Sir Ian McKellen, who has mastered a dazzling panoply of Shakespearean roles on stage and is considered one of the most serious screen talents of his generation, is to star in a low-budget zombie costume drama set in the rural backwaters of Britain.
Sir Ian, who has taken on mischievous pantomime roles in the past – he played Widow Twankey in a production of Aladdin at the Old Vic in 2004 – has been cast as a member of the undead in E'gad Zombies!, a black comedy set in the 18th century which is causing a stir at the Cannes Film Festival.
The actor will juggle the role with his current, far bigger-budget film The Hobbit, a two-part prequel to the lavish award-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy. The film, set in the sleepy Oxfordshire town of Upper Trollop, features a poet, William Filthe, played by Matthew Butler, who is also the project's director.
The drama revolves around an unidentified illness which turns all of the men into beasts. After the country is infested by zombies and the government is too bankrupt to control the contagion, two entrepreneurs set up a company offering to kill the undead for a nominal fee.
Mr Butler said while only a fraction of the feature film had been made so far – 22 minutes in total – it had become a viral sensation on YouTube and was being talked about enthusiastically at Cannes. "We put a clip of the short on YouTube and suddenly we were getting emails from all over the world saying, 'When are you going to make it into a film?'" he said.
The concept is similar to that of the "mash-up novel", which combines supernatural themes with classics from the literary canon, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based loosely on Jane Austen's classic novel, and Android Karenina, modelled on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Others have described it as mix between the British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and the romantic epic Gone with the Wind.
However, Butler said the script was written before he had heard about the crop of mash-up books.
He came up with the idea while he was directing a play in London set in the same period. Speaking of the film's co-star, Tori Hart, he said: "I just thought how brilliant zombies would look in those costumes, so we started writing. We tried to make it seem like an 18th-century play with similar themes and characters but added zombies. This means it's a comedy with quite extreme characters."
Butler is in Cannes hoping to attract distributors to the project, and said he planned to persuade his actors to dress up in zombie costumes during the festival. It is not yet known whether Sir Ian McKellen will make an appearance.
Another group of zombies will also assemble on Cannes' Promenade de la Croisette today, promoting another low-budget British horror comedy called Zombie Women of Satan, which is released next month.
The film is directed by Warren Speed, a male burlesque performer who remortgaged his house in Newcastle to finance the project, and uses burlesque actresses in the role of zombie women. It is due to be screened in Cannes tomorrow and is being billed as "one of the most outrageous zombie movies ever".