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Edgar Wright is living proof that your parents were wrong when they told you that playing video games won’t get you anywhere in life. In fact, the 30-year-old director of British box-office hit Shaun of the Dead readily admits that his take on the classic George A. Romero tale of zombie apocalypse was inspired by—well, the very activity that’s supposed to suck your brains dry.
“When we were making Spaced,” explains Wright, referring to the popular U.K. sitcom he co-wrote with SOTD writer and star Simon Pegg, “[we] were playing Resident Evil—the Japanese one—a lot. And it brought back warm and fuzzy feelings of the Romero trilogy. So we did a dream sequence in Spaced where Simon’s character was fighting zombies in his flat after taking some cheap speed and playing Resident Evil for 10 hours.”
Joined by Pegg and Nick Frost, another Spaced veteran, who plays Shaun’s deadbeat roommate Ed, Wright is at Dupont Circle’s Fairmont Hotel to promote the U.S. release of the film, which, naturally, grew out of that cheap-speed sitcom sequence. “In the TV show,” the director says, “there were a lot of dream sequences and fantasy sequences…and we just wanted to do a film where nobody had to wake up at the end.”
Ironically, however, waking up is exactly what Shaun of the Dead is all about. Instead of attacking the cult of consumerism, as Romero did with the seminal Dawn of the Dead, Wright and the 34-year-old Pegg shaped their “rom-zom-com” into a cautionary tale about post-collegiate slackerdom and big-city complacency. Pegg plays the movie’s hero, a 29-year-old electronics-store employee who’s teased by his teenage co-workers and dumped by a girlfriend tired of having all their dates end up at the Winchester, the local pub.
“We decided that the general metaphor of the zombies in this film represented laziness and apathy,” Wright says. “It’s very easy during that period in your life to stretch a three-month temporary job to six years.”
“Zombies are really ripe for being employed as metaphor, because they really are human beings, albeit a bastardized version of them,” Pegg adds. “In London specifically, but in every city, there are people who are just sort of these automatons wandering around in their own little bubbles, not really acknowledging each other. And we took that to its literal extreme, where Shaun is genuinely in danger of being consumed by the collective.”
Though SOTD’s mouth-breathing commuters and checkout girls could be native to any urban environment, Wright and Pegg were adamant about shooting where the film is set, in North London. “It’s very difficult to get films made in London, probably as difficult a location as New York,” Wright says. “Therefore there are loads of British films that film in other cities doubling as London, which is just bullshit. It was really important to us to represent a London onscreen that you don’t usually see in films. You’re either used to seeing Richard Curtis’ upper-class kind of London or Guy Ritchie’s romanticized, kind of geezerish, kind of scummy London. Ours is really the London where 6 million people live—more suburban, almost more Mike Leigh–ish than anything else.”
Wright was also determined to put what he calls “the English spin” on the zombie genre. “One of the jokes is how ill-equipped [the British] are to deal with the apocalypse,” he says. “Even just on the firearms matter—in the U.K., there are hardly any kind of firearms that people can legally own, so one of the questions after watching these films and playing these games was ‘What would we do if there was a zombie in our back yard, and how would we defend ourselves? What household items are we going to use to counter this thing, to extinguish the zombie threat?’
“So there’s a large section of the film inspired just by that, about having to deal with zombies on a Sunday morning with a hangover. With the paucity of shotguns lying around under people’s beds, you’d have to make do with, like, records!”
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Indeed, whether it’s with the vinyl relics Shaun and Ed deem expendable enough to fight backyard zombies (not New Order’s “Blue Monday”—or even the Stone Roses’ Second Coming) or with the awful songs that pop up on random play from the Winchester’s jukebox (Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now”), Wright and Pegg make their musical tastes nearly as apparent as their cinematic ones. “Don’t knock Queen!” Wright counters when the jukebox is mentioned. “Now, Chicago…well, mind you, even that’s a good song!
“We all have a wide range in taste in music, so it’s nice to be able to use some of that in surprising ways,” he continues. “I’m really proud of the soundtrack, to have a CD that features a John Carpenter score, and Goblin—you know, from the original Dead—Queen, Chicago, Ash all on the same album.”
Despite its punny title, SOTD, the filmmakers insist, should be viewed as a “companion piece” to that film rather than as a parody. “If anything, it’s more of a parody of British romantic comedies than it is of the Romero trilogy,” Wright says. “I don’t mean to be splitting hairs, but a parody usually suggests somebody taking the rise out of something, whereas the idea here is that the zombie action is actually played reasonably straight. What’s funny is the characters. We wanted it to be much more like American Werewolf in London than the Scary Movie films. We certainly didn’t want to make a broad spoof.”
And the film earns its R rating through more than its characters’ liberal use of the F-word (as opposed to their reluctance to utter “the zed-word”): Things do get gory, though the filmmakers wanted to keep the blood ’n’ guts from seeming CGI-slick. “One of the things we wanted to do with the horror angle was to go against the kind of things that Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson have already done brilliantly, and actually make the zombie action quite realistic, even though it’s a comedy,” Wright says. “And as such, weirdly, even though we’re very big fans of prosthetic effects and old-school effects, we used digital stuff to help it look more realistic, if that makes any sense. And that’s inspired by some of the Japanese horror films like Battle Royale.”
“We used [CGI] very subtly, where you don’t expect to see it,” Pegg explains. “You don’t notice it subconsciously. You think that, say, a blood splatter was done with a pack. But when I pull the dart out of my head, there’s a little squirt, and that’s CGI. It really works because we’re used to seeing CGI on big creatures and Jar Jar Binkses.”
“It really opened my eyes, actually, because I’ve always been a techno purist,” Wright says. “But now I realize that the best effects are a combination of things. We didn’t really want to go into the territory of CGI zombies, like you see in Resident Evil, because I think it doesn’t have any genuine sense of threat.”
Wright should know: He’s worked on numerous British TV shows besides Spaced, and he made his first film, the Western comedy Fistful of Fingers, at the ripe old age of 20. “I went to art college for a little bit,” he says, “but I basically made lots of amateur films, which culminated in doing a featurette. Then I moved to London and met Simon on the comedy circuit.”
Pegg had studied theater, film, and TV at Bristol University before moving to London to become a stand-up comic, which is when a mutual friend introduced him to Frost. “After I met Edgar, we went to work on a short together called Asylum, then me, Jessica [Stevenson], and Edgar went off to make Spaced,” Pegg says. “I wrote a part into it for Nick because I thought he was such a funny man and should be on television.”
Frost had been waiting tables for 10 years before Pegg offered him a role in Spaced, on which he played gun-loving loser Mike Watt. Though Ed, Shaun’s gassy, unemployed roommate who does little but—what else?—play first-person shooters and scratch himself, may be not too different, Frost decided to go Method with the part and do a bit of…shaving. Down South. “Ed is just a slovenly, itchy guy,” says Frost, noting that he lived in Ed’s “I Got Wood” T-shirt for weeks at a time. “Simon and Edgar were surprised at the lengths I was willing to go to to get into character.”
Frost says that he wasn’t crazy about acting at first, but now he’s enjoying being “in the family.” Wright, citing the Coen brothers, Christopher Guest, and Quentin Tarantino as inspirations, plans to stick with a repertory cast in future projects, which, despite the enthusiastic reception SOTD has been receiving Stateside, probably won’t include a sequel.
“We’re working on our next thing,” Pegg says. “It’s not going to be a sequel to Shaun of the Dead, but it will be kind of a sequel in spirit. We’re thinking of tackling the U.K. cop as action hero.”
“We have had thoughts about how a sequel would work, but we’ve got a lot of other stories we want to tell,” Wright adds.
“And if we did two, we’d have to do three,” Pegg chimes in.
“Yeah, we’d have to do three,” says Wright. “What would you call two films? Three’s a trilogy, two’s a…duet! You couldn’t have a duet of films.”—Tricia Olszewski