Shaun of the Dead

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Edgar Wright

Written by Wright and Simon Pegg

With Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost, Lucy Davis, Dylan Morgan, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, and Peter Serafinowicz

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” No one familiar with George Romero’s primal low-budget horror flick Night of the Living Dead (1968) could forget that line. The movie opens with young, blond Barbara and her bespectacled brother Johnny arriving at a cemetery to place flowers on the grave of a long-forgotten relative. They notice a dark figure lurching toward them in the distance, and Johnny begins taunting his sister with a moldy Boris Karloff impersonation: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara! They’re coming for you, Barbara!” His fun is cut short when the hulking man attacks Barbara and kills Johnny. Barbara manages to escape but soon discovers that the countryside is being prowled by walking corpses.

The scene embodies two principles that would become standard in horror movies: it’s vaguely postmodern, calling attention to the movie itself as part of a cinematic tradition, and it shows how quickly laughter can be overtaken by terror. It’s the movie’s most memorable scene, so naturally a reference to it turns up in Shaun of the Dead, a very funny spoof of Romero’s zombie movies by British TV writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Night of the Living Dead has produced so many sequels, remakes, and rip-offs that a flat-out comedy may seem something of a last gasp, like the Abbott and Costello comedies that buried Universal Pictures’ classic horror cycles. Yet in its own snarky way, Shaun of the Dead comes remarkably close to the bitter satire that makes Romero’s zombie movies so distinctive.

Most horror comedies exploit the same foolproof gag–the hero remains completely oblivious as danger mounts all around him. Shaun of the Dead turns this familiar tune into a concerto. As the title character, a well-meaning but feckless electronics salesman, Pegg spends the first half of the movie failing to realize that north London is being overrun by zombies. At work he channel surfs from one strange newscast to the next without allowing any of them to register. During a visit to the convenience store he sees nothing amiss in the bloody handprint on the cooler door, and when he slips in the aisle on what we can only imagine is a puddle of gore, he rights himself without bothering to look down. Later that day he and his repulsive sidekick, Ed (Nick Frost), come stumbling home from the pub and spy a woman with her lips at a man’s neck; they snicker and turn their backs on the couple just before the man’s head rolls off.

Pegg and Wright made their name with Spaced, a sitcom about British slackers, and their familiarity with the world of disaffected twentysomethings allows them to twist the old clueless-hero routine into something much wittier. To Shaun and Ed, who spend countless hours drinking and spinning LPs, the mainstream world already seems populated by zombies, so they can hardly be faulted for failing to spot the genuine article. The movie opens with a snatch of the old Specials hit “Ghost Town,” and the title sequence that follows shortly thereafter shows Londoners sleepwalking through their dull, repetitive lives–waiting for buses, moving through checkout lines–as if they’d already been infected. Whenever Shaun climbs on a city bus the other passengers stare blankly ahead, their eyes glazed, their mouths slightly open, their faces pale blue.

Actually the dualistic struggle of Shaun of the Dead takes place not between the zombies and the living but between Ed, who prizes Shaun’s company in a perpetual adolescence of pints and PlayStation 2, and Liz (Kate Ashfield), Shaun’s bright and ambitious girlfriend, who thinks Shaun could do big things if only he’d apply himself. In the first scene Liz and Shaun are sitting at the Winchester, the local pub where they always seem to wind up. Liz has had it. “I want to live,” she tells him. “I want you to live too.” After she finally dumps Shaun, Ed drags his miserable pal to the Winchester to console him. “It’s not the end of the world,” Ed insists, as zombies clamor unnoticed at the door. He has his own long-term vision for Shaun: why don’t they just stay in the pub and drink nonstop for days?

Shaun begins to redeem himself the next day, when he and Ed finally figure out that England is under siege. Though newscasters are warning all citizens to stay indoors, Shaun resolves to collect Liz, rescue his mother, Barbara, out in the suburbs, and barricade them all inside the fortresslike Winchester. The scheme of course exposes everyone involved to much greater danger than they would have faced had they stayed put. Shaun and Ed telephone Barbara to let her know help is on the way; when she protests that she’s perfectly safe, the camera zooms in on Ed as he bellows into the phone, “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

Unfortunately, at this point Shaun of the Dead begins to find the comic limits of its subject matter. One of the most disturbing scenes in Night of the Living Dead shows the traumatized Barbara coming face-to-face with the reanimated corpse of her brother, who needs to be blown away like all the other predators. Each of Romero’s zombie movies has a scene like this, in which a trusted friend becomes a relentless enemy and the object of a mercy killing. It’s the most profound element of Romero’s zombie cosmology, because we all know the terror of betrayal and the pain of seeing a loved one physically degenerate.

Pegg and Wright manage to play this idea for laughs once, after Shaun’s crabby stepdad (Bill Nighy of Love Actually) turns into a zombie and the others lock him in his car. “There’s nothing of the man you loved in that car, nothing!” Shaun tells his tearful mother before the stepdad proves him wrong by shutting off the hip-hop on the car stereo.

Near the end of the film the survivors are ensconced in the Winchester, and Barbara bleeds to death from a wound she’s been concealing; when she snaps back to attention as a zombie Shaun is forced to shoot her to protect the others. The comic tone has evaporated, yet the movie has been running on shtick for so long that the attempt at drama rings hollow.

The movie rallies in its last minutes, after Liz and Shaun are rescued by riot police and the zombie horror is contained. In a sequence worthy of Romero, another round of channel surfing shows how crassly the surviving zombies have been integrated into modern life, employed by service industries as simple laborers and recruited as contestants for stunt-oriented game shows. A woman on a tabloid talk show admits that she and her zombie husband still share the same bed. Even Liz and Shaun have found a more congenial middle ground and seem quite contented as they look forward to a lazy Sunday together. Ed has become a zombie, and Shaun keeps him chained in the shed out back, where he can play video games to his dead heart’s content. The gag reverses the dynamic that opened the film, but this could be the best thing that’s ever happened to Ed.