Every (dead) body's got a hungry heart

No... this isn't a scene from last year's Fiesta — when they ran out of turkey legs. It's Shaun of the Dead.

A zombie epic from the land of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'

Poor Shaun has been busted. He's a lousy boyfriend whose idea of a romantic night out is a trip to the same pub he haunts seven nights a week. His girlfriend has had it, and is laying down the law in front of their best friends. "Things'll change," Shaun pleads. "I promise."

The next day, things have changed. The dead are walking the earth.

The first specimen of the ZomRomCom genre, or "Zombie Romantic Comedy," Shaun of the Dead skips along atop those genre-separating fences without losing its footing. It's easily one of the most entertaining things to hit screens in recent years, a movie that shows just how fine a line distinguishes family drama and flesh-eating, or meet-cute romance and post-apocalyptic survivalism.

Shaun of the Dead
Dir. Edgar Wright; writ. Wright, Simon Pegg; feat. Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Bill Nighy (R)
Actor/writer Pegg and writer/director Wright pull off an amazing balancing act, convincing you to go along with every part of this story. And they've bitten off even more than you might think: Sam Raimi may have gotten laughs and chills in the same picture with Evil Dead, but Pegg and Wright go a step further, actually making you care for the characters in their goofy story. Major characters die here, and against your better judgment, you may choke up. But you'll laugh your ass off a few seconds later.

The central joke of the movie is as funny as it is obvious: Shaun and those around him, sleepwalking through numbingly normal lives, might as well be zombies; when the plague does start, it takes quite a while for Shaun to notice the difference.

Most zombie flicks present individual survivors as the last hope for civilization, but for Shaun (Simon Pegg), finding the inner strength to fend off the morbid marauders is a way to prove to his girlfriend that he isn't totally worthless.
He catches on eventually, of course - hard not to when the kid next door is trying to eat your brains - and the film changes track with him. Other zombie flicks present individual survivors as the last hope for civilization: They have to survive, find a cure, repopulate the world, and so on. (Shaun offers a couple of glimpses of this alternate reality, as our heroes cross paths with a more serious-minded group of refugees.) Shaun, on the other hand, has no concern greater than the survival of his handful of friends and family. Finding the inner strength to fend off morbid marauders isn't a matter of survival for him; it's a way to prove to his girlfriend that he isn't totally worthless.

The movie - whose director and stars are famous in England for an innovative TV comedy called Spaced - displays a remarkable sense of timing and nuance. The screenplay avoids the easy jokes, like winks to the audience, pop-culture references, and gory puns, and goes for laughs based on the very human responses of its characters to a set of fantastic circumstances. In fact, whenever the characters try to act like action heroes, they fall flat; if Shaun delivers some "Hasta la vista, baby" sort of one-liner, you can bet it'll backfire on him.

A zombie renaissance has swept the film world in the last year or two, with such cool gorefests as 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead. The resurgence has (ahem) some life still left in it, hopefully, but it's hard to see how anyone could hope to beat Shaun at its own game. •

By John DeFore

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