A couple of years ago there was talk of a US producer making an American version of Absolutely Fabulous, but word was that the studio financing it wanted all references to drugs, sex, drinking and profanity removed so it would appeal to a wider audience.
It seemed to epitomise the reputation Americans have for not understanding British humour, an ability we’re proud of in Australia. It’s a debate that’s been reignited by the release of Shaun of the Dead, with many critics and other experts claiming it won’t be as well received in the US as it was at home. But director Edgar Wright doesn’t buy it, and the response in America so far seems to prove him right.
‘Its a generalisation,’ Wright thinks, ‘Dumb comedies come out of the UK and Australia too, but people forget America is also responsible for some of the smartest comedies ever made, like The Simpsons. Unfortunately that reputation comes more from the mainstream stuff that’s foisted on the public rather than stuff the public are capable of enjoying.
‘In the UK people always say ‘why can’t we make great shows like Frasier and Seinfeld?’, and then in the US they’re saying ‘why can’t we make great shows like The Office and Fawlty Towers?’. We all make good shows as well as terrible ones, but we only export the good ones.’
As effective a splatter movie, as it is a comedy, it qualifies Wright and co-writer Pegg (who also plays Shaun) to be both comedy and horror filmmakers, but Wright says he’s already had advice from the top.
‘I really like both [genres] and because the response has been so great we almost feel like we’ve jinxed ourselves into doing another comedy horror,’ he says. ‘We’ve met some of our heroes; the directors who inspired the film, and more than one of them has said ‘don’t make a horror film next’.
‘A lot of the people we admire like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson are great filmmakers full stop, and have obviously gone on to enormous things, but it did take them a good while to get out of that pigeonhole of being splatter film directors.’
But Wright and Pegg have gone one better than the feature debuts from Romero, Raimi and Jackson. They’ve produced a slick big screen movie where the comedy and horror not only work well, but sit comfortably together despite their innate purposes of conjuring opposite extremes of emotion in the viewer. Wright confirms it was a hard job, but thinks there was something even more important.
‘The difficult stuff to get right was the relationships, actually,’ he says. ‘It was a juggling act making all the elements work, but the main thing we tried to do was make you give a shit about the characters and invest time in setting them up, which a lot of horror films don’t do. We were inspired by films that do that like American Werewolf or The Birds that spend the first act setting everybody up.
‘So it was definitely a gamble about how long we could keep the film going without having a death scene, but we really wanted to see if we could make that work.
From the opening frame, listening to the iconic synthesiser riff from The Gonk that interspersed Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, you know you’re in for something special.
Shaun (Pegg) is a 29-year-old Londoner with a dead end job, a slob for a best mate (Ed) whom nobody else likes, and whose loving girlfriend (Liz) is almost at the end of her tether with his slack attitude and refusal to get his life in order.
Promising her he’ll take her out for a nice dinner at a posh restaurant instead of just going to their local — The Winchester — like they do most nights, he promptly forgets in the course of his unexciting day, and when he suggests an alternative to a slap-up dinner — the Winchester — Liz promptly dumps him.
Spending the next 24 hours wandering around and miserable with his lot, Shaun fails to notice the telltale signs that London is falling apart. When the attack comes, there’s only one thing to do — head for the Winchester.
Grabbing his doting Mum, Liz and her flatmates David and Dianne, Shaun takes Ed and they hole up in the pub the same way Romero’s heroes barricaded themselves in a shopping mall.
Shaun of the Dead is (excuse the pun) a scream. You’ll have as much fun whether you’re a zombie movie buff or not. The script exercises just enough thoroughly British subtlety for at least the first half to make it a smart comedy as well as a comic homage to a well-loved genre. The comedy runs slightly out of steam towards the end as the horror cranks up, and by the time the siege starts in earnest, the efforts of Pegg and Wright in making you care about the characters has paid off.
Shaun of the Dead is the cinematic equivalent of sitting around with a bunch of mates late at night with pizza, beer and bad horror videos and being in such a good mood you spend the whole time making fun of them or laughing about all the funny things that could happen. Who doesn’t love doing that?