At the heart of the masterfully witty Shaun of the Dead lies a question whose time has come: If Britain were to become overrun with shuffling, brain-dead zombies, how long would it take anybody to notice?
Not that the film's mock-apocalyptic framework is uniquely English; the conundrum of being unable to distinguish between panhandling X-heads and the walking undead is applicable enough to our own culture to make this "rom zom com" (romantic zombie comedy) a potential stateside smash. Still, there's something delicious about seeing a bunch of post-Thatcher North Londoners slowly learn to distinguish between their customarily low-yield environment and an epidemic of grave-defying cannibalism.
The movie builds to that realization with sly gradualism, concentrating at first on the humdrum day-to-day life of appliance salesman Shaun (Simon Pegg, also the film's co-writer). Unassuming and unambitious, Shaun is a source of perpetual disappointment to his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), who wishes their courtship would entail more variety than regular trips to the neighborhood pub. Yet Shaun is Mr. Excitement compared to his flatmate, the loutish layabout Ed (Nick Frost): His entire routine seems to consist of playing video games and making dope deals. Any support Shaun can find in his relationship with his beloved mum (Penelope Wilton) is complicated by the presence of stiff, disapproving stepdad Philip (Bill Nighy of Love, Actually). Like many of the characters, Philip is a zombie of sorts from the moment the story begins a joke the movie explores with gusto as a wave of marauding flesh-eaters hits their town and Sean's sad-sack existence becomes a blood-curdling fight for survival.
Director/co-writer Edgar Wright and director of photography David M. Dunlap relegate the evidence of the zombie invasion to the outer corners of the frame for as long as possible, wringing maximum laughs from subtle warning signs an ominous newscast here, a bloody handprint there that nobody seems to notice. When the threat finally becomes too overt to ignore, and our hero has to take up primitive arms to defend home and hearth, Shaun becomes a great parody of zombie movies and a great zombie movie in its own right. In terms of action and suspense, it's infinitely better than this year's half-assed Dawn of the Dead remake, and not even its momentary turn for the rote in Act Three can dull its superior conflation of giggles and gore.
Satisfying the requirements of genre piece and send-up is feat enough, but Shaun doesn't stop there, lacing its slapstick disembowelments with very satisfying (and, again, very British) character comedy. After first encountering the zombies, Shaun's incurably polite mother says only that they were "a bit bitey"; you have to love her as much as her boy does, and such feelings of tenderness come to permeate every human interaction on the screen. For all its satirical sass, this is the story of a young man who just wants to hold on to the things that are near and dear to him, no matter how mundane they may be.
Oh, and to get to the pub before the zombies wreck the place. Because we can't have that.