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Fright Crew: Kate Ashfield and Simon Pegg must confront the zombies of London.

Pub Maul

Instant comic-horror classic 'Shaun of the Dead' turns zombies loose in England

By Richard von Busack

A WAVE of new British films since Four Weddings and a Funeral has concentrated on the growing prosperity of London in the new millennium. While it has been novel to see the city so shiny and affluent—particularly in the breezy Hugh Grant picture About a Boy, I miss how British films used to do what American films never would: focus on the hung-over and despondent side of life.

What English dramas and comedies once provided wasn't conflict as such but more a sense of people rubbing on one another's nerves like fine sandpaper. Shaun of the Dead does British despondency for the sake of humor, as a tribute to the only genre of films ever launched in that City of Diminished Expectations, Pittsburgh, Pa., It's nothing if not a kinetic, exuberant movie, with the living dead on the usual warpath. Still, it boasts its own regional identity; this uproarious effort is like a Mike Leigh version of a gutmuncher.

Director Edgar Wright and co-writer Simon Pegg (of the paroxysmal English TV show Spaced) set their widescreen horror comedy in north London locations such as New Barnet and Crouch End. Neither suburb nor city, it's the background for the uninspiring life of Shaun (Pegg), a nice, timid manager at an appliance store.

In the opening shot, the ska hit "Ghost Town," with its sinister flute solo, is wafting around a group of drinkers. Shaun's girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), is bored to tears by their typical Saturday-night beer bust at the Winchester Pub. ("If I don't do something, I'll end up like these sad old fuckers," she pleads, indicating the cackling senile patrons.)

Particularly in Liz's face is Shaun's best chum, Ed (Nick Frost), who's been couch-camping, nay, couch-homesteading in Shaun's flat. Ed has probably been wearing the same T-shirt—a picture of a log with the caption "I Got Wood"--ever since his arrival. Frost's lumpy Ed takes slobby comedy to new levels of grossness.

Shaun's plate is full. In addition to planning some ruinously expensive special date to cheer up Liz, he has to show up for his job and make arrangements for a duty-luncheon with his mom and his disagreeable stepfather (the vinegary Bill Nighy).

In the interim, he fights with his other housemate, Peter, about how long Ed thinks he'll be staying on their couch. With all these distractions, it's no surprise that Shaun's oblivious to the news breaking out around him on the radio, newspaper racks and the television: a chunk of space debris has fallen to earth, and unexplained violent attacks are baffling the police. Genetically modified foods are suspected, says a subheadline. The London transit system is filled with people who look paler and more nauseated than usual.

But it's not until the morning after a night of furious drinking that Shaun begins to suspect there's something seriously wrong. They've never heard of zombies, and they thinking the first lurching zombie they see is actually just another neighborhood drunk.

And so they have to learn the old rules. Aim for the head or the heart, and don't get bitten, because they're infectious. Like the band manager that Tony Hendra played in Spinal Tap, Shaun favors a cricket bat as a weapon. Our hero has the bright idea of rounding up their friends into the only fortress they can think of to withstand the invasion.

But Shaun of the Dead includes scenes you've wanted to see for years, such as the human ensemble trying to blend in with the zombie army by moaning and swaying. The fun starts to run out in the more seriously morbid section of the film, when the zombies keep the gang pinned down, helping themselves to the cast one by one. But on the whole, the film is written and directed with the kind of bubbling sarcastic comedy that doesn't really fail.

Shaun of the Dead was shot at Ealing Studios. It's easy to imagine the look on Alec Guinness' face if he had peered into the future and seen grisly dismemberment taking place on those same stages where he acted in The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets.

I'd argue Shaun of the Dead isn't that drastically far from the essence of those Ealing comedies. Liz's housemate, played by Dylan Morris, even seems like a modern version of the exacting, finicky bores Kenneth Mars used to play in movies like Genevieve.

And there's genuine pathos when an elderly lady tries to hide her zombie bite: mustn't grumble about a little thing like that. During the shortages, chronic boredom and social upheaval of the 1950s, these sweet, small comedies from Ealing reassured audiences that there might be something left to the British virtues: imperturbability, modesty, endurance in the face of an ever-ghastlier future. Despite the splatter, what's Shaun of the Dead if not just that kind of reassuring movie?

Shaun of the Dead (R), directed by Edgar Wright and written by Simon Pegg and Wright, photographed by David M. Dunlap and starring Pegg, Kate Ashfield and Nick Frost, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the September 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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