Zombies are the new black. With the success of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later last year and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake this year, the time is right for Shaun of the Dead, a British horror-comedy parodying the zombie genre (in particular George Romero's classic Dead trilogy) while simultaneously following its rules. Director and co-writer Edgar Wright and star and co-writer Simon Pegg clearly know their horror movies—Romero himself has given the film his seal of approval—and they know very well how to balance genuine scares with humor, and how each can inform and strengthen the other.
At their hearts, many horror films are satires, and Shaun simply takes that concept one step further. Romero's zombie films, especially the original Dawn of the Dead, from which Shaun takes its title, were as much stabs at contemporary cultures as they were gore-fests. Shaun takes the same tactic. Romero's zombies spent their time in a shopping mall; here, they permeate every aspect of humdrum daily London life. Shaun himself (Pegg) is an assistant manager at an electronics store, a thankless job in which he has to contend with snotty teenage employees who consider him over the hill at age 29.
Sleepwalking through life (much like, you know, a zombie), Shaun finds his only pleasures in girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) and slacker buddy Ed (Nick Frost), who spends all his time playing video games and making fart jokes. As the movie begins, Liz dumps Shaun because of his general lack of direction in life, but since this is a romantic comedy as well as a zombie movie, you know that they're getting back together in the end. It's the zombies who facilitate the reconciliation, even as Shaun and Ed set out to rescue Liz, her elitist roommates and Shaun's mother once the undead start taking over the city.
As in any good horror flick, the main characters need a place to hole up away from the bad guys, and here they end up in a local pub, one of the sources of friction between Shaun and Liz. While the early parts of the film are defined largely by the witty banter between Shaun and Ed, Wright and Pegg wring some surprisingly suspenseful and touching moments out of the film's latter half, while still throwing in plenty of humor. Shaun and Liz's relationship is obviously the focal point, but there also is real depth in the relationship between Shaun, his mother and his stepfather.
By the time zombies are swarming the pub, you may almost forget the film is a comedy, as Wright creates genuine suspense and an air of unease, effectively following the zombie formula while still throwing in bits of humor. Strangely enough, you may find yourself laughing during the film's most horrific moments, simply because Wright and Pegg have given you permission; by labeling the film a comedy, they force you to consider the line between what's funny and what's scary, with the realization of how easily that line can be blurred.
Toward the last reel, the film drags somewhat, and while the ending is funny, it represents a bit of a deus ex machina. Wright and Pegg have painted themselves into a corner to some degree with their premise, needing to keep the story lighthearted while focusing on the flesh-eating undead.
Horror comedies like Scream often achieve their greatest success thanks to their meta-textual commentaries, but aside from a few throwaway references, Shaun plays both its horror and comedy completely straight, and that's its best quality. You buy into Shaun and Liz's romance as easily as you buy into the threat of zombie infestation, because they are treated as real threats faced by the characters, not "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" in-jokes with the audience. Shaun works as a satire of modern life because it's an honest depiction of modern life, zombies notwithstanding. It's the direct opposite of camp, in that it imposes no distance between its filmmakers and characters, characters and situations, or characters and audience. Ridiculous and heartfelt, it's both the funniest zombie movie and the scariest romantic comedy you're likely to ever see.