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Suffering ghouls gladly

Shaun of the Dead reanimates zombie genre

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Do zombies look just like ordinary people, or is it vice versa? Every day, you might encounter somebody -- slumped in a cubicle, gaping at a television, shuffling out of a bar -- who could in fact be the walking dead. Horror flicks regularly frighten us with the idea of someone turning into a monster, but the cleverest zombie movies play on the ways we already resemble mindless ghouls.

In the English comedy-thriller Shaun of the Dead, the title character learns to enjoy life to the fullest only after slaying zombies by the gross. Writer/director Edgar Wright's Shaun gleefully employs loads full of stage blood, but rises above the genre's shlocky traditions with a premise of true comic genius.

Co-writer Simon Pegg plays Shaun, a well-meaning, put-upon bloke stuck in a rut. His slobby roommate, Ed (Nick Frost), takes advantage of him; his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), complains about his lack of ambition; and his electronics store job takes him nowhere. The film follows him on his sad-sack daily routine, from riding the bus alongside slack-jawed, glazed-eyed commuters to playing video games with Ed on the couch.

Shaun and his friends don't realize that a catastrophe right out of George Romero is happening right under their noses. In the margins of the scenes, we notice tabloid headlines that cry "END OF THE WORLD?" and TV screens at Shaun's shop showing scientists in biohazard suits. In the background, we hear sirens in the distance. Conditions deteriorate while Shaun casually picks up a snack from the corner newsstand, blissfully ignorant of the bloody handprints on the fridge, the zombified neighborhood panhandler and the eerie absence of living souls.

At first, Wright sustains the conceit so well that you almost wish the entire film would unfold in that fashion, that Shaun and company would chat about trivia and work through their differences without ever noticing the apocalypse. But then Shaun and Ed realize that the comical drunk in their back yard is actually a reanimated corpse ravenous for their flesh, and the film becomes a wisecracking action flick full of grisly slapstick.

Initially, Shaun balks at the reality of their situation. "Don't say the Z-word!" he tells Ed, despite the evidence of the undead faces pushed up against the kitchen window. When he takes bold action to protect his mother, girlfriend and buddies, the upside dawns on him. For a video game buff, the chance to take a cricket bat and clobber real zombies is a dream come true.

In classic disaster-movie fashion, Shaun gathers a loose-knit team that alternates between cooperative and bitchy as they embark on an odyssey from Shaun's flat to his mum's house to the well-fortified local pub. En route, Wright and Pegg (who have a cult following for their Brit-com "Spaced") crack inside jokes from zombie movies like 28 Days Later to "The Office." Some comic set pieces prove truly inspired. When Shaun and Ed frantically fend off unthinking marauders, they paw through Shaun's record collection and argue which ones to use as weapons. Liz's flatmate ("The Office's" Lucy Davis), a would-be thespian, leads the group in an impromptu acting exercise so they can walk among zombies undetected.

Drawn-out sieges prove a mainstay of the zombie genre, and when Shaun of the Dead's cast makes its last stand in the pub, the film builds to moments of anguished intensity that play against the deadpan comedy that came before. Wright and his actors handle the heavy dramatics better than you'd expect, but the high emotions and instances of graphic violence undercut the humor that makes Shaun of the Dead so darkly delightful.

Fortunately, the film's epilogue takes the implications of the walking dead to conclusions that prove both uproarious and oddly plausible. With its cheerfully snappy pace and ensemble of lovable slackers, Shaun of the Dead could sport the subtitle How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Zombies.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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