"If 'Dawn of the Dead' is 'Hamlet,' " says director/co-writer Edgar Wright, "then our movie is 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead.' "
It's as good a description as any for "Shaun of the Dead," the zombie/romantic-comedy spoof from Great Britain, opening in Seattle theaters Friday. In the film, appliance-store clerk Shaun awakes one morning for another day in his dull life, only to find that zombies have taken over London. What to do?
Wright and actor/co-writer Simon Pegg (who plays the hapless Shaun) visited Seattle last month to chat about their film — and about the inevitable sequel rumors.
The birth of "Shaun"
Wright: "Spaced," our television show, was on Bravo briefly, but never really shown properly [in the U.S.]. It was a sitcom that Simon wrote and I directed. A sensibility like "Friends" on crack.
Pegg: Like "Friends" on weed, to be specific.
Wright: It was essentially a flat-sharing [story], people sharing an apartment, with flights of fancy, references to pop culture, fantasy sequences that would either be sort of hyper-real or dream sequences. It kind of inspired us to make films.
Pegg: We actually did do a scene in "Spaced" where I was fighting zombies, in a video game. We got to the end of it and thought, wow, wouldn't that be fun to do that as a film. We're both big fans of the [zombie] genre, and we just managed to somehow get our own TV show going, so we thought, why shouldn't we make a film? Sort of blind arrogance.
Wright: We thought, wouldn't it be great to do this for real? Not a sitcom, so we don't have to return to the status quo at the end of the episode. We can kill everybody off if we want to. In TV, even if you have a comedy/drama with some progression to it, you always have the theme of having to return everything back to normal in the end.
"Dawn of the Dead" tribute
Wright: We definitely wanted to design it so that people who are fans of the original film will get a kick out of it, but even if you haven't seen any zombie films before, you should enjoy it.
Pegg: The whole film, the whole nature of the zombies, is obviously a direct reference. Some little things, [such as] the mother is called Barbara and Barbara is the main character in "Night of the Living Dead," the first one.
Wright: The most famous line from that film is Barbara's brother saying, in a spooky way, "They're coming to get you, Barbara."
Pegg: So we have Ed [Shaun's flatmate] saying it. That's a slightly more buried one. But the place where [Shaun] works is called Foree Electronics, and the main actor in the original "Dawn of the Dead" was Ken Foree. Little things like that.
Wright: We sort of designed the film in the hopes that people would watch it more than once. There are quite a lot of "Where's Waldo?" things going on in the background.
Finding the zombies
Wright: We had about 1,100 zombie extras. There was, like, a core of 40 zombies — proper actors, stuntmen, circus performers, dancers, amputee stuntmen, different kind of professionals. And for the rest of them, we put out a call to arms on the Internet. We basically said, "Has it ever been your dream to be a zombie in a film? This is your chance."
Pegg: Generally, if you're an extra, you're background scenery, you're fleshing out a scene. Whereas, if you're a zombie, at least you can stagger around and be acting in a way. It's more fulfilling. Such a great response. The worst thing is an underpopulated zombie film.
Wright: I made a tape called "Everything You Wanted to Know about Being a Zombie But Were Afraid to Ask." We had a movement choreographer who worked with us for the auditions. We had open auditions, spooky music, people had to walk a bit toward the camera. Someone said to me, how bad do you have to be to fail that audition?
Pegg: We were using George Romero's model of the kind of shambolic, staggering dead person, we wanted that to be really consistent throughout every scene. Our choreographer did a brilliant job. But there's one scene ...
Wright: You always see one zombie in the background who's not so good. On one shot, I remember, the producer said, "There's a guy in the back who's doing it wrong." I said, "Oh, I don't see anything." Now I see it, there's one guy who does it wrong.
Pegg: [When filming the crowd scenes], we had a truly spectacular number of zombies on set. For sound reasons, whenever there was dialogue, they all had to be quiet.
Wright: The zombies would not be able to stop doing it. The [assistant director] would go, "OK, no moaning on this take," then as soon as "action," there'd be an "ooooh." It was just an instinctive thing, they couldn't help it.
Chatting up Tarantino
Wright: [My first feature] was something I did straight out of college with my school friends. It was a no-budget Western set in my area of England, the west country, which looks absolutely nothing like the Wild West. Sort of a silly, naive version of ripping off the Zucker brothers and Mel Brooks. I find it difficult to watch now.
I felt really bad the other day. We met Quentin Tarantino, and he really liked "Shaun of the Dead," and he said, "It's the best first film I've ever seen. Yeah!" I was trying to find a point to say it's not my first film. Can we say it's my first good film?
Pegg: I wrote a treatment for a sequel, as a joke. But because of the way the film ends up, it would involve certain characters being in certain states, which might not best use their talents.
Wright: The continuing adventures of Shaun and Ed might be a bit like a Clint Eastwood film "Every Which Way But Dead." We can start a rumor here, that's going to be the sequel. You heard it here first.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com