is feeders and breeders. That we're not sort of divine creatures who are going to go to heaven after we die, we're actually going to wander around doing the same thing we did before. Which is terrifying. More frightening than Dracula."

Inevitably, of course, even a funny movie about zombies must find itself grappling with some incongruously serious moments. "You've spent so much time with these characters, and you learn to love them and get to know them, that you [have to] treat their deaths with dignity," Wright says. "If they were dismissed in a jokey, splatty death scene, then the whole thing would descend into camp."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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