"Shaun of the Dead," which pitches itself as a British "rom zom com" -- romantic zombie comedy -- is even cuter than its premise. How the cuteness can transcend frequent impalings and ripped-out entrails may not be immediately obvious, but trust that it does. Variously co-written, directed and enacted by a trio of best friends, "Shaun" has all the markings of a labor of love. It's a grisly but sweet ode to friendship, love and the George Romero zombie trilogy.
Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the film with director Edgar Wright, plays Shaun, a put-upon 29-year-old London electronics store clerk whose girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), dumps him early on for being an aimless slacker with loser friends. Shaun shares a flat with a slovenly, layabout video game addict named Ed (Nick Frost), whom he adores in that special way that boyfriends reserve for their most unredeemable buddies, and the buttoned-up Pete (Peter Serafinowicz).
When Shaun forgets to make a reservation for their belated anniversary celebration, Liz finally dumps him. Depressed about the breakup, his ongoing feud with his stepfather, and the fact that he is the oldest guy at his job ("I have things I want to do in my life too," he tells an obnoxious 17-year-old co-worker, to which the kid replies, "When?"), Shaun fails to notice that people in the neighborhood are starting to act funny.
That's because the middle-class workaday London hilariously rendered in "Shaun of the Dead" is already populated almost entirely by the waking dead, long before any actual zombies appear. Playing like an extended visual joke, which delays the onslaught of the undead for about half an hour, this observation is by far the best thing about the movie. Are the zoned out checkout girls dragging sad purchases over their scanners at the supermarket zombies? Are the vacant-eyed, head-lolling commuters on the bus zombies? What about the mad homeless guy trying to bite a pigeon? Or Shaun's stiff, emotionless stepfather? Surely, the pigeon-toed shuffler in Shaun's kitchen is a zombie. But no, it's just Shaun waking up. By the time the first real zombie, a young woman, shows up in Shaun and Ed's garden, they take one look at her greenish skin and unseeing eyes and assume what anybody would assume -- that she's really drunk.
For its ultra-gory high jinks, "Shaun of the Dead" recalls John Landis' "American Werewolf in London," though the comedy here is a little broader. That's not to say "Shaun" is a spoof; it's nothing of the kind. Laden with references to other films and TV shows, "Shaun" is at its best when the jokes express absurdist details of daily life. Shaun keeps running into an old girlfriend, for instance, who never fails to ask how he's doing. He invariably responds with a noncommittal "surviving," but the word keeps taking on new meaning. When Ed and Shaun discover that vinyl discs are useful for hurling at the undead, they can't help but argue the merits of each record before throwing it. ("Dire Straits?" "Throw it.")
As befits the hero of a romantic buddy movie, Shaun finds the zombie crisis brings out the best in him. Eventually, however, Shaun and his posse retreat to the neighborhood pub, where the movie folds in on itself, turning almost entirely to the task of eliminating zombies and exploring the characters' feelings for one another. It's a disappointing dip in a movie that has managed to keep its impossible premise aloft for so long. Ultimately, though, "Shaun's" charms outweigh its shortcomings, and it's rescued at the 11th hour by an inspired post Z-day channel-flipping montage. Sure, there's a lull, but as Ed says to Shaun, "I'm not going to bombard you with cliches ... but it's not the end of the world."
'Shaun of the Dead'
MPAA rating: R for zombie violence, gore and language
Studio Canal and Working Title presents a WT2 production, in association with Big Talk Productions, released by Rogue Pictures. Director Edgar Wright. Producer Nira Park. Executive producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Natascha Wharton, James Wilson, Alison Owen. Screenplay by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Cinematographer David M. Dunlap. Editor Chris Dickens. Costume designer Annie Hardinge. Music Daniel Mudford & Pete Woodhead. Production designer Marcus Rowland. Art director Karen Wakefield. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
In general release.