"Shaun of the Dead," a British zombie comedy opening Friday, may be about those undead, flesh-eating shufflers. But it's also parenthetically about a great British tradition: going to the pub.
In the movie, an unabashed tribute to George A. Romero's 1978 "Dawn of the Dead," a group of friends in their twenties wake up to find their North London neighborhood (not to mention the world) teeming with zombies. So where do they run? For Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Ed (Nick Frost), there's only one place: the pub, the place where they spend every single night.
For British audiences, for whom the pub has been the epicenter of social life for centuries, this is an immediate laugh line. But for American audiences, even those who grew up on "Cheers," the punch line is less punchy (though the film still packs plenty of laughs). Bars are great places to drink. You can even adopt them as your regular watering hole. But they're hardly the mothership of existence the way a pub can be.
"Shaun and Ed go to the Winchester because they feel safe there," says director and co-writer Edgar Wright, a youngish 30, here recently to promote the movie with Pegg and Frost. "They see the pub as their castle and their keep. . . . In 'Dawn of the Dead,' the idea of [the characters] holing up in the shopping mall works as a great consumerist, utopian thing. . . . But [in this film] Shaun's plans are pretty paper-thin. He goes: 'We'll get there, we'll have a nice cold pint of beer and then we'll wait for everything to blow over.' And then someone else immediately says: 'And then what? And now what do we do when there's no power, and there's nobody here, and it's like the Mary Celeste?' "
Start drinking, for one.
Pegg and Frost remembered, with obvious emotion, the Shepherds, a pub at the corner of Shepherd's Hill and Archway Road in Highgate, North London.
"It's gone now," says Pegg, as Frost throws out a theatrical sob. "We loved it -- a sticky carpet, dog behind the bar, dartboard by the jukebox . . . "
"Rough old landlord," pipes in Frost.
"And sort of saucy matriarchal landlady," rejoins Pegg, who co-wrote the script with Wright. "And they did a pub quiz every Thursday night."
"We'd go over there and have a lasagna and chips," says Frost wistfully. "And on the rare occasion you'd go in and there'd be enough bags of peanuts sold, and you could actually see the lady [the cardboard model holding up the bags] in the bikini."
"Nick and I started going there, and we brought our friends and it became the hub of our social life. It became the very epicenter of everything we ever wanted to do, in terms of going out. There was no other alternative for us. It was like a one-minute walk from our front door."
"In the U.K., you do tend to romanticize your local," says Wright. "Whenever I used to go to pubs as a teenager I used to think, 'Aaaah yeah, the Rose and Crown.' And I'd think for years, 'Oh god, it was amazing.' But then you go back at Christmas and it's like a [double expletive]. It's essentially a sticky-floored boozer."
"The Shepherds doesn't need romanticizing," says Pegg, "because it was the perfect pub. I have never have before, and never will again, know a place like it."
The Shepherds, which changed hands in 1989, inspired the pub in the movie. But Wright and Pegg changed its name to the Winchester for plot reasons; they needed to name it for a firearm that figures significantly. The irony, they say, is that another London pub, called the Winchester, has been laying claim to being the inspiration. The pub owner, says Frost, "has even got 8-by-10 glossies of us on the wall."
In England, there's always another Winchester. And it's always someone's special pub.