These days, the idea of a zombie romantic comedy directed by Baby Driver filmmaker Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost seems like horror-fan catnip. But when Wright and Pegg first conceived of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, it was the longest of shots. Wright had almost no track record as a director, Pegg and Frost were unknown outside the U.K., and the concept of a comedic love story inspired by the gore-filled universe of director George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead franchise appeared downright perverse. “It really was quite unusual at the time,” says Kate Ashfield, the film’s female lead. “They called it a ‘rom-zom-com.’ You think: ‘I’ve never heard of one of those before.’” Now the movie’s creators and cast recall how they breathed new life into Romero’s shambling ghouls and created a cult classic. To quote one of the most memorable lines from the film, “How’s that for a slice of fried gold?”
Shaun of the Dead had its origins in the Wright-directed sitcom Spaced about two apartment-sharing London slackers named Tim (Pegg) and Daisy (Jessica Hynes). Written by Pegg and Hynes, the show debuted on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in September 1999 and ran for two seasons.
EDGAR WRIGHT (director, co-writer): My parents didn’t have a VCR. I was obsessed by zombie movies without even seeing them, through reading magazines like Fangoria. Simon and I bonded over the fact that we were obsessed by [Romero’s 1979 movie] Dawn of the Dead.
SIMON PEGG (Shaun; co-writer): I’d written a sequence for Spaced in which Tim is playing Resident Evil and it becomes real, which was just an excuse to participate in a little bit of zombie action.
WRIGHT: I was like, “We should do a zombie film.” The initial title was Teatime of the Dead.
PEGG: We didn’t want to parody zombie movies. We wanted to make a zombie movie. We wanted to parody the rom-com. [Love Actually writer-director] Richard Curtis is a lovely man. But we pitched it as “Richard Curtis shot through the head.”
WRIGHT: Around 2000, zombies were not as ubiquitous as they are now.
PEGG: They kind of went quiet after Thriller. Everyone had seen zombies [dancing], and it took the wind out of their scary sails. We didn’t find out about 28 Days Later until we were way into the writing process.
WRIGHT: I vividly remember Simon calling me and saying, “Hey, you know Danny Boyle’s doing a zombie film.” I was like, “Oh, we’re f—ed!”
Pegg and Wright’s script concerned an electronics-store sales clerk named Shaun and his drug-dealer pal Ed (Nick Frost), who, after Shaun is dumped by his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), embark on a night of heavy drinking at their local pub, the Winchester Tavern. The next day, our hungover heroes find themselves in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, and Shaun concocts a plan to rescue Liz and his mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), and then hole up in the aforementioned tavern. Much of the screenplay was inspired by the obsessions and habits of Pegg and his real-life roommate Frost, a waiter at a Mexican restaurant who had a role in Spaced.
PEGG: When I moved to London with my girlfriend, she got a job at a restaurant and said, “There’s a guy at work who’s really funny.” Eventually my relationship with her ended, and I got Nick in the deal.
NICK FROST (Ed): We moved in together in ’95.
PEGG: He is the funniest person I’ve ever met. I said, “Stop working in the restaurant and come and be in this TV show.” And he was like, “Uh, okay.”
WRIGHT: Simon and Nick had detailed zombie-apocalypse plans. They can tell you exactly what they were. [Laughs]
FROST: Obviously, you’d arm yourselves with swords, knives, machetes. A knife doesn’t run out of bullets.
PEGG: The Shepherds was a pub within two minutes’ walking distance of our house. To say we were regulars would be an understatement. Nick was the one that said, “You should go to a pub in a zombie apocalypse. You’ve got food and drink, and the doors are really heavy.” That was the genesis of the Winchester.
After Shaun of the Dead producer Nira Park struck a deal with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner’s production company Working Title Films, Penelope Wilton was cast as Barbara and Bill Nighy as Shaun’s stepfather, Philip. Other roles went to young comedic actors, including Lucy Davis (The Office) and Dylan Moran (Black Books). But alternate casting options were considered.
PEGG: It was always going to be something Edgar and I wrote for me and Nick to be in.
WRIGHT: If you hadn’t seen Spaced, you didn’t know Nick.
FROST: I blew my Spaced money in, like, six weeks and went back to waitering.
NIRA PARK (producer): There were conversations with Working Title about “Could we cast Ed a different way?” We said, “If you want to make a movie with us, then it’s them.”
BILL NIGHY (Philip): The script was one of the best I’d ever read in my life. It’s perfect.
WRIGHT: Oh, that’s very nice. Some people just didn’t get it. I’m not embarrassing her by saying this, because she says the same thing — Penelope Wilton initially passed. Helen Mirren was offered Barbara. She said, “I would only do the movie if I got to play Ed.”
FROST: She would have been amazing.
WRIGHT: Kate Winslet was briefly interested in playing Liz.
PEGG: We had tea with Kate Winslet. She was like, “Yeah, okay — but no.”
KATE ASHFIELD (Liz): I was at the British Independent Film Awards, and Simon and Edgar came up to me. I didn’t know either of them. They said, “We’re writing a zombie romantic comedy and we’d love for you to be in it.” And I said, “Great! I don’t know what that is!” Then, a year later, there was a script, and it was fantastic.
PARK : We did quite an early read-through, and Simon and Nick were just brilliant. I remember Tim and Eric looking at each other going, “Okay, we understand why we’re making a movie with these two.”
Shooting began in the spring of 2003 on the streets of North London. Wright filmed two complicated one-shots of Shaun visiting his local store on the first day.
PEGG: I think Edgar wanted to show the crew that he wasn’t f—ing around.
WRIGHT: A lot of people think Shaun of the Dead was my first film, but it’s not. I made a goofy Western [A Fistful of Fingers] when I was 20. I felt with Shaun of the Dead I was getting a second chance to make my first movie. I left nothing to chance. I really prepped the sh– out of it.
PEGG: I got the sense initially that the crew thought this was going to end up going straight to DVD or never being released. But as the shoot progressed, the support really increased.
NIGHY: A large part of my responsibilities was to die bleeding from the neck in the back of a Daimler.
PEGG: I remember that very well. It was a Jag — a green Jag.
NIGHY: Nick Frost and Simon Pegg would make me laugh, which is hard to do when a man’s sitting in a pool of dried blood. They would both do their Al Pacino impressions, which were impeccable.
FROST: The more Bill laughed, the more we f—ed about.
PARK: We made the movie for £4 million [approximately $6 million]. That was a proper beg-borrow-steal shoot. At times, it definitely felt like a student film.
WRIGHT: We saved by encouraging fans of Spaced to be zombies. I think they got paid a pound. We pushed their fandom to the limits. [Laughs] I think some of them were pissed off because of the long hours. But we couldn’t have done the movie without those fans.
To create buzz, Shaun was screened for a group of horror directors. Among them? The Zombie King himself, George Romero.
WRIGHT: They screened it for him at some cinema, with a Universal security guard. I remember thinking, “Even if George Romero did pirate it, he’s the one person who’d be entitled to some of the profits.” I got the call and George goes, “Oh, it’s wild, man. I love it.”
PEGG: I apologized to him that Bill’s character [reanimated] too quickly. George said, “You know what, Simon? I didn’t mind.”
WRIGHT: It was like the movie was for an audience of one — and he liked it.
Shaun of the Dead was a sleeper hit on both sides of the Atlantic, ultimately grossing $30 million worldwide. Instead of making a sequel, Pegg, Frost, and Wright reteamed for 2007’s cop comedy Hot Fuzz and then 2013’s alien-invasion movie The World’s End. That completed the so-called Cornetto Trilogy, named after a brand of ice cream popular in the U.K., featured in all three films.
WRIGHT: We ended up outgrossing 28 Days Later in the U.K., which was bananas.
FROST: I don’t think it was until we went back and did the Hot Fuzz world tour that we realized how much people loved Shaun of the Dead. It went from us doing pretty good gigs at small bars, so to speak, to then going back and there’s 5,000 people going mental.
PARK: It was made with real love, and that rubs off when you watch it.
WRIGHT: Eating a Cornetto was my odd hangover cure.
PEGG: I jokingly wrote a treatment for From Dusk Till Shaun, which was a sequel. Edgar thought it would be funny to do the film again, with vampires. It was all just pub talk.
WRIGHT: I would like to work with them again, of course.
PEGG: It’s just a question of sync-ing up our respective diaries.
FROST: When it happens it’ll happen, and it’ll be great. Or people will hate it.
The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles is hosting a special outdoor screening of Shaun of the Dead, Oct. 26. Learn more at the Theatre’s official website.
Watch the trailer for Shaun of the Dead above.