HAVE YOU ever held a good willow cricket bat in your hand? More likely, a baseball bat. Or a golf driver. It's all the same. There are few satisfactions as deep as the perfect hit. The ball hangs or sits like a melon in front of you. You swing into it, a fluid marriage of mind, body and sharpest desire. You strike it cleanly. The ball soars into the air, forming a perfect arc across the sky. And in the case of cricket, the bright red leather ball flies high above the white-lined boundary around the field. Deep into the trees somewhere. Your teammates, dressed in splendid whites and sleeveless sweaters, applaud heartily. The umpire raises two hands in the air to acknowledge your score. You have hit cricket's equivalent of a home run: a six. Oh, that pub beer's going to taste great later.
Okay, now take that thought, wield that cricket bat in your hands. Ready? Pull back your shoulders and take a mighty swing at the mushy head of a zombie. Knocking off a zombie's head is the only way to kill them. And in "Shaun of the Dead," set in London, that's the weapon of choice. The black-humored "Shaun," a so-called zom rom com (that would be zombie romantic comedy) pays unabashed tribute to George A. Romero's 1978 "Dawn of the Dead," but also brings a distinctive Englishness to the genre. Which is why Shaun (Simon Pegg) and his slacker mates reach for those cricket bats. Almost everyone in Great Britain seems to have one, gathering dust, in attics or garden sheds. And this isn't America, where guns are lying all over the place.
It starts with Shaun, always tired in the mornings, slumping onto a London bus. Doesn't really pay attention to the weary souls around him. Assumes they're as tired as he is. Doesn't take a good look and realize . . . the city is crawling with flesh-eating zombies. When he does figure it out, Shaun and his flatmate Ed (Nick Frost) assemble friends and family, including Shaun's girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), and his mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), and take immediate action. They lock themselves into their local pub.
In Romero's film, the would-be survivors make a dash for the mall, the center of American consumerism. But in "Shaun," the pub's the safe haven. It's the center of Shaun's existence and, in a sense, his mausoleum. The 29-year-old junior manager in an electrical goods store likes nothing better than taking Liz, Ed and others to the Winchester, getting smashed and limping home. Not surprisingly, Liz has just dumped him for being an existential slacker.
Metaphorically, Shaun already is a zombie. So is Ed, whose idea of happiness is slumping in front of his video games. Now they're facing scarier versions of themselves, a test to see how much they really deserve to live.
Directed by Edgar Wright, who co-wrote this with Pegg, the movie's wonderfully original, fast-moving and funny -- a zombie caper for fans of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Snatch" and "28 Days Later." Pegg and Frost are cultish figures in England for their characters in a TV comedy series called "Spaced," which Wright also directed. And the idea for this film came about from a "Spaced" episode, in which Pegg's character found himself stuck inside a video game involving zombies. In a funny way, "Shaun" underscores the special relationship between English and American pop culture. This is a high-five to the classic trash of B-movies with quintessentially British humor -- the cricket bats, for example. The friends also find that old vinyl records make excellent head-slicing weapons, too. And with what can only be described as Nick Hornbyesque humor, Shaun and Ed have serious debates about which of their old records they can truly afford to waste on these zombies. Not the soundtrack to "Batman," please!
Also hilarious is Bill Nighy as Shaun's would-be stepfather, who doesn't like to let a little zombie bite affect his lifestyle or his devotion to Shaun's mom. In this movie, you enjoy the comedy and like the characters, a rare thing to expect in a zombie sendup. While saluting the genre and enjoying a lot of laughs, writers Pegg and Wright don't just knock this one out of the park, they keep their eye on the ball all the way.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (R, 99 minutes) -- Contains grisly comic violence and obscenity. Area theaters.