Brit slacker humor takes a tasty bite out of Stateside genre movies with “Shaun of the Dead,” whose pun on the George A. Romero 1979 zombie flick, “Dawn of the Dead,” is the weakest joke in the movie. Hitting U.K. screens April 9, only two weeks after Universal’s remake of “Dawn,” this could mop up red-blooded returns among Blighty’s younger auds, given a hefty ad-publicity push from distrib UIP. Given the success of “28 Days Later,” pic could also score, with careful timing, as an offbeat, specialized attraction in the U.S., though it relies more on local comedy than genre thrills.
Though the genre has been around in movies since the ’30s, and Romero’s first undead outing, B&W low-budgeter “Night of the Living Dead,” dates back to 1968, “Shaun” qualifies as the fastest ever spoof of a mainstream Hollywood title to hit screens. (More by luck than judgment: “Shaun” has been in the works for a time, and U only greenlighted the Working Title production on condition it opened after the current remake.) Needless to say, Lloyd Kaufman must be crying into his pea-green soup.
That said, “Shaun” is still very much the work of the team behind the cult U.K. Channel 4 hit, “Spaced,” a mock sitcom about a bunch of terminal underachievers. Its key creators — star/co-writer Simon Pegg, helmer Edgar Wright and producer Nira Park — all reprise their roles here. A sense of purpose and creative cohesion, so rare in current British cinema, is evident from the first, very funny scene, in which doofus Shaun (Pegg) tries to make verbal amends to exasperated g.f., Liz (Kate Ashfield).
A “sales adviser” in a North London TV shop, Shaun is a 29-year-old failure who shares a house with his best pal, couch potato and practical joker Ed (Nick Frost), and their over-achieving college acquaintance, Pete (Peter Serafinowicz). Shaun’s entire social life revolves around his local pub, the Winchester, where he’s always in the company of Ed, and Liz is starting to get seriously ticked off. Opening scene, with Shaun being berated by Liz and Shaun’s two other friends, prissy David (Dylan Moran) and edgy Di (Lucy Davis, Dawn in “The Office”), sets up the timing and comic rhythm that sustains the whole movie.
Film eases into its main story with an offhandedness that reflects its two anti-heroes’ blinkered existence. As he walks to work, Shaun hardly notices denizens of the area are walking in a strange way; and, as he channel surfs at home, Ed doesn’t even notice the news reports on TV. Not until the third reel, when a big fat bloodstained zombie shows up in their garden, does the pair realize Blighty is being taken over by the undead. As they scramble for things to throw at the zombie, they start bickering over what classic record albums they’re prepared to bust.
After deciding Pete is also probably a zombie, Shaun calls his mom, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), to check if she’s OK and hears his stepfather, Philip (Bill Nighy), is acting rather strange.
Armed with a, uh, cricket bat and a shovel, Shaun and Ed set off to rescue her. The only safe haven they can think of — given their entire life revolves round a square-mile radius — is the Winchester. But by now the streets are crawling with gibbering zombies.
Pic is a classic example of a clever idea that could easily have run out of steam halfway. However, co-scripters Pegg and Wright structure it as a classic three-acter (set-up, journey, finale) with enough twists, character development and small set pieces to keep the comedy boiling. The subplots of Shaun and Liz’s rocky relationship, and Di’s and David’s nascent attraction for them help flesh out the third act.
However, aside from its movie-buff feel, at the end of the day the pic is reliant on a certain kind of low-key comedy that auds, especially non-British, will either get or not. Filmmakers see it as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Undead”; in fact, it’s more like “Shaun and Ed’s Excellent Adventure (on a Budget).”
Helmer Wright showed what he could do with almost no money but a lot of imagination in his first pic, the English Western spoof “Fistful of Fingers” (1994), made when he was age 20. Though “Shaun” is from Working Title’s low-end shingle, WT², production values look like “Titanic” in comparison with “Fistful,” with sharp, good-looking widescreen lensing by Yank d.p. David M. Dunlap (graduating from second-unit work on studio pictures), and occasionally flashy use of sound and visual effects. Finale, which plays like a spoof of “Assault on Precinct 13,” is staged OK on a budget.
Performances are on the nail, with vets Wilton and Nighy blending easily into the younger fabric. Pegg dominates throughout, but both Frost and Ashfield contribute strong support, with the latter again showing she’s one of Blighty’s most underrated young movie actresses.