Someone thought it would be funny to make a comedy that was also a zombie movie — or perhaps a zombie movie that was also a comedy — and sure enough, they were right. “Shaun of the Dead” is one of the funniest films of the year, a snappy comedy and horror-flick satire that is also a pretty solid zombie movie in its own right, bearing all the visceral accouterments that fans of the genre expect even as it pokes fun at them. This is that rare, lucky film that gets to have its brains and eat them, too.
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is in a rut. He’s 29 years old, works at an electronics store, and goes to the same London pub every night with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) and his lifelong mate Ed (Nick Frost). Ed is a raucous, frat-house sort of guy with no job who plays video games all day; Liz, understandably, worries that Ed is preventing Shaun from growing up. Shaun and Ed’s roommate, the priggish Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), feels the same way.
Shaun screws up an important date with Liz and finds himself dumped, then finds himself getting very drunk with Ed at the Winchester (the aforementioned place where everybody knows your name). Because of this — or perhaps because of the general obliviousness of single men in their 20s — Shaun does not notice the cataclysms surrounding him.
We see them in the periphery: TV news reports about odd events, people on the street behaving strangely, a man in the park harassing pigeons. The signs slowly become more obvious: bloody handprints on the refrigerator case at the convenience store, which Shaun doesn’t notice because he’s too morose over being dumped. At last, he and Ed encounter a zombie directly — and they mistake her slow, torporific staggering for drunkenness.
They are soon disabused of this notion, however, and the zombie attack on London is underway. (Poor London: First “28 Days Later,” and now this. Zombies are to London what Godzilla was to Tokyo.) Shaun and Ed eventually become part of a band of survivors that includes Liz, her roommate Dianne (Lucy Davis), Dianne’s dull boyfriend David (Dylan Moran), Shaun’s mom Barbara (Penelope Wilton) and his grumpy stepdad Philip (Bill Nighy). Where to barricade themselves? The Winchester, of course. (“Your idea of a romantic night on the town and an impenetrable fortress are the same thing,” Liz observes.)
Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script and plays the lead, is as funny and hapless a hero as you’ll ever hope to see. Even an old joke like accidentally giving your girlfriend flowers that say “to a wonderful Mum” becomes amusing again in his hands, and his interplay with Nick Frost as Ed is priceless, so funny because their behavior in the crisis is believable. They do exactly what we would do, if we were slacker Londoners who found ourselves besieged by the undead.
Pegg’s co-writer and the film’s director is Edgar Wright, also director of the British sitcom “Spaced,” in which Pegg and Frost are stars. His skill at blending comedy with horror is impressive, and so is his and Pegg’s appreciation for a good setup and payoff. I can’t count the number of lines, actions and situations that appear early in the film and are later mirrored or parodied once the zombies attack. It isn’t just that shooting zombies with a rifle reminds us of earlier, when Shaun and Ed were playing a video game; it’s Ed’s specific coaching — “Upper left! Reload!” — matching the video-game dialogue that makes the bit satisfying. Even more satisfying: You might not even catch it. People do get beaten over the head a lot in this movie, but it isn’t with the jokes.
There are thrills and chills, too, and Wright gives horror fans several money shots of zombies devouring people or being dispatched with such weaponry as bullets, cricket bats and record albums. The special effects are nifty though probably low-budget; George Romero would be proud. (And look at the genius here: The film makes fun of how the zombies of yesterday’s movies are slow and stupid by comparing them to drunk people — and then they make these slow, stupid zombies scary after all.)
Fans will also be thrilled at the many references, both subtle and overt, to other zombie pictures. Folks more dedicated to the genre than I have already collected dozens of them, listed under the film’s “trivia” section at the Internet Movie Database. I won’t claim to have caught them all, but I did notice a few. I particularly enjoyed Shaun’s scolding of Ed for actually calling them “zombies,” no doubt a reference to the fact that so many of these movies never actually use the word.
Perhaps the greatest touch is that “Shaun of the Dead” does what most zombie flicks don’t: It shows us the aftermath, six months later. I won’t spoil it for you, but the social satire is wickedly funny. It is, again, believable, an example of what surely would be the result of a zombie attack on modern society.
I suspect people will be enjoying this film at midnight screenings and near Halloween for years to come. It is unfailingly funny, and not stupid-funny, either, but smart-funny. It displays the imagination and wit that are lacking in most comedies, not to mention most horrors.
A- (1 hr., 39 min.; )