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The jig macabre

The title is a hint of the cleverness and carnage on display in Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, his first movie after a decade of British television work. Wright collaborated with Simon Pegg, star of his Channel 4 series, Spaced, to write a screenplay that is consistently amusing, hilarious at times, and hands-down the best zombie flick since George Romero dug up the living dead.

Shaun, played by Pegg, is an appliance salesman whose life is in such disarray that he doesn't notice the signs of an impending apocalypse. His girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), is tired of the pub in which Shaun and his coarse buddy Ed (Nick Frost) spend each night. Her snooty friends (Dylan Moran, Nicola Cunningham) support her dumping Shaun, whose thoughtlessness extends to his doting mother (Phyllis McMahon) and stern stepfather (Bill Nighy).

Pegg and Wright essentially take cliches of lower-end London dramas _ the films Mike Leigh makes, for example _ and inject them with Pythonesque wit, plus the cannibal angle reminiscent of Peter Jackson's early stomach-turning works. The plot outline is the same as any other zombie flick, but we've seldom seen it approached with this kind of gleeful intent. Nervous laughter is what zombies usually provoke; Shaun of the Dead goes straight for the funny bone, by way of the jugular.

Wright plays the first 30 minutes close to the vest, with portents of something evil happening: everyday occurances are amplified with sound effects and camera zooms. Romero's favorite undercurrent _ that we're all zombies of some sort _ is smartly conveyed by the comically blank looks on people's faces, even before they're undead. Shaun and Ed stumble past corpses, too drunk or preoccupied to notice. Their first encounter with a zombie, who they think is a drunk in their garden, ends with a gory sight gag that announces all bets for subtlety are off.

The midsection is strong, as the chase commences and Shaun commits himself to save Liz and his mother. The third act, when the pub becomes a precarious refuge, relies too much on inspiration from serious zombie flicks to maintain the joke quotient. But cinematographer David M. Dunlap always devises alluring camera movements and abrupt images to make us squirm or laugh or both. Shaun of the Dead gives an entirely new meaning to the term "sight gag."

SHAUN OF THE DEAD

GRADE: B+

DIRECTOR: Edgar Wright

CAST: Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost, Dylan Moran, Nicola Cunningham, Phyllis McMahon, Bill Nighy

SCREENPLAY: Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg

RATING: R

RUNNING TIME: 99 min.

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