Shaun Of The Dead
Laughter and fear may not seem the likeliest bedfellows. One sensation is pure pleasure, the other is something we usually prefer to avoid in our everyday life. There isn't a great tradition of horror comedy in novels, music or theatre. But at the movies, it's different.
By venturing into a cinema we're already stepping into the dark, braving the unknown, surrendering some of our inhibitions: we're prepared for a fright or two, safe in the knowledge that it's all a game - and when your nerves are jangled, laughter is a quick release. And when you're giddy from hysterics, you're that much more vulnerable to scare-tactics. Each sensation heightens the other.
Shaun of the Dead, the blisteringly brilliant horror comedy from Simon Pegg and his Spaced director Edgar Wright may claim to be the world's first 'zom rom com' (translation: zombie romantic comedy), but it's closely related to a long line of movies stretching at least as far back as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Bob Hope knew he was on to a good thing in The Cat and the Canary (1939), but there were also endless, dire Abbott and Costello adventures pairing them with the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man and even Bela Lugosi: the Carry On team's Carry on Screaming (1966) is one of their better efforts, and in this writer's opinion, Mel Brooks never made a better film than Young Frankenstein (1974).
Pegg and his mates made a crucial decision early on when they decided not to camp up the horror but to play the grisly stuff, if not straight exactly, then let's say 'twisted'.
It's a tactic that really came of age in that much maligned decade: the 1980s. First there was An American Werewolf in London (1981), Re-Animator (1985), and George A Romero himself, the godfather of the modern zombie movie, got into the action with his underrated Day of the Dead (1985). Probably the masterpiece of the type is Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 (1987): truly scary, and flat-out hilarious. Not coincidentally, quite a few of these flicks get a nod and a wink in the course of Shaun's adventures.
There's one more 80s ancestor worth mentioning. For a long time it looked like Kiwi Peter Jackson had nothing else going for him but variations on just this kind of Bad Taste (1989) - see Braindead (1992) or, to a lesser extent The Frighteners (1996). Then a little project called Lord of the Rings transformed him into one of the most powerful directors on the planet.
I wouldn't predict that scale of success for Edgar Wright just yet, but it's clear from Shaun of the Dead he knows exactly what he's doing. This is one of those movies you'll be quoting down at the Slaughtered Lamb for quite a while.