Night Of The Laughing Dead: An Interview With Shaun Of The Dead Writer/Actor Simon Pegg And Co-Star Nick Frost
Judge Patrick Naugle
February 14th, 2005
"The Dead Walk!" reads the front page of a long forgotten newspaper in director George A. Romero's apocalyptic Day of the Dead. Romero's classic horror series—including Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and the upcoming Land of the Dead—proves that it doesn't take a quick-witted, fast paced monster to dwindle earth's population down to the hundreds. Taking a cue from Romero's films—but adding their own comedic spin onto the proceedings—writer/star Simon Pegg and writer/director Edgar Wright came up with Shaun of the Dead, a British horror comedy firmly planted in Romero's zombie universe. After a few phone calls, I was able to speak with Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost on the phone from their hotel suite in sunny downtown Burbank, California.
"It was a lot of hard work and very, very tiring," Simon muses, who not only co-wrote the film with Wright but also stars as Shaun, the title character battling both the undead and a floundering love life. "But I think as I look back on it I'll remember it as a complete blast." The film's success both overseas and in the U.S.—where it is likely to remain a popular cult hit for years to come—have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the zombie genre has plenty of blood left in its rotting veins.
Unlike most Hollywood horror films, Pegg and Wright had little in the way of budgetary funds. "It was around £4 million, which is about $7.5 million in US dollars. We really stretched it. I mean, we had to," notes Simon, who worked closely with the director to keep the cost down. Though the money was in short supply, the production company suspected they had something special on their hands. "We were pretty lucky to get that much money—it's a pretty big budget for a first feature. We were utterly thrilled that Working Title had that much faith in us," he added.
For both Pegg and Wright, Shaun of the Dead would end up being their first foray into major motion pictures. The idea for Shaun of the Dead was hatched during Wright and Pegg's stint together on television. Simon recalls, "Edgar Wright and myself were doing a television sitcom called Spaced in the UK. When we made it we did an episode where my character is playing a computer game and ends up fantasizing that he's actually in the game, like 'Resident Evil.' We spent a morning with me shooting a bunch of zombies and had such a great time. We got that far and got it on TV, so we wondered what would happen if we tried to get a movie made and have it not as fantasy but that it was really happening. That's where the kind of genesis of the movie came from." Making a horror movie, Simon points out, wasn't their only reason for making Shaun of the Dead. "We also thought it would be a lot of fun to do it as kind of a mixture of romantic comedy and horror, but never at the expense of the horror."
The leap from the small screen to the big screen proved to be a daunting challenge. "We kind of thought it would be easy," laughs Simon, though it's obvious that wasn't the case. "We thought it would be about the same thing, just a bit larger, but it's really not. Shaun of the Dead was a completely different animal—it was structured differently, you're dealing with a different format, it's 35mm film…it felt like going from high school to college!"
"It was like going from junior high school to college," notes actor Nick Frost, who plays Shaun's obnoxious best friend Ed. "TV is one thing, but films are another. Everyone you work with are very professional and know their business and you have to do the same. You have to come on the set and not fuck around, concentrate, and do your work." Nick pauses, then laughs. "I always try to be as professional as I can." Nick's first experience in a major film was an easy transition due to his eleven-year friendship with Wright and Pegg. "Simon and Edgar are very giving as writers. I think a lot of the character came from me, but they had an idea of what they wanted. One of the nice things about being friends so long is I know what they want and they know what I can give them."
Professionalism can be a tall order when you're battling rotting corpses with cricket bats. The film provided the cast and crew with some rather entertaining moments. "We had so many zombies that needed contact lenses that we had optical nurses who would come and put the contact lenses in," Frost recalls. "One afternoon we were trying to put the contact lenses in for one actor and, quite literally, his eye fell out of his socket. I think his eye muscles were weak or something, and when they tried to pop in the lenses his eye popped out." Popped out? As in, completely out of the eye socket? "He was fine," chuckles Frost. "We just sort of popped it back in. I think that Edgar was sort of upset that he didn't know about it because he would have turned the camera over to him and shot it for the film."
In recent years the zombies of old—shuffling, slow moving denizens of death—have been replaced with Speedy Gonzales-like creatures with the endurance of Lance Armstrong. Pegg and Wright's film, however, is decidedly old school when it comes to the walking dead. "I don't know if there is a choice, really," Simon says. "This whole notion of a fast moving zombie is a complete misnomer—It defeats the object of it. I think what happened is 28 Days Later came out, and that was a film that everyone mistook as a zombie movie. It wasn't a zombie movie, it just played those conventions and laws. And then Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake came out, which was enormous fun, but the whole thing that made the genre so popular was Romero's kind of strange, ineffectual ghouls. They don't have to be aggressive, violent, or angry…they just kind of wander around. For me that's much more scary."
Speaking of 28 Days Later, when I mention it to Simon, it seems that the film's director, Danny Boyle, had some harsh words for Romero's films, comparing them to schlocky B-movies. "I think that Danny Boyle displays an incredible misunderstanding of George Romero to reduce the guy's work to that kind of level. I mean, Danny was doing what Romero did a long time before him, which was to make intelligent horror films with a bit of a point to them," Simon sighs. ""I know that Alex Garland, who wrote 28 Days Later, would never have said that at all. He's a big fan of Romero's films. I thought it a bit odd that Danny said that."
And what does the godfather of zombie movies think of Shaun of the Dead? "George loved it," Simon gushes. In fact, Romero was so smitten with their film that he offered Pegg, Wright, and Frost (who had to decline due to a scheduling conflict) cameos in his upcoming third sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Land of the Dead. "He wears his 'Shaun of the Dead' button on set every day. We made him a special badge that is like Shaun's electronics shop badge, except that his said "Hi, my name is George.'" Romero's love for Shaun of the Dead could stem from the fact that the filmmakers made a horror comedy instead of a silly parody, keeping Romero's horror ideals and adding a touch of humor to the mix. "I think he was extremely flattered because the film is so referential and so kind of a tribute to him. We basically took his idea and put it into a different context, and I think he got that." Simon is thankful Romero ended up enjoying their movie. "I think when he first heard of the film he thought that it was going to be a funny, sort of stupid movie. What he didn't expect to see was a fully formed studio film that was so inspired by his work."
Much like George Romero's films, Shaun of the Dead attempts to go beyond being just a splatter film or horror comedy and into the realm of social commentary…or, as much as you can in a movie featuring exploding torsos. One theme presented is the idea of zombies being a metaphor for humanity's own social disconnection. "It was kind of saying that people who live in the big cities can become swallowed up by the collective," notes Simon. "The zombies are a very literal representation of that, in the same way that George was saying in the original Dawn of the Dead that 'we think, therefore we shop.' It's about becoming anonymous, becoming a part of the group. If you don't become exceptional and try to fulfill your personal ambitions you can just become lost in a group of people who don't care." That, and you may be devoured by flesh-craving cadavers.
What inspires something like Shaun of the Dead? "Obviously Romero's three movies were the jumping off point," Simon says. Yet Romero's films aren't the writer/actor's only inspiration. Also of note are "films by Sam Raimi, John Carpenter, Peter Jackson, the Coen brothers, even the British director Mike Leigh. We really loved those guys. There were plenty of other influences outside of George Romero."
Making a zombie movie was a treat for both men, especially Frost. "There were times when Simon and I would look at each other while bashing in zombie heads and say, 'this is the greatest job in the world!'" Frost excitedly exclaims. Yet it didn't come without its trials and tribulations. "To be honest it was really hard work," says Simon. "I mean it was fun in that we found ourselves making a zombie movie, which was a dream come true. But at the same time we were up against the same restraints any crew goes up against working on a low budget film."
Favorite horror films can often be a point of heated debate between horror junkies, even actors and directors. "I love films like John Carpenter's The Thing and Halloween, The Shining, The Exorcist…that period between 1978 and 1982 was a great boom for horror movies," Simon reflects. "I'm a big horror fan. Recently I've enjoyed Cabin Fever. I'm a good friend of [writer/director] Eli Roth and he always looks after us when we come into town. The Grudge remake was quite fun, although I slightly prefer the original. But Sarah Michelle Gellar is lovely." And what of that other British horror import that has found cult success in the U.S.? "I haven't seen Dog Soldiers yet," laughs Simon. Though he hasn't caught the film on television yet, he does make an interesting footnote to the film. "I was offered a part in it but Edgar wouldn't let me have it. He said I wasn't allowed to be in another horror film before Shaun of the Dead comes out."
Nick Frost is decidedly less wet behind the ears when it comes to being a movie connoisseur. "I wasn't really a big film fan until I met Simon. He educated me in the way of the movie," Frost earnestly admits. "The Omen is one of my favorites. Even though I'm an atheist now, I was brought up Catholic and can remember thinking that it could actually be real! The first Dawn of the Dead is a great one. We had a TV serial in Britain called Day of the Triffids and that was always really terrifying for me as well."
As the success of Shaun of the Dead begins to ebb with its release on DVD, should audiences expect the inevitable sequel? "I don't think there will be a sequel just because we kind of like it the way it is," Simon admits. "We've completed that story and Shaun completed his journey. I think if we returned to it you'd watch the first film again and realize this isn't the ending, he's got more problems to deal with." If there isn't going to be a cinematic sequel, does this mean viewers have seen the last of slacker hero Shaun? Simon offers fans a small sliver of hope. "There might be a comic book called 'From Dusk 'Till Shaun.' That would be a nice way to do it." Simon pauses, than laughs. "And I would like to write it."
Shaun of the Dead is now available on DVD from Universal Home Entertainment.
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