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Shaun of the Dead

Lo-Fi Horror with a Romantic and Comedic Twist

Since the Scream saga ushered in the resurgence of the horror genre as a heavyweight box-office draw, fans of gratuitous gore have been treated to an endless stream of tongue-in-cheek slasher fare (I Know What You Did Last Summer), regrettable remakes (Psycho), retro camp (Freddy vs. Jason, Seed of Chucky) and mind-numbing drivel (Cabin Fever). In 1996, that devilish Leprechaun launched himself into space; five years later, Jason followed. This was, needless to say, an instance of creative bankruptcy in search of a buck rather than of great minds thinking alike.

Judging from the recent success of 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead, it seems that flesh-eating zombies have once again become the flavor of the moment. Shaun of the Dead, a British romantic comedy with enough splatter to make Wes Craven blush, might be the best of the bunch.

That's not to say it boasts the most remarkable special effects or the jagged, rapid-fire camera work of 28 Days Later. There are some darkly amusing shots in Shaun of the Dead -- witness awestruck London pub buddies Shaun (Simon Pegg) and best friend Ed (Nick Frost), seen through the gaping gash in a zombie's stomach -- but there is nothing groundbreaking here. There is, however, something refreshingly simple about the film's style, which owes more to the watered-down ketchup approach of old-school horrormeisters like George Romero, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson -- think 1992's Dead-Alive, not Lord of the Rings -- than to any of the slick, MTV-inspired visual gimmickry to have emerged during the past decade.

But then, that's precisely the point. Unlike, say, Final Destination 2, which was a highlight reel of well-choreographed slaughters in search of a plot, this movie is driven by characters, human emotions other than fear, and wickedly sharp dialogue. More shocking than the amount of blood spilled is the fact that the film, involving Shaun's desperate efforts to rescue his girlfriend Liz from legions of flesh-eating corpses, is both genuinely romantic and funny. That's largely because Shaun, the exasperated Liz (Kate Ashfield) and the cheerfully obnoxious Ed are given real depth. Even the supporting players, particularly Shaun's cold stepfather, are established as complex, sympathetic beings rather than mere corpses-to-be.

There are plenty of laughs here, often provided by Ed's brash obliviousness -- this is a guy, after all, who chatters away loudly on his cell phone while his friends are surrounded by a throng of bloodthirsty ghouls. But Shaun of the Dead, written by Pegg, Frost and director Edgar Wright, doesn't rely on in-jokes aimed to tickle the horror crowd, just as it refuses to fall back on cheap, CGI-driven terror tactics. Instead it takes the high road, seamlessly integrating offbeat comedy with white-knuckled scariness, all to a surprisingly rousing effect.

Stars: 4.5 out of 5