Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead

Scary stories, revisited

With Night of the Living Dead, George Romero gave us more than a horror classic. He invented a genre, and, indeed, added a new monster to world folklore. The "zombie," the ambulatory corpse with the inexplicable craving for the flesh of the living, has become one of the most popular of all movie monsters, and if you're looking for a good Halloween scare, this year has produced two excellent examples.

There have been all sorts of variations on Romero-style zombies. In recent years, some filmmakers have given us zombies who could run, talk, cooperate, strategize. For the purist, however, zombies must be slow, weak and mindless, leaving humans with tactical advantage, but overwhelmingly outnumbered.

This year's Dawn of the Dead, a loose remake of Romero's 1978 classic in which the dead overrun the world, and besiege a handful of survivors in a suburban shopping mall, is an example of zombies nouveau: they don't plod; they sprint, howling with rage at their prey. I prefer the classic plodders, and as a proud Pennsylvania native, I was annoyed that the new film moved the story from Monroeville Mall in the Pittsburgh area to Milwaukee. But aside from these objections, I must nonetheless admit that this is a well-thought-out redo, with sharp dialogue, a very good cast, and a sick sense of humor. It's out on DVD, and if it doesn't give you a creepy twinge or two, you're stouter-hearted than I.

Good as the new Dawn of the Dead is, however, the British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, currently in theatres, is even better. The hero is, as might be expected, a young man named Shaun (Simon Pegg). He's a clerk in a dreary appliance store who shares a flat with the plump, listless, likable, video-game-addicted pot-dealer Ed (Nick Frost) and the responsible and much less likable Pete (Peter Serafinowicz).

Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is weary of Shaun's attachment to Ed, and even more weary of the Winchester, the local pub that is the only place that Shaun ever takes her. She dumps him, and Shaun is so devastated—not to mention so drunk after a night of commiseration with Ed—that he barely notices when he wakes up the next day to an England in the grip of a zombie plague. (Old-school Romero plodders, if you please.)

Once the seriousness of the situations settles in—and this takes quite awhile—Shaun becomes determined to ensure Liz's safety, and that of his beloved, careworn Mum (wonderful Penelope Wilton). The rest of the film concerns Shaun's struggle, with Ed's unhurried, unworried support, to rise to this stressful occasion and be the hero. Shaun's party ends up taking refuge in—where else?—the Winchester, where they are soon surrounded by the undead, and their numbers gruesomely whittled down.

There are delicious jokes in this material, the best being how slender the margin is between zombiefication and the dreary plod of the day-to-day commute. But the delightful surprise in Shaun of the Dead is less its wittiness than its warmth and emotional substance. The elegant, carefully-constructed script, by Pegg and director Edgar Wright, tilts from twisted farce to genuine fright to startlingly heartfelt poignancy without ever losing its balance. The nastiness never overwhelms the fun, and the sentiment never crosses the line into sentimentality.

Another surprise is the acting. Frost is a marvel as the unflappable loser Ed, who's so used to the edge of disaster that a zombie plague is almost a lark. Ashfield's Liz is exactly the sort of significant other that almost everyone gets their heart broken by at least once, and Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran are perfect as her annoying flatmates. That charming actor Bill Nighy is spot-on as Shaun's charmless stepfather, and Wilton somehow keeps Shaun's Mum in the realm of caricature while bringing so many touching details to the performance that she breaks your heart while you're laughing at her.

The same goes for Pegg, already a TV comedy star in the UK. He makes a first-rate comic everyman as Shaun—he's completely sympathetic at the same time that his haplessness is deeply funny. Shaun is a guy you'd like to be friends with, and if you were besieged by cannibalistic zombies, you'd want him on your side.

Family viewing note: Both Shaun and Dawn are extremely gory, and neither, especially the latter, is suitable for younger kids.