The Importance of Being Undead

Shaun of the Dead, a zombie comedy of manners.

Shaun of the Dead: deadpan humor for the undead

Comedy springs from the presence of two things that are utterly irreconcilable, and few things are more difficult to reconcile than impeccable manners and ferocious zombie cannibals. That’s the central joke of the British horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead (Rogue Pictures). There’s a plague of flesh-eating ghouls that brings horrific bloody mayhem—real splattery, exploding-viscera stuff—and the middle-class English characters don’t quite know how to cope with all the unpleasantness. They react, of course, and they certainly defend themselves: They use cricket bats, garden shovels, vintage LPs, anything handy to bash in the oncoming zombies’ brains. They are recognizably human (this isn’t high camp), but there’s a stiff-upper-lip quality that doesn’t quite jibe with all the brain-bashing, gut-munching savagery.

I love George Romero’s zombie pictures, and I love deadpan English humor, but I had no idea that the two would mesh as happily as they (mostly) do in Shaun of the Dead, with the comedy fueling the apocalyptic dread instead of undermining it. The movie was written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, creators of a British slacker sitcom called Spaced. Wright is also the film’s director, while Pegg plays the title character, a 29-year-old underachiever torn between sober adulthood with his exasperated girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), and evenings at the pub with his housemate Ed (Nick Frost), a big-fat-unemployed slob who spends days on the couch playing video games. The editing is a little nudge-nudge in the opening pub scene, in which Liz challenges Shaun to grow up (or at least kick Ed out). But then the film finds its tone: The camera glides past glazed checkout workers, dully conformist nonconformist punks, and dead-eyed commuters clutching cell phones as they lurch toward their identical suburban row houses, and the foreshadowing is a howl.

Spiritually, Shaun is so dislocated that he doesn’t register the slight shift in his suburb’s equilibrium: the flaming automobiles; the people with what look like very bad hangovers tottering down the street; or the couple necking outside the pub when he walks in who are still there when he comes out—only now the woman is slurping something long and windy from the man’s neck. It wouldn’t be polite to stare, anyway. Shaun of the Dead feeds on the English disease of not acknowledging the peculiar—a trait exploited by Dom Joly in the candid-camera show Trigger Happy TV, in which he and his henchmen do absurd performance pieces on the streets of London: It isn’t just the juvenile pranks that are a hoot, it’s the failure of passersby to react. (You could almost hear the Brits thinking, “Right. Some mad unfortunate. Mustn’t stare.” When Joly did some shows in the United States, they were deadly: We Yanks tend to gawk and point, which kills the joke.)

As the movie’s title suggests, Wright and Pegg were weaned on George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. They have an organic knowledge, so to speak, of their genre predecessors, and if the flaming-eyed zombies look silly as they lope crazily toward our heroes, they’re terrifying enough when they start ripping flesh. The gore scenes aren’t as virtuosic as Sam Raimi’s in The Evil Dead or Peter Jackson’s in Dead Alive, but they’re plenty splattery, and the lines are a lot better. (And when have you seen a zombie movie that quotes Bertrand Russell?) Almost everything is in perfect balance until the last sequence, when Shaun and his band barricade themselves in their beloved pub against a zombie onslaught. Shaun has to blow away people he cares about, and as the tension grows between flesh-and-blood ties and flesh-and-blood appetites, the tone becomes a little too grim—a little straight. Wright and Pegg literally wrote themselves into a corner.

Although he loses the comic pulse toward the end, Pegg makes a rousing transition from balding, weak-chinned loser to wide-awake zombie slayer, and Frost does brilliant variations on the fat layabout who’s really just a big, lonely baby. Penelope Wilton is the sweet, oblivious middle-class mum who didn’t mention being bitten by a (highly contagious) ghoul because, she says meekly, “I didn’t want to be a bother.” It’s heartbreaking. One of the subtlest comic actors on earth, Bill Nighy, plays Shaun’s stepdad as man who’s groggy with middle-class angst, becoming fully human only when he’s on the brink of zombiehood.

The comic high point in Shaun of the Dead comes when Lucy Davis, from the great BBC sitcom The Office, teaches the band of survivors how to lurch like zombies so that they can pass among the undead. It’s a classic farce scene, but it also plugs into our collective zombie-movie unconsciousness—and our zombie love. It’s to die for—and, I should add, to come back to life for.