What’s a zombie got to do to get some respect these days? The rabid undead who rampaged through London in 28 Days Later gave their all for a bit of fright cred, and there were plenty of moments of old-school terror in Zack Snyder’s reimagined Dawn of the Dead. But mostly, zombie culture in modern movies carries its own flashing laugh sign: Who among us with eyes locked on the computer screen or ears plugged into an MP3 player isn’t a zombie by association? The daffy, innately British joke that propels the cheeky U.K. comedy hit Shaun of the Dead is that although real zombies have risen up – once again in London (what is it about fish-and-chips and flesh eaters?) – slacker wankers Shaun (Simon Pegg) and his best pal and roommate, Ed (Nick Frost), are too slack, wankerish, and blitheringly British to notice. Shaun’s horizon stretches only from the shop where he’s an electronics salesman to the local pub – much to the exasperation of his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield). And that’s already farther than Ed can fathom, catatonic in front of the telly.
Pegg, who wrote the script with his own best pal, Edgar Wright, then left it to Wright to direct, pulls off some price-less early moments, when it’s a toss-up who’s deader – Shaun, oblivious on his bleary morning round to buy a junky breakfast at the convenience store across the road, or the flesh-hungry ghouls who trail him. Later, once he’s gotten a clue, Shaun and Ed work up a fine fuss over how best to dispatch the intruding hordes, learning (as the living did in George Romero’s influential zombie trilogy) that the undead react in just the right way to well-placed blows to the noggin.
The movie’s creators, famous on Britain’s Channel 4 for their cult-fave sitcom Spaced, call Shaun of the Dead a rom zom com – romantic zombie comedy – and you might find yourself wishing for a little less rom: A pallid subplot involves Shaun’s rehabilitation as a beau (saving Liz from being eaten apparently counts as chivalry), as well as his maturation as a son (comedy veterans Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy play his mother and stepfather). But the filmmakers, clearly fans of the genre, have got the zom and the com parts down cold – as do the hundreds of zombie extras who stagger earnestly through a nondescript outpost of London, a nabe British tourism boosters wouldn’t be caught dead in.