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A mindful zombie spoof

The notion of a zombie movie parody is a bit unappealing. Already satires of modern society, the genre is based upon the bedfellows of fear and laughs – an oozing, collapsing face can keep you up at night for years, or it can provide a momentary chuckle depending on the circumstances. Even the primarily serious zombie numbers, such as the recent 28 Days Later, utilize such bombastic techniques that even the most dire moments retain an aire of slapstick.

Exacerbating the situation is the pedestrian Scary Movie trilogy, which played out like a grumpy 8-year-old doing its chores. Topicality and direct reference seem stale by the time they reach the big screen, particularly with something as classic and primitive as zombie flicks.

It’s lucky, then, that Shaun of the Dead, the British zombie comedy released last Friday to American audiences, is far from a parody. Rather, it’s really a fish-out-of-water comedy — the denizens of slacker films and office satires find themselves in the gory heaving masses of bloody undead. While in other flicks the first sight of a zombie results in a panicked but resolute counterstrike, Shaun and his friends regard the whole affair first with lazy disbelief, then as a self-help adventure.

Most strikingly, their antics seem always appropriate and never gimmicky. These are fully developed characters that simply happen to be inhabiting a zombie film, and so everything from the cinematography to the effects to the music are modelled after the zombie classics. The zombies operate as if they’re straight from George Romero’s classic Living Dead trilogy (the middle installment of which is Shaun’s namesake), the cinematography reflects a modern grittiness a la 28 Days Later.

Only the characters have changed, and they provide an amusing and strong backbone to the film’s tried and true plot of discovery-travel-defense. Shaun, the titular hero, played by co-writer Simon Pegg, is surprisingly picturesque in his red tie and bloodied buttondown shirt, hefting a cricket bat over his shoulder. His sidekick is Ed, his drug-dealing, unemployed ‘flatmate’ who treats much of his zombie experience as if in a video game.

Together, the pair provide the film’s wry banter, none of which seems forced. When the pair go through Shaun’s record collection debating what albums to use as throwing star-like weapons while being slowly approached by brain eaters, it feels less like a gag and more like something they would actually do.

The rest of the movie’s humor is derived from the tension between the characters and their filmic environment. Vacillating between the two extremes of pure comedy and pure drama, the film at times grows uncomfortably slow and tiresome. It’s a character study at heart, and so when Shaun and his posse are thrown into serious situations, the movie as a whole goes in a similar direction.

Some of the best moments, thankfully, come at the end, after a rather long and pointless climax that employs laughs sparingly. While mostly fun, the experience is a bit disappointing, thanks to taking its thesis a touch too seriously.

Along with the remake of Dawn of the Dead, Shaun is a new take on the genre that shows that the undead are far from gone. And with two George Romero zombie films slated for 2005, it’ll keep you busy for a few more months.

Daily Californian, U. California — Berkeley