How ‘Shaun of the Dead’ Brought The Zombie Comedy Back From The Grave

In 2013, I was lucky enough to attend an early screening of The World’s End that included a post Q&A with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright. The focus of course was supposed to be on the movie that we had all just watched, but naturally a good deal of the questions revolved around the previous films of the Cornetto trilogy — particularly Shaun of the Dead.

After falling out of fashion in the mid-1990s, zombies were starting to make a comeback thanks to films like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and the cult following of The Walking Dead comic. Edgar Wright started production on his own zombie movie in May 2003 and 10 years ago this week, gave us Shaun of the Dead, not only a great zombie movie, but a biting comedy that would help reinvigorate the zombie movie sub-genre, the zom-com. Wright had been a fan of horror movies in his youth, developing an affection for contemporary horror movies like Dawn of the Dead that took the terror to suburban settings. Making his own horror movie and relaunching a sub-genre would prove to be an incredibly fun, but also stressful undertaking for Wright, Pegg, and Frost, even though they had begun preparing for it years before production even began.

From home movies to sketch TV

Like a lot of filmmakers, Edgar Wright first developed an interest in making movies during his youth, simply from goofing around with his friends. His father had bought him a camera when he was 14 that he would use to document adventures with friends and recreate scenes from his favorite movies. The budding hobby continued into college and eventually led to Wright putting together a 16 mm version of one of his earliest amateur films, A Fistful of Fingers.

“We made it with money from local business, cast it with local schoolfriends and shot the whole thing in 20 days. It was borne out of a tremendous energy from everyone involved, but also complete naivete. Still it got some good reviews, got me an agent and got me my first TV job – from Matt Lucas and David Walliams – on their Paramount sketch show Mash & Peas.” Via Film4

It was during Edgar Wright’s time on Mash & Peas that he was introduced to Simon Pegg at one of Matt Lucas and David Williams’ live comedy shows. After catching Pegg’s stand-up act and learning that they shared a similar taste for movies and music, the two developed a friendship and Wright started to notice Pegg’s ability to find the humor in nearly any situation.

It was following their work together with Jessica Stevenson on 1996’s Asylum, that Pegg and Stevenson expressed their interest to Wright in developing a show that would spotlight the culture and disenfranchised lives of two English 20-somethings. Spaced would air on Channel 4 from 1999-2001 and provide Wright and Pegg with the proper vehicle to hone their writing chops. It was Wright and Pegg’s cohesive cultural references and attention to making mundane everyday city life appear surreal that would evolve into a style all their own. Looking back at Spaced, it’s obvious to Wright the influence it had on how Shaun of the Dead was approached.

“I certainly tried to develop a style throughout Spaced, which is reflected in Shaun Of The Dead. The Spaced style was about making the mundane or ordinary look melodramatic. The idea was that everything in their world looked like an action or horror film – not just the film pastiches. The joke is very much in the contrast.”

Bringing the dead to life

To bring his teenage love of horror to the big screen in a way that hadn’t already been done a thousand times, Wright knew that he would need a hook to take the attention off the monster. He looked back at one of his old Spaced episodes (“Art”) and set out to make a zombie flick where the zombies were more of a background piece. Diverting attention away from the zombies might seem like an unwise approach to making a horror movie, but in order to make a comedy that wasn’t just a spoof of another genre, it was essential to Wright that the zombies be the canvas for a series of other stories. The characters and their stories had to come first, with the zombies being merely a rotting and gruesome obstacle.

“The trick we have tried to pull off is that it’s a zombie film which isn’t really about the zombies. That you could go through the script and replace all the zombie elements with any other obstacle, be it traffic jam, power cut or thunder storm.”

During the nine week London shoot, Wright found that balancing the comedy of Shaun’s unraveling relationship with Liz and the right amount of gore became what he described as a “high wire balancing act.” Wright and Pegg would question at times if they were placing too much emphasis on the relationships between the characters and not enough on the zombie threat looming around them. The zombies used on the shoot were mostly local residents or fans of Spaced who were lucky enough to catch the casting call noticed placed on a fan website. Coldplay members Chris Martin and Johnny Buckland, who contributed to the soundtrack, were also fortunate enough to be zombified by Wright’s makeup team.

In the end, Wright’s gamble of making a romantic comedy disguised as a zombie movie — and offering up as tribute to the Living Dead series — proved to be a monumental commercial and critical success. The film was lauded with praise by horror icons such as Stephen King who said it was “a 10 on the fun meter and destined to be a cult classic.” Perhaps even more importantly its $30 million box office intake gave Wright and Pegg the clout to freely develop the next installment of the Cornetto trilogy, Hot Fuzz.

Shaun of the Dead’s impact on the horror genre can’t be overstated, as it helped to relaunch the zombie movie as a comedy platform, a genre that had largely been put on the shelf after Braindead and the commercially disappointing Idol Hands. Because of Shaun of the Dead’s success, studios were now more open to green-lighting zom coms and giving us movies like Zombieland and Dead Snow.

As commercially successful as the movie proved to be, it’s the thumbs up of Wright’s adolescent hero, George Romero, that certifies Shaun of the Dead as a zombie classic.

After they wrapped Shaun of the Dead, Wright had Universal reach out to Romero to see if he was interested in giving his blessing to the project. He agreed, and watched the movie in a Florida movie theater with no one but a Universal security guard keeping him company.

“George watched it and we got a call from him later than night and he couldn’t have been sweeter about it,” Wright said. Via IFC