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Sly zombie fun in ‘Shaun of the Dead!

Slackers take on zombies in this British comedy. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

There’s a fantastic, lengthy tracking shot at the beginning of “Shaun of the Dead” that’s representative of the film’s sly humor. Actually, it happens twice.

The first time, slacker Shaun (Simon Pegg) walks out the front gate of his suburban London flat, runs into a panhandler who begs for spare change, walks across the street and stumbles over the curb. Then he enters a convenience store, wanders down an aisle, opens a refrigerator and pulls out a can of soda; he leaves some money on the counter before walking out and returning home.

The second time happens the next morning. Zombies have begun invading Shaun’s quiet little ’hood — but he’s too clueless to notice. He goes through the same routine, only this time the zombified panhandler staggers toward him with glazed eyes, groaning for spare change. The street Shaun crosses and the curb he stumbles over are teeming with trash, smashed cars and some more of the undead. Once he enters the convenience store, bloody hand prints stain the glass refrigerator door and a puddle of something gooey in the aisle causes Shaun to slip and slide. He leaves money on the counter before walking out and returning home.

It’s that kind of comedy that makes “Shaun of the Dead” a rare successful hybrid. Similar to “An American Werewolf in London” (1981), it’s a horror movie that’s funny, intelligent — and, yes — horrific, and seamlessly so. And like George A. Romero’s 1968 cult classic, “Night of the Living Dead” and its sequel “Dawn of the Dead,” sources of great inspiration for Pegg and director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the script, it has a certain irresistible B-movie charm.

“Shaun of the Dead” is also incredibly self-aware in its hipness, especially in its music selection, but not obnoxiously so. “Ghost Town” by The Specials plays in the film’s beginning. While Shaun is flipping channels on the telly and ignoring breaking news reports of destruction and carnage, he runs across Morrissey, The Smiths’ lead singer, crooning, “Panic on the streets of London ....”

Possibly the most obscure of all: The electronic party anthem playing as Shaun rides the bus to his dead-end job, which you’ve probably heard at every professional sporting event in the past couple of years but don’t know the name of, is called “Zombie Nation.”

These little details and others add up in ways that aren’t clear from the outset. Shaun’s fat best friend and flatmate, Ed (a slovenly, scene-stealing Nick Frost), lazes around all day and occasionally sells pot, but he mostly plays video games in which he has to shoot bad guys. This skill becomes helpful later.

Wright layers subtle tension builders — an incessantly ringing phone, an increasing number of emergency sirens, the sound of a driver laying on his horn — but even when things start looking bad, “Shaun of the Dead” never takes itself too seriously.

Back to the music for a moment: In a laugh-out-loud sequence, Shaun and Ed defend themselves from zombies in the backyard by throwing albums from Shaun’s collection at their heads. But they do it selectively: Flinging Dire Straits or Sade in the name of survival is acceptable, but not an original pressing of New Order’s “Blue Monday.”

After holding off the zombies with a cricket bat, Shaun eventually holes up at his favorite pub with Ed, his mum (Penelope Wilton), a couple of friends and his ex-girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield) — who was sick of always going to said pub, one of the many reasons she dumped the selfish, useless Shaun. Once things get worse, and the movie takes a gory, dramatic turn, you get to know the characters and like them enough to truly care about their fate.

The pasty, scruffy Pegg shows a surprising amount of range for the unlikely hero of a zombie flick. By the end, when devastating events are taking place all around him and he’s forced to show unexpected bravery and leadership, you actually feel as if you’ve watched a transformation — not just someone going from dead to undead, but going from dead to alive.