Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 3, 2004, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


Roll over, Re-Animator, and tell Dead Alive the news. Shaun of the Dead is an instant zombie-gore-comedy classic, a riotously entertaining mix of horror and humor that is, as its British makers might say, bloody brilliant. And it’s not just a matter of a couple of clever chaps—director/writer Edgar Wright and writer/star Simon Pegg—sending up the undead genre; from literally the very first frame, it’s abundantly clear that these guys truly love zombie movies. Not only that, but they get zombie movies and what their fans love about them, and their own feature honors the genre’s conventions even as it finds new comedic uses for them.

Nor is their film (which opens September 24, with sneak-preview showings in 20 markets September 17) an anarchic free-for-all, at least in the filmmaking sense. There are a few fast-cut montages in the style of fellow countryman Guy Ritchie, but for the most part Shaun of the Dead generates its laughs from a sharp sense of character, a flair for subtle setups and unexpected payoffs and a skill at composition and timing that puts today’s slapdash American comedies to shame. The dialogue is witty without calling attention to its own cleverness, the gore (and there’s plenty of it) wrings both laughs and gasps without being overexaggerated and the film even works up genuine tension and pathos in its later reels. Wright and Pegg have aimed at a bunch of targets here, and hit them all with unerring accuracy.

What more could you want? Oh yes, the cast is pitch-perfect right down the line, led by Pegg as Shaun, a late-20s slacker who has an exasperated girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), but is most comfortable playing video games and hanging round the pub with his slovenly best mate Ed (Nick Frost). Everyone thinks Shaun should get his act together and sort his life out, and when he’s finally spurred to do so (after Liz dumps him), his plans for self-improvement unfortunately coincide with a zombie plague sweeping Britain. Wright sets up the impending apocalypse with a string of fun, teasing background hints, to which Shaun remains cheerfully oblivious. The director’s most elaborate gag is a pair of one-take Steadicam shots that take his hero from house to local store and back; the first time everything’s normal, the second the neighborhood is rife with ghouls and their victims, and Shaun doesn’t notice the difference.

Like all the best horror/comedies, Shaun of the Dead plays its monsters straight, drawing from the George A. Romero mythos of shambling, flesheating fiends that can only be put down by destroying the brain. The makeup FX by Jane Walker and Stuart Conran are as good as any seen in more seriously intended walking-dead features, though Shaun and Ed, for a little while anyway, view the creatures simply as figures of fun. In one memorable setpiece, they try to put down a huge, hulking male ghoul and a little-girl creature by flinging household items at them, including Shaun’s record collection, with occasional breaks as Shaun decides whether this or that particular album is one he’d like to preserve.

It’s no small achievement that Shaun of the Dead makes you believe that this sort of trivial concern in the midst of a deadly threat is entirely plausible, and that’s a credit to the cast as well as the writing and directing. The entire ensemble creates fun and, just as important, identifiable comic personas without winking at the camera; my personal favorite is Bill Nighy, who was wasted in Underworld but here plays Shaun’s disapproving stepfather with a wonderful dry-as-a-martini delivery.

Speaking of alcoholic beverages, once the survivors hole up in their habitual bar and prepare to make a final stand, the investment the actors have made in their roles, and the investment the audience can thus make in them, pays off. The characters may be silly, but the cast and filmmakers take their predicament seriously, and the result is an unexpected emotional depth and a number of uncompromising, seriously nasty moments. Wright and Pegg also play fair in their plotting, never stooping to out-of-context twists with anything-for-a-laugh excuses. All of the little surprises and reversals grow out of the personalities and reactions of the people, which only serves to make them more effective.

It has been suggested in a couple of places that this movie wouldn’t work as well if it had been made somewhere other than Britain, and in fact it hasn’t yet played many territories outside England (where it was a smash hit) out of concern for how its humor will travel. While I’d like to think that this sort of talent would pay off no matter where it’s based, it’s true that Shaun of the Dead has a uniquely Brit flavor that both underlines and accentuates its laughs and scares. The bottom line, though, is that with this one feature, Wright and Pegg have established themselves as entertainment forces to be reckoned with. It’s tempting to think that the buzz on this movie and its huge success at home (combined with the strong box office for 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake) helped encourage Hollywood to back Romero’s Land of the Dead. But if Wright, Pegg and co. have assisted Romero in finally returning to the zombie scene, they’ve also given him one hell of a tough act to follow.

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