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It’s not every day you get a zombie film crossed with a romantic British comedy. And that’s probably a good thing. Because in the wrong hands, such an odd combination could turn into to a very unpalatable, messy affair. But it’s in the right hands, apparently, and it turns into Shaun of the Dead, a rambunctiously entertaining, morbidly playful lampoon of that old reliable genre of horror film in which the dead lurch back to life and devour the living.
Welcome newcomer Simon Pegg stars as Shaun, an affable 29-year-old who has no apparent ambition in life other than to serve as sales associate at a London appliance store. His relationship with girlfriend Liz is on the skids, mainly because he spends all his free time drinking at the neighborhood pub or settled into his home couch, playing videogames with his mooch of friend, Ed (Nick Frost).
Shaun goes from zero to hero overnight, as London is suddenly overrun by flesh-eating zombies. They’re your typical garden variety of living dead — as slow as slugs, with milky-eyes and just a hint of decay. To disable the lumbering, stumbling creatures, the conventional wisdom — set in gravestones years ago by George A. Romero’s classic shocker Night of the Living Dead — applies. As one stiff-upper-lipped British newscaster puts it: “Remove the head or destroy the brain.” And so, armed with a cricket bat and an overwhelming resolve to survive, Shaun leads a merry band — including his mum, his girlfriend, Ed and a couple of friends — to the local pub, where they grab a few drinks and await what appears to be an inevitable gruesome fate.
Written by Pegg and director Edgar Wright, Shaun of the Dead draws on Romero’s Dawn of the Dead for its comic inspiration. Horror aficionados will appreciate the direct nods to Romero’s work, including the clever use of Musak in one throwaway moment that recalls the fact that Dawn was set in a shopping mall, and a rather startling (but hardly unexpected) sequence in which the dead dig into a character’s chest and pull out the guts.
Wright directs with visual wit to spare, playfully poking fun at the tired scare tactic of people bursting into frame from the sides accompanied by a loud sound. The funny thing is that Wright succeeds in getting us to jump out of our seats with more frequency than most honest-to-goodness horror films.
As expected, there’s an abundance of blood-splattering and limb-ripping. But the gore goes down easy and breezy because it’s presented with such gleeful tongue-in-cheek gusto. The movie’s frivolity is underscored by a few deeply — and surprisingly — poignant moments, including one involving a grief-stricken Shaun who loses a loved one to zombification.
The broader satire comes into play early on, as Wright and Pegg make a correlation that our modern lives are dictated by repetition, that we’re all so bored we’re already in a state of walking death. Indeed, despite the persistent howl of emergency sirens, Shaun barely notices anything’s wrong. “Sorry, I haven’t got any change,” he says, brushing past a moaning zombie whom he mistakes for a panhandler. The movie is, in effect, about Shaun’s awakening to the world around him and his rededication to the people who matter in his life. It’s this extra touch that allows Shaun of the Dead to transcend basic farce and enter a realm of full emotional resonance. It’s rare that a parody achieves such depth, and rarer still that the characters are anything more than flimsy cut-outs. But Shaun of the Dead is a singularity among the clones it so deftly and ingeniously parodies.