Any comedian who has ever believed that “dying is easy, comedy is hard,” probably never had a moaning, tongue-flappin’ zombie snapping at their heels. Dying at the hands of the undead is never an effortless way to go, nor is it ever glamorous. Now, achieving comedy in light of death? That’s probably the greatest challenge to which many have faced but few have walked away successfully.
John Landis put a humorous bite on the wolf man lore in An American Werewolf in London (1981). Strain the frights and mind-blowing Rick Baker FX from Werewolf and you’ll find there’s a startling straight-faced horror film beating at the heart of this beast, but because Landis braced Werewolf with a wry wit and two actors who could back it up (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) the picture is a now classic amalgam of two genres one would not necessarily think could walk easily hand-in-hand.
A new entry to test the tonal balance is coming to the States from the UK when Shaun of the Dead makes a meal out of theatergoers September 24th (courtesy of Rogue Pictures) after already having a theatrical release across the pond earlier this year. Mixing guts ‘n giggles, Shaun is directed by Edgar Wright and co-written Simon Pegg, who also stars. It’s a working relationship the two established in the British television series Spaced, a comedy that brings you to your knees while spitting out references to The Shining, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a slew of other movie classics that obviously inspired its creators.
The show clearly opens the coffin lid on this duo’s reverence for the walking dead as well. Pegg’s character, a struggling comic book artist, has posters for Evil Dead II and Dawn of the Dead adoringly displayed in his living room. One episode even features him getting caught up in the original Resident Evil game blurring the line between reality and undead fantasy. Wright goes so far as to use Evil‘s soundtrack as the underlying music for the brief Spaced title sequence in the episode too. So, was it a natural choice that the pair made their first feature a zombie project? You might say that. Shot on a 45-day schedule and on a modest budget, Shaun finds Wright carrying over his Spaced comedy troupe and thrusting them into a zombie apocalypse. Some characters don’t catch on right away, namely our titular hero who is too wrapped up in a relationship crisis with his girlfriend to even notice…the dead are all around him. Outside of the fact that the film is set in England, Shaun relates to An American Werewolf in London in that it’s a heady inter-genre brew that’s effective on all counts – probably the best effort of its breed to shamble along our shores in a long time.
Dread Central tracked down Wright and Pegg for a phone interview in Seattle, one of their stops along a West Coast Shaun of the Dead screening tour.
Ryan Rotten: Shaun excels at being a return to form, you’ve gone out and made an old school Romero-type zombie movie, and you guys have proven that you had the chops to do it all along. Why the decision to make it a comedy as well?
Edgar Wright: Obviously we’re big fans of the Romero films but we wanted to do our own spin on it in terms of not only doing something that took place in the UK but even more specifically something that took place in our own backyard – make it a comedy, aside from the horror, that has something that’s truthful and personal in some respects. In a way that was the fun thing about doing it because not only did we want to make a very referential zombie film but we wanted to shoot it through the eyes of our own experience. It’s almost like a fantasy in terms of: what if Neal Simon woke up one Sunday morning with a hangover and had to contend with zombies? That was always the pitch, it’s sort of the “what if?” A lot of films of this ilk you’re following the SWAT team, the scientists or the army, so we wanted to show it as a couple of couch potatoes having to deal with the end of the world.
Simon Pegg: We also liked the idea of taking two genres that weren’t necessarily compatible and forcing them to live together, the horror film and the comedy living harmoniously together.
RR: And this sub-genre, the zombie film, is about as bleak as you can come.
SP: It’s also the most lampoon-able, if that’s a word, because we have seen zombie comedies – and dancing zombies now – it’s one that’s very fragile, but when it’s done properly it’s brilliant but it’s also the easiest to make fun of. We didn’t really want to do that, we wanted our zombies to be utterly believable and – in the great tradition of George Romero – sort of fascinating, sympathetic, horrific, funny in a kind of grim way.
RR: Was it easy to convince the financiers on this pitch?
EW: I suppose it was easier for us to pitch it as a comedy having had a comedy background than maybe the horror aspect. I think the company that eventually picked it up, and the company we developed it with, they definitely got it and knew what we were trying to do. There were other companies who read the script and passed because they weren’t sure what the tone was and said it wasn’t all that scary and not that funny. They didn’t get it. We were always sure of what we wanted to do, but I think maybe people in the industry who had seen Spaced… There are things in the film which get enormous laughs which on the page don’t necessarily look all that [funny], but it’s all in the playing of it. Not unlike Spaced. The dialogue isn’t people saying jokes or smart one-liners. Shaun, apart from one exception, doesn’t have any smart one-liners like [Evil Dead‘s] Ash who’s saying cool things all the time. It’s all very normal, but that’s the joke. The joke is in the context, it’s like setting these very mundane situations and every day dialogue against the end of the world.
RR: Are you afraid any of this humor will get lost on US audiences?
SP: Not really, I think the humor is certainly not broad but it’s very evident. Without making it sound slapstick, the humor is like broad subtlety. We didn’t want at any point either of the genres to prevail, as it were. When it’s at its most funny there’s still horrific things going on in the background, but sometimes we couldn’t ignore the drama either.
RR: There’s a very human and real side to the material that doesn’t fall back into unbelievable, extreme comedy.
EW: It’s definitely a different thing. We wanted to do a horror comedy that had a unique tone, I mean, I’m as big a fan of Evil Dead II, Braindead [a.k.a. Dead Alive] and From Dusk till Dawn as the next guy. But we wanted to do something that could change its tone on a dime and make it work. If you invest a lot of time in characters and dispatch them in an incredibly jokey way, then I think you’re doing your characters a disservice. One of the things that we love about the original Dawn of the Dead is that you spend so much time with the characters you don’t want to see any of them die, unlike a Friday the 13th or a slasher film where you’re waiting for the next “splat.” In Dawn of the Dead even Roger, the prick, you don’t want to see him get it.
RR: When Savini talks about Dawn he sometimes brings up the story about how his zombies had a run-in with the old folks who’d take their walks around the mall in the morning. Got any stories to share about your zombie extras?
SP: The experience of working in the Winchester Pub was quite funny because we had a hundred and fifty zombies wandering around. The local kids were so thrilled by it that they were cuing up to be blooded by the makeup department – so we had an extra fifty zombies for the background. I remember that being really fun, particularly the night shoots because they’d have a running barbecue all night. We also had a zombie faint on us. He was really tall, huge. It got really warm in the studio because it was the height of summer and the sun was baking, essentially turning the place into an oven. We were right in the middle of a really important bit. There was just this crash and one of the zombies went down, he threw up all over the floor…
EW: We should’ve gotten it on camera! [laughs] There was one particular death scene where the zombies get to chow down and the extras who were in that scene, up until that point, were only seen as silhouettes banging on the doors and the windows. When they finally got to kill somebody they went crazy!
RR: That scene was an utter shocker for me because, without giving too much away to our readers, I couldn’t believe you brought back the Romero “zombie kill!” Did you have any problems ushering that past censors?
EW: Weirdly enough no. We always said if it gets an 18, which is the equivalent of an R, we didn’t want anybody to be scared of that, I kept citing examples that Scream was an 18 and [Danny Boyle’s] 28 Days Later was an 18. Shaun initially got an 18 but then got downgraded to a 15 which is the equivalent of your PG-13, which is crazy! At first we thought the hardcore horror fans were going to think it wasn’t going to be that gory, but the upshort of it was that people went into the film knowing it was 15 and were then really shocked by how gory it was. It worked out really well in the end.
SP: It’s great because Shaun has attracted an audience that might not necessarily frequent horror films. We get the joy of baptizing some people with these kinds of deaths. People who wouldn’t normally see films like Dawn or Day of the Dead…we get the jump on being their first ever disembowelment.
RR: Simon, what advantages are there for an actor who has also written the material?
SP: Well, it just meant that I could write to my own strengths. In terms of wishful filming, I could write whatever I would want to do or see. I think it would be great if there were more actor/writer and actor/director teams because I think the final piece would have a stronger identity because less people have contributed to it in a way, it’s more of a polarized view. It was really great to be able to write for myself and my friends. Most of the actors we used in the film we always had in mind, certainly Kate Ashfeld who plays Liz, definitely Nick Frost who plays Ed, and Pete Serafinowicz who plays the angry flat mate. It would be difficult to say which I prefer, writing or acting. I guess acting is more fun, but it’s certainly a luxury to be able to write for yourself.
RR: I hear you guys want to do an action film next?
EW: Yeah, we don’t want to necessarily make a sequel to Shaun but a sequel in tone with the same sensibilities and same cast. At the moment the genre we decided to tackle next is the cop/action genre – which there are no previous British entries really. It’s the same thing we did with Spaced. It was charming to recreate American, Japanese, and Italian genres in a suburban English setting.
RR: What are your thoughts on this resurgence of horror coming out of the UK?
EW: It doesn’t feel like much of a movement in terms of a bunch of people working together. What’s been interesting traveling the States is realizing how many other directors know each other and collaborate. In the UK I may be specialized with maybe two other directors who don’t work in the same genres as me. It’s unfortunately a fallacy that there’s a horror crowd in the UK because everybody works pretty independently. There’s Neil Marshall who did Dog Soldiers, Danny Boyle doesn’t consider himself a horror director, so he doesn’t count – he’s very quick to not use the “h” word. Even though there have been some good genre entries as of late it seems a shame to admit there really isn’t a British horror crowd. We certainly haven’t found one.
SP: It’s a simple fact that there was a period of time when horror was a dirty word anyway. I remember seeing an interview with John Carpenter talking about the fact that nobody made horror films anymore, everybody had to make spoofs or call them thrillers because horror was like a childish genre. Now, the contemporary filmmakers who grew up on a diet of ’70s early-’80s stuff are in a position to do their own films and are doing it because they love it. It’s far from being a childish, simplistic thing. It’s very hard to make a good horror movie. Even in our case you had to do it with a straight face. The zombies in Shaun are not funny, they are the good ol’ shambolic, blood drooling scary creatures. Just because there’s comedy elsewhere in the film doesn’t mean that they have to be not taken seriously. We’re very proud of the fact that we stuck to our guns and kept the horror aspect of Shaun of the Dead intact. We’ve had people come out and say it’s a great zombie movie which is a huge compliment.
EW: What I find fascinating, and you’ll hear this in horror director commentaries and interviews, is people using the word “gag” to describe any kind of stunt or gore thing. It struck me that there’s the same amount of artistry or sense of timing that goes into staging a shock as there is to staging a gag. Almost like there is as much thought that goes into the composition of a frame in a John Carpenter film as there does in a Zucker brothers film. So I kind of think pulling off a “boo” moment and a successful visual gag are not entirely dissimilar.
SP: If you look at jokes and or something like ghost stories, they’re structurally the same anyway. You set up the mood and pull it off with a laugh or a scare.
EW: We’ve done laughter and shock, next time we want mass crying.
SP: We’ll do a serious porn movie.