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A date with the undead

'Shaun's' makers think its blend of horror and humor makes it a treat for couples.

September 24, 2004|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

A zombie date movie? That's just one way of looking at "Shaun of the Dead," which has been described as a romantic zombie comedy.

To build awareness and good word of mouth about their odd blend of horror and humor, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the British star and director, respectively, spent a good part of their summer introducing and screening the film for preview audiences around the U.S.

A recent hit in the U.K., where it out-grossed "28 Days Later" and the 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead," "Shaun" is that rare hybrid of horror and humor that actually works. Pegg and Wright, who co-wrote the screenplay, have found that the mix translates just fine to this side of the Atlantic, and they think it's a great date movie. It's not that farfetched, when you consider the high proportion of young females in audiences for "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Ring."

"There are some bits which go down better here than in the U.K., which is interesting," says Wright.

One difference in audience reactions is that "Americans seem much more inclined to express themselves vocally than English people do," adds Pegg, who plays the film's title character.

Shaun is the film's everyman hero who, at age 29, finds his life in a rut. He lives in squalor with his unemployed pal Ed (Nick Frost), his job as a salesclerk in an electronics shop is a dead end, and his longtime girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) has grown tired of spending every evening at the local pub watching Ed knock back pints and make rude remarks.

The Friday night that Liz issues Shaun an ultimatum to change turns out to be the beginning of a not-so-ordinary weekend. Not that Shaun notices right away, but strange things are occurring in the streets. People are collapsing from unexplained illnesses, throwing the city into chaos, the dead are rising from their graves and by Sunday morning, Shaun's north London neighborhood is under a full-fledged zombie invasion.

Pegg, 34, and Wright, 30, had previously worked on the Channel 4 sitcom "Spaced" (airing on the cable network Trio). A short dream sequence in one episode features Pegg's character, Tim, trapped in the video game "Resident Evil 2" and fending off zombies.

"It was so much fun to shoot and a sort of boyhood ambition fulfilled," says Wright, "and we're both big fans of the zombie genre. We looked at each other and said, 'Maybe there's something more in this.' "

"It wasn't a trial run for the film, but it certainly sparked [our] enthusiasm for the project," says Pegg. They began writing the screenplay in 2001.

Balancing the comedy and the horror wasn't difficult for the two.

"When we finished the script the first time," says Pegg, "we started to identify where it needed a bit more blood, where it needed a few more scares, where it needed a few more laughs. Even after the shoot, when Edgar was in the edit, he was able to see the film as a finished thing and identify anything we missed where there might be too many jokes at a crucially dramatic moment. It wasn't difficult, but it took a lot of care."

"Growing up as part of the 'Star Wars' generation," explains Wright, "it's interesting how easy a jump it was to wanting to see 'Alien,' 'The Thing' and 'An American Werewolf in London.' I think we both became big horror fans through that. Seeing 'Dawn of the Dead' as a 16-year-old was a religious experience."

Though both are originally from the West Country, Pegg and Wright met when Edgar moved to London in 1997 after making independent films and became involved in directing comedy on television. Pegg, who came out of stand-up comedy, and Frost go back even further.

"Simon and Nick knew each other for 10 years and shared an apartment for seven years," says Wright, "so a lot of that chemistry is real."

"You have to go through an acclimatization period when you work with new people," says Pegg, "whereas we can walk into something and know exactly what the others are thinking and save a bit of time, which we desperately need because we always write things which are far more ambitious than the resources we've got." Those ambitions include wanting to tell a story that went beyond the typical horror genre and have broader appeal.

"If the film had just been about Shaun and Ed," says Wright, "we'd have had a following with the college/slackers/stoners crowd, but it goes further than that. It has Shaun's relationship with his mum and with Liz, so we tried to create a rounded world and strike more than one chord.

"We're pleased that it gets a good response from horror fans; at the same time, we didn't want to make it specifically for a horror audience. It's a romantic comedy that has a lethal injection of zombies."

"We wanted it to work on a level whereby it's an emotionally valid film," says Pegg. One in which "you believe in the characters and you feel sorry for them when they go through pain."

"It's the zombie film that you can take your girlfriend to," laughs Wright. "We thought it would be funny if somebody went to see 'Shaun of the Dead' on their first date so they could say, 'I met my future husband and I saw a man disemboweled for the first time.' "

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