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Review: ‘Shaun of the Dead’

Plus Interviews With Simon Pegg And Edgar Wright

Above: Pretending to be dead in "Shaun of the Dead."

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

The new British import film “Shaun of the Dead” (opening September 23), sounds like something that was thought up in a pub after one too many pints. But the surprise of this self-described romantic comedy with zombies (that's a zom-rom-com) is that it's a clever homage to George Romero's original “Dawn of the Dead.”

Shaun has problems. His job is mind-numbing.

Shaun: "There's no I in team but there is in pie as in meat pie which is an anagram for team."

His girlfriend just dumped him.

Shaun: "Things'll be fine I promise."

Liz: "You promised to stop smoking when I did, you promised to go to the gym, you promised to drink red wine instead of beer, you promised to go on holiday with me."

Shaun: "We went to Greece."

Liz: "We met in Greece."

And his London suburb has just been invaded by zombies.

Shaun: "Don't say it."

Ed:"What?"

Shaun: “That word. The zed word. Don't say it."

"We wanted the zombies to be ever present but never comic,” Simon Pegg said, “We didn't want them to be the story really, the story really is that they are hindering Shaun from doing something that he really has to do which is sort his life out."

Simon Pegg plays the title character in “Shaun of the Dead.” He co-wrote the film with Edgar Wright.

"One of the first ideas was to call it ‘Teatime of the Dead,’ so it'd be like the

English ‘Night,’ ‘Day,’ ‘Dawn,’ ‘Teatime.’”

This British spin on the horror genre gives the film its unique charm. Just listen to Shaun's plan for saving his mum and knocking off his zombie-infected step dad Philip.

Shaun: “We take Pete's car, drive over to mum's, take care of Philip, grab mum, go over to Liz' place, hole up, have a cup of tea and wait for all this to blow over."

This unflappable British cheeriness even in the face of a full-scale invasion of the living dead provides ample humor in the film. And it works so well because Pegg and Wright take the time to develop the characters and their relationships. Only after Shaun's mundane problems have been laid out, said Wright, does the zombie onslaught begin.

"The audience really like it because they're with the characters at that point,” Wright said, “they've watched half an hour of people that they sympathize with and then when they have to become killers it's a much more shocking thing. So that's why it gets bigger laughs is because we’ve had that slow burn build up to it."

Unlike most horror films, Shaun's opening set up isn't just padding but rather offers delicious a payoff in the end. According to Simon Pegg that's because they worked long and hard on the script.

“Everything is vital,” Pegg said, “and you have to pay attention because there are lines that repeat and themes that reoccur. The before is as important as the after because in a way it's as scary because it's about not doing anything with your life."

But Shaun and his slacker roommate Ed are forced to uproot themselves from the couch when their way of life is challenged by the even more apathetic zombies. With few firearms in the U.K., the two unlikely heroes have to be creative in their choice of weapons, and grab what's available like a cricket bat or old LPs. In fact, when zombies attack them in the garden, the undead assailants are so slow that Shaun and Ed have time to argue over which LPs to throw at their attackers.

Wright said he wanted to show how human behavior remains constant even when calamity strikes.

"We loved the idea that even in a crisis that people could still bicker and because zombies are slow it gives people time to like have an argument," Wright said.

In that respect, the zombies in “Shaun” are like those in George Romero's “Dawn of the Dead.” And like that film, “Shaun”uses zombies to make a satirical comment on the ills of society.

"Yeah we wanted to keep that spirit that George Romero started off which is to use them to as he did with ‘Dawn’ with consumerism, and ‘Day,’ which was vivisectionists and use them as a metaphor," Pegg said.

Wright added, “The zombies meant different things in different eras. We always said our zombies are a metaphor for apathy. It's kind of like the great plague is laziness, so it was like the zombies represent sloth.”

So when Ed asks his roommate what they should do as zombies gather all around their flat, the answer Shaun gives is: "Have a sit down."

The film also pokes fun contemporary city life where people are wrapped up in their own little bubble and don't notice what's going on around them -- even when the dead start to rise. Wright said the sound design reflects this as it foreshadows the zombie takeover.

"It's something that we wanted to build up,” Wright said, “we wanted to get the sense of something bad happening, that you can kind of hear something in the next street. How many times are you sitting at home and the police go by and you don't even look out of the window So it was something that we thought was both funny and scary at the same time."

“Shaun of the Dead” (rated R) delivers everything you expect from a zombie movie -- undead hordes, head-bashing gore, side-splitting humor -- plus some things you rarely find in any movie -- sweetness, wicked social satire and a savvy sense of filmmaking. “Shaun” aims for the head as well as the funny bone and the heart, and scores a major hit with all. It's simply the best dead, undead or living film so far this year.

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