Pinnacle of Zombedy

'Shaun of the Dead' is one of those rare films that works in all of its parameters

The comedy-zombie movie (what we in the industry call a "zombedy") has not always been as well received as, for example, the comedy-romance (sometimes called a "romantic comedy" or a "romancomedy"), the comedy-action film ("actiomedy") or the comedy-religious drama ("The Passionomedy of the Crazy Christ").

This lack of general acceptance is not the fault of the concept, so much as the specific films which have geekily exploited it. Running the gamut from the almost unbelievably boring Dead Alive to the more-or-less amusing Evil Dead series, all of the previous zombedies have been targeted so directly at hardcore horror fans that the films never had much of a chance with the kind of a mass audience that doesn't own a complete set of Freddy and Jason action figures.

All that has changed, though, with the timely release of Shaun of the Dead. Riding the popular wave of recent zombie films, Shaun takes the basic elements of the genre and does them up with what the English like to call "a bit of a larf."

Basically, Shaun is a re-write of the original Night of the Living Dead, the movie that pretty much created the modern zombie film. Shaun follows what are now commonly known as George Romero's Rules of Zombies: The recently dead return to life to eat the flesh of the living, and they can only be killed by destroying their brains or removing their heads.

Then it tosses in some chuckles, and then pretty much gets back to being a real zombie movie.

This is what makes it more successful than a lot of attempts at parody: The underlying plot and the story mechanics are actually engaging in their own right, and, other than a few ill-thought-out moments, most of the movie hews to its internal logic so that what happens makes sense, if you're willing to accept the idea that people in England would rise from the dead and eat human flesh without immediately re-dying out of utter embarrassment.

The film starts with the titular Shaun leading a sort of living death in the form of a boring job and pointless, repetitive life. All around him, the zombie-like residents of London go to work, ride buses, and roam the streets with deadened eyes. See, it's a metaphor for what's about to come: the flesh eating and the carnage and the people dying and then returning from the dead and looking sort of like John Kerry.

Meanwhile, Shaun and his girlfriend break up, and a romantic comedy plot is hatched when Shaun tries to win her back by defending her from the monsters who are taking over the world. There are lots of standard romancomedy stuff about Shaun needing to grow up and his childish friend holding him back, but, since Shaun and his friend Ed are English, they're only half as immature and twice as annoying as Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider would have been in the same roles (or, as the English would say, "rôles").

Fans of British humor will be pleased to see that Lucy Davis from The Office has a major role, and Martin Freeman, also of The Office, has a brief walk-on. There's also Bill Nighy, who, in the last year, has managed to have himself retroactively placed in every movie ever made since the dawn of time. He plays the part of Shaun's evil stepdad, and there are a few teary moments when Shaun has to deal with childhood trauma and simultaneously kill his flesh-eating father.

Oddly, the sad parts of Shaun are actually rather sad; the horror parts are reasonably scary; and the action parts are quite active. Shaun is that rare film that works in all of its parameters. This is due not only to the tight plotting and natural-sounding script, but also, perhaps largely, to the performance of Simon Pegg as Shaun.

Pegg does a great everyman-rising-to-the-challenge-of-zombie-killing. His tears seem real, as does his anger and his love. Even his knocking-the-heads-off-the-undead has a natural feel to it, as though it was the sort of thing he had done before, if a bit hastily, and was now taking up again with relish.

I would think virtually any movie-goer would enjoy Shaun, except for those select few who might find the image of an Englishmen being torn apart and eaten alive to be an unpleasant sight. Thus, it will appeal strongly to the Irish, and less so to fey anglophiles with doctorates in 19th-century British romantic poetry. Nonetheless, this may be the first zombedy that will be appreciated by both comic-collecting horror fans who live in their parents basements and have well-worn videotapes of every Italian zombie movie from the '80s (the golden age of spaghetti zombie movies) and to ordinary folk who own just a couple zombie movie tapes and have seen Return of the Dead only on cable, and only three or four times.

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