Shaun of the Dead
dir. Wright
Opens Fri Sept 24
Various Theaters

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 so Shaun's mundane life goes on--he shambles from work to home and back again, with detours for pints with Ed and fights with Liz--and everything's extraordinarily unextraordinary.

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 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 Evils, to the remake of George Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead--the U.K.-made (and beloved) Shaun is the clear spiritual and intellectual winner, a film that simultaneously respects and satirizes the zombie genre. I spoke with co-writer/director Edgar Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg about how and why they decided to make Shaun.

"We're massive fans of the genre," Wright says. "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 slacker-cum-heroes. Venturing out into zombie-infested London to save 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."

But 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.

"Evil Dead II is one of my favorite films of all time, and also Peter Jackson's Dead Alive I really like," says Pegg. "But the difference with those, especially with Dead Alive, is it kind of sets [itself] up straightaway--in the first 90 seconds of Dead Alive, you see somebody getting torn apart. Whereas with Shaun, we almost wanted to have people buy a ticket to a zombie film, and then by the 25-minute mark, they've forgotten that they're watching a zombie film." Pegg adds, "We wanted to make a zombie chick flick. It's kind of a two-pronged attack: it's a valentine to George Romero and a satire of British rom-coms as well."

"The great thing is that when we started writing the film, we thought it was the only one out there," Wright concludes. "28 Days Later hadn't happened, and neither had the [Romero] remake. So it went from being like 'Hey, let's write the next great zombie film' to 'Hey, let's have the last word in zombie films.'"