Dead Set on Romance

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the creators of Shaun of the Dead, had the rare distinction for a writer/director team of having made the greatest film of its genre. Of course, at the time of it’s debut, they’d also made the only film of its genre. Though it’s since been joined by other, lesser films in the great 21st century zombie-product invasion, Shaun of the Dead was at one point the world’s first, and best, zombie romantic comedy (or “zom-rom-com”, as Pegg pegged it), and it pulled off the very neat trick of spinning back and forth effortlessly between screamingly funny lines, gory shock-horror, and moments of genuine emotion.

In the film, we are introduced to a twenty-something loser named Shaun, whose life is stuck in a rather deep rut thanks to a dead-end job, a rocky romance and a hilariously codependent relationship with his roommate Ed, whose most noteworthy characteristic is being an even bigger failure than Shaun. “Shaun shuffles around at work like a zombie, he’s like a zombie in his relationship, even his friendship with Ed is on autopilot.  “It takes both being dumped and a zombie invasion for Shaun to come to life.” explained Wright when I interviewed him, along with Pegg and co-star Nick Frost, before the film opened in 2004.  They were, being on English time, already drunk in their hotel room at 11AM.

Lucky for Shaun – and for us – that’s exactly what happens: as the film gets rolling, London is invaded by the flesh-eating undead (although it takes a while for him to notice). Wright, Pegg, and Frost, as the scene-stealing Ed, started with the popular British sitcom Spaced before going onto fame, riches, and appearances in megabucks Marvel and Star Franchise films.  The uphill battle they faced in moving from television to film and from the UK to the US didn’t worry them: they received a terrific reception from American audiences of both the nerd and near-nerd communities, and the film generated a lot of buzz before becoming an undisputed cult classic. “It’s not about anything culturally baffling,” said Pegg; “It’s a story about people – about humans and very human emotions such as love and redemption and responsibility. Just because it’s set in North London doesn’t mean it doesn’t translate, though we don’t make an attempt to be transatlantic in any way. And I think that’s a testament to the fact that cinema audiences are intelligent. It’s often assumed that they’re not. I think audiences are underestimated much of the time.”

Of course, plenty of British romantic comedies have scored in the United States throughout the 1990s, but none of had them featured zombies. What could possibly explain the eternal appeal of the living dead? Maybe it’s because, as zombie godfather/ür-filmmaker George Romero — one of Wright and Peggs’ idols — has always maintained, they’re the ultimate metaphor: “Zombies really do lend themselves to allegory,” explains Pegg. “They are us, essentially – there’s nothing monstrous about them. They’re just us, dead. By their very definition, they’re the embodiment of our worst fears. So they’re very useful as a mirror up to society. They’re very handy metaphors, zombies.”

And the combination of horror and comedy, as plenty of American films over the last decade have proven, isn’t as incongruous as it once was. “I always found it interesting that Peter Jackson would talk about any kind of makeup effect or any kind of shock as a ‘gag’”, said Wright with a fan’s energy and enthusiasm. “Somebody’s arm gets chopped off, and it’s a ‘gag’. And it led me to thinking that there’s not a lot of difference between staging a successful shock or gore moment and a successful physical joke. So in that sense, there’s really a lot of similarity between the artistry behind, say, Halloween and Airplane.”

The deft combination of shock and satire is hardly unique to Shaun of the Dead – its creators are the first ones to credit its genesis to Romero, whose Dawn of the Dead gave the comedy its name and inspiration. “This is a valentine to George Romero,” Pegg admitted. “We tried to stay faithful to his original movie, but add a touch of comedy.” There’s more than a touch – Shaun is more com than rom (if more zom than com), and features endlessly quotable dialogue, drop-dead funny moments, and the enigmatic question: can dogs look up? It draws on nearly every zombie movie ever made, but at the time, it was s the kind of movie that most fans had very likely never seen before. As Wright put it, “It’s definitely a labor of love. We wanted to do a zombie film in our own way – to show the end of the world through a narrow focus, namely that of two guys on a couch.”

Those two guys on the couch made a big impact overseas before becoming darlings of the hip geek set with Hot Fuzz and The World’s End; Shaun of the Dead, the first of the ‘Three Flavors Cornetto’ series, was a success in the United Kingdom with both fans and critics — success that Wright, Pegg and Frost were able to repeat here in the U.S. Is there anything they were afraid of? Maybe so: “We’ll probably end up like those people in GalaxyQuest,”, Frost noted with some prescience due to his friend Pegg’s later assumption of the role of Scotty in the Star Trek reboot series, “just repeating the same lines when we’re in our forties.”  Wright woozily chimed in, unaware of his own future wearing a colored Star Fleet tunic for the amusement of nerds: “Are we going to be paraded through the streets as Kings of the Geeks?”

Well, yes and no. For all its built-in cult potential, Shaun’s appeal was much broader than that, as was apparent the more Wright talked about the movie: “In terms of comedy – the UK has such a grand tradition of it. The comparison’s not quite right, but I almost want to mention Mike Leigh, in terms of doing sort of a ‘naturalistic’ zombie picture. There’s not much that happens in the film that doesn’t happen in real life,” he laughs, “apart from the zombies.”  Ah, and therein lies the game.

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