"Shaun of the Dead," by the British writer-director Edgar Wright, may put some viewers in mind of the quip Dorothy Parker delivered when she heard that Calvin Coolidge had died. In this case, a horde of staggering, slack-jawed zombies has taken over North London in the course of a weekend. But, considering the usual brain-dead expressions of the neighborhood's working stiffs, skate punks and pub customers, how could anyone tell?
In the affectionately playful tradition of such comedies as "From Dusk Till Dawn" and "Bubba Ho-tep," "Shaun of the Dead" arrives as perhaps the first bona fide "rom zom com," or romantic zombie comedy. The film's co-writer Simon Pegg stars as the title character, a 29-year-old arrested adolescent who is being dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood. His girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), wants him to spend less time drinking at the local pub and playing video games with his roommate, Ed (Nick Frost); his stepfather, Philip (the sublime Bill Nighy), wants him to be more devoted to his indulgent mother (Penelope Wilton); and Shaun's job managing an insolent sales staff at an appliance store is going nowhere. Shaun is dying a slow death, which is why it takes him a little while to realize that his friends and neighbors are doing things such as eating live flesh. Once it sinks in that they're not merely suffering from wicked hangovers, Shaun and Ed fly -- well, meander, actually -- into action. The fact that saving the day involves camping out at the pub is purely coincidence, of course.
Inspired by an episode of "Spaced," Wright and Pegg's hit British TV show, "Shaun of the Dead" zips along with cheeky humor, some of which may be lost on American viewers but most of which translates with hilarious ease. If a genuine sense of peril is missing from the proceedings -- let's just say "Shaun's" zombies could use a week or two of training with the quicker specimens in "28 Days Later" -- the comedy unfolds with enough alacrity and verbal flair to make up for it.
The two funniest set pieces come early in the film, when Shaun and Ed try to decapitate a couple of encroaching ghouls with Shaun's record collection, and before that, when Shaun takes a bleary-eyed walk to his corner store on a Sunday morning, completely oblivious to the mayhem unfolding around him. That scene, played almost entirely in silence, is an especially adroit example of Wright's keen sense of physical comedy, wherein jokes are as often delivered in the background as in the foreground. If the zombie genre steadfastly refuses to die, we can be grateful to "Shaun of the Dead" for breathing fresh, diverting life into the form, with subtle visual humor and a smart, impish sense of fun.
Shaun of the Dead (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for zombie violence, gore and profanity.