Simon Pegg: A grave new world
The comic talks to James Rampton about his new movie in which he takes on the undead
Friday 26 March 2004
Zombies walk the earth once more. After the success of Danny Boyle's "undead" film
28 Days Later, and the cinema version of the video game
Resident Evil, a remake of
Dawn of the Dead, George A Romero's schlock-horror classic, has munched its way to the top of the US box-office charts. The zombie is back - and this time it's profitable.
Zombies walk the earth once more. After the success of Danny Boyle's "undead" film 28 Days Later, and the cinema version of the video game Resident Evil, a remake of Dawn of the Dead, George A Romero's schlock-horror classic, has munched its way to the top of the US box-office charts. The zombie is back - and this time it's profitable.
Yet, relishable though they are, none of those undead-fests is quite like Shaun of the Dead, surely the world's first "zom-rom-com". Like John Landis's An American Werewolf in London, its most obvious predecessor, it manages to pull off one of the hardest genres in cinema - the comedy horror movie. It seamlessly melds gags with gore: one minute, you're screaming with laughter; the next, you're screaming with fear.
In one memorable sequence, the action switches from Shaun going on a zombie-killing spree with a cricket bat to him sitting calmly on the sofa, eating a Cornetto and watching the TV, while still drenched in blood.
This lively (sic) flick is drawn from the nightmares of the damaged brains previously responsible for Spaced. The star, Simon Pegg, and director, Edgar Wright, of the cult Channel 4 sitcom have collaborated here on a coming-of-age picture that just happens to involve legions of the undead and buckets of blood and gore.
In Shaun of the Dead, Pegg plays the eponymous central character, a terminally unambitious, thirtysomething wastrel who is blithely watching his life spiral down the plughole. He fritters away his days in a dead-end job at a local electronics store and his nights with his saddo flatmate (played by Nick Frost, Pegg's real-life former flatmate) at their local, the Winchester Arms. Shaun's girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), is increasingly exasperated by his slacker lifestyle, in which an exciting night consists of getting to level 13 on the latest horror video game.
Shaun is quite content to meander along like a zombie - until an attack by real zombies on his cosy corner of north London jolts him into taking his responsibilities more seriously. He finds unexpectedly heroic qualities inside himself as he urges his friends to take up the cudgels and fight back against this invasion of the undead. Rallying the troops, Shaun gets all philosophical: "As Bertrand Russell said, 'The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.'"
"Was that on a beer mat?" Liz enquires. "Yeah... A Guinness Extra Cold," replies Shaun.
Co-starring a host of top comic actors (Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Dylan Moran, Lucy Davis and Pegg's partner in Spaced, Jessica Stevenson), the film features homages to horror classics from Dawn of the Dead to Assault on Precinct 13 and the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller".
Why, I ask him, does he think that zombies have so emphatically returned from beyond the grave? "The zombie comeback - excuse the pun - is down to synchronicity and the cyclical nature of the genre. Sounds like a thesis, doesn't it?" grins Pegg. "Just before zombies, werewolves were popular, and every now and then, Dracula makes a big comeback.
"Thanks to the Resident Evil game, which really captures the atmosphere of the Romero films, zombies started to reappear. Then there was 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead. There were no others around when Edgar and I first had the idea, but now we might have to use the slogan: 'If you see one zombie film this week, see Shaun of the Dead.'"
Of course, what distinguishes Pegg's picture is its comic edge. Never has an evisceration by a gang of frenzied undead been so amusing. "There is a danger of falling between two stools, but I like the idea of the shifting emotional dynamic," he explains. "Even when everything is going to hell, there is still room for jokes. It's also great to be scared in a safe environment. You know you can't be harmed, but you're still getting the buzz from the fight-or-flight adrenalin response. You're getting high on your own chemicals.
"With this film, we are trying to create a new subgenre. I think you can take traditionally trashy formats and turn them into something else. We want to do for horror what [Ang Lee's] Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did for kung-fu movies."
But Shaun of the Dead is no mere stalk'n'slasher with added gore gags; there is some substance to it. Pegg expands on the film's themes. "It's about what happens when big things happen to little people," he reflects. "It's like Spaced, where the point was to make a movie set in Tufnell Park. In the same way, Shaun of the Dead applies the grandeur of film-making to the minutiae of suburban life and frames small events in a gigantic context. In doing so, it makes little concerns seem much more important. It's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead."
The movie also has a point to make about the inevitability of growing up. "If Spaced was about being confused in your early twenties," says Pegg, "then Shaun of the Dead is about having to take responsibility in your early thirties. It's about realising you can't be young and frivolous forever. The zombies are a metaphor for the inexorable tide of responsibilities that engulfs you as you grow older. You can't keep ignoring the issues of buying a house or having children. These things need to be addressed - even if it is with a cricket bat...
"The skeletal idea of the film - sorry, another pun! - is that this guy gets his life sorted through a crisis. Anything could have motivated him to get on with his life - a traffic jam, a hailstorm, a fire. It just so happens that it's a zombie invasion."
This is not the only metaphorical use to which zombies are put in Shaun of the Dead. "There's something beautiful about zombies," Pegg beams. "They're a multi-purpose, walking metaphor. They can stand for consumerism, class, or viral paranoia. In our film, they also stand for boredom and apathy. They're a distillation of us - all they want to do is eat and replicate. I also love the general crapness of zombies - they're very slow and clumsy. You could be in this room with one, and all you'd have to do to escape would be to hide behind the sofa."
A lot of the movie has autobiographical overtones. "Nick [Frost] and I went through a period where we lived in one pub, the Shepherd's Arms in Archway," he confides. "It was the absolute sum of what you'd want from a pub. The closing time was a blurry issue, it had an amazing pub quiz and the demographic was so wide that I had 70-year-old friends there. It became the hub of our social life.
"But always going to the same pub became like clinging to the clothes of your twenties. I was living in stasis, thinking: 'I don't have to buy a house; all I have to do is go to the pub quiz.' What Liz says to Shaun in the film has been said to me by my girlfriend: 'You can't do this forever. You have to get on with the rest of your life.'"
So was it tricky to present these scenes from his own life for public consumption? "At times it was quite painful," admits Pegg, who has just turned 34. "I was thinking: 'Bloody hell, that was me.'"
All Pegg's best work, however, has been derived in some way from his own experiences. He has always followed Flaubert's advice to aspiring authors: write what you know.
"If you ground your work in what you know, it will ring true," he says. "My motto is: never guess. It is bad to make assumptions because you end up appealing to nobody. If you write about yourself, the chances are other people will say, 'I've felt that, too.' One of the reasons we wrote Spaced was that every twentysomething sitcom we watched was being written by fortysomethings. The writers sat there thinking: 'What do twentysomethings do? They swear, go to wine bars and say the word 'shag' a lot.' Unfortunately, those sitcoms still exist - no names, no pack drill...
"Jessica [Stevenson, his co-writer] used to say that Spaced was like therapy - you'd rehearse scenes from your life in art. Of course, nothing is totally autobiographical." (Pegg confesses that he has never actually met a zombie in real life.) "But it's good to know what you're talking about."
That should also be the case with Pegg's next offering. He and Frost have again mined their own lives for La Triviata, a Channel 4 sitcom about a pub quiz team, based on their experiences at the Shepherd's Arms. "It's a very positive melting pot. We thought it would be a good setting for a sitcom, this strange mixture of people getting together for one purpose and taking it very seriously."
In addition, Pegg has a role opposite Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe in the upcoming The Reckoning, a new medieval mystery from Paul McGuigan , the director of Gangster No 1. "I play a limping, scabby, hunchbacked jailer who shouts at Willem Dafoe a lot," laughs Pegg. "My performance is taken from 'The Big Book of Jailers', Page 8!"
What many people will want to know, however, is whether Pegg and Stevenson will be reviving Spaced. The slack-com still has a huge "afterlife" on DVD , and its diehard fans like nothing better than to go along to conventions dressed up as the main characters, Tim (played by Pegg) and Daisy (played by Stevenson). They're fiercely loyal: 70 per cent of the 800 zombie extras in Shaun of the Dead were recruited through the Spaced website, for example.
"I would like to bring back Spaced," reveals Pegg. "We still have things to do with those characters. I'd like to say something about life in your early thirties - Tim can't play computer games forever and nor can Daisy just flit between jobs.
"But time is slipping away. We have to make it soon - if only because my hair is falling out. It would be so sad to have to wear a wig. I'd be the very man I hated, the very man Spaced was railing against. It would be like those Star Trek movies where actors in their sixties are still pretending to be in their twenties."
Pegg flashes one last smile, clearly happy to be putting away childish things at last.
'Shaun of the Dead' is released on 9 April
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