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Simon Pegg and Dawn of the Dead

on Mon, 06/22/2015 - 00:00

Shaun of the Dead
British actor Simon Pegg became a fan of Dawn of the Dead years before he ever watched the film. Growing up in England during the advent of home video in the 1980s exposed the young Pegg to a long list of movies he otherwise would never have seen, but the George Romero Pittsburgh-filmed classic was not amongst them.

In order to prevent the youth of Great Britain from becoming corrupted by the influx of “foreign exploitation films,” the Obscene Publication Act of 1857 was expanded to include video in addition to print during the early days of the decade and Dawn of the Dead was deemed to fall within the broad interpretation of the term—a fact that only intrigued Simon Pegg even more.

“The film that fascinated me the most amid this censorship massacre was Dawn of the Dead,” he explains in his 2010 memoirs Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid (Random House). “Romero’s star was sufficient that the film already had a certain amount of credibility, particularly within the horror community. Several images from the film were featured in The Encyclopedia of Horror I received as a Christmas present in 1983 and I became fascinated by this tale of a shopping mall that becomes awash with blood.”

Despite began exposed to still photographs instead of moving depictions of the “Living Dead,” Pegg became a fan of the genre nonetheless, and even wrote his own apocalyptic short story at the age of thirteen despite still being a “zombie virgin.”

“Not including John Landis’s groundbreaking video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’ I didn’t actually see a zombie movie until 1985 when Romero’s third instalment of his Dead trilogy came to home video and I experienced Day of the Dead,” Pegg explains. “I saw Dan O’Bannon’s comical Return of the Living Dead before I finally got my hands on a copy of the elusive Dawn and actually saw Tom Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead before I saw the Romero version. These films became my teenage obsession. As the original Star Wars saga drifted into the infinity of my eternal admiration, my new preoccupation became the horror movies I was given access to, thanks to permissive video shop clerks.”

Simon Pegg initially crafted a successful career as a stand-up comedian and British sitcom actor/writer before starring in his own zombie apocalypse Shaun of the Dead, a 2004 homage to the films of George Romero that became a worldwide cult classic in its own right. Pegg would later go on to star in a number of other films unrelated to zombies, including the J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek series as Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.

Although a geek at heart and thus influenced by the likes of Star Wars and other narratives of the science fiction genre from an early age onward, the Living Dead of Romero had an equal and even more profound effect on Simon Pegg—a fact that is highlighted within the pages of Nerd Do Well.

“One of the key attractions for me of the zombie myth, particularly Romero’s interpretation, is the zombies’ fascinating ambiguity,” Simon Pegg explains. “They are without any moral imperative or visible emotion and as such cannot realistically be defined as evil. They are simply ‘us,’ driven by our most basic impulses. They cannot be blamed for the atrocities they commit because there is no agenda or culpability, only the same ingrained instincts that motivate the living ungoverned by morality. They are the evolutionary or perhaps devolutionary extension of that old maxim of the philosopher Descartes, I think therefore I am—in the case of the zombie, they eat therefore they are.”

When Shaun of the Dead was released in 2004, Simon Pegg and longtime collaborator Edgar Wright embarked on a publicity tour of the United States that took them to California and the San Diego Comic-Con. After their own scheduled panel discussion, Pegg and Wright hit the floor of the large and influential convention as fans themselves, waiting in long lines for autographs of such childhood idols as Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) of Star Wars and Lou Ferrigno from The Incredible Hulk.

“Leia and the Hulk weren’t the only heroes I was lucky enough to meet that weekend,” Pegg writes in Nerd Do Well. “Both legendary make-up FX guru Greg Nicotero and Dawn of the Dead actor Ken Foree—whose name we used for the electrical shop in which Shaun works—were in attendance and we had heard both had seen the movie. We met Ken first, an imposing bear of a man, busily signing autographs for the fans who lined up to meet him. We approached him fairly gingerly and introduced ourselves. Much to our blushing delight, he stood up and embraced us with alarming enthusiasm, which sent us giddy. This man was Peter Washington from Dawn of the Dead, the tough, resourceful SWAT team member who ultimately rejects suicide in favor of kung-fu kicking his way through a crowd of hungry zombies to join Gaylen Ross’s Fran aboard a helicopter for the film’s hugely affecting and open ended conclusion. We were beside ourselves with geekish glee as we made a date to meet him at our screening later.”

Although George Romero was not in attendance at Comic-Con, the legendary director had screened Shaun of the Dead a few months earlier and personally called Simon Pegg to tell him how much he enjoyed it.

A year later, meanwhile, both Pegg and Edgar Wright were able to meet Romero face-to-face in Toronto for the filming of Land of the Dead. During an interview, Greg Nicotero—who was once again handling the special effects of a Romero-directed zombie movie—mentioned that he thought the duo behind Shaun of the Dead should make cameos in Land of the Dead as zombies. When the comment was later mentioned to Romero, it quickly evolved from an off-the-cuff remark to reality.

“As he (Romero) walked back to the video village, I couldn’t help turning to Edgar and saying, ‘We just got directed by George Romero!’” Pegg explains of their Land of the Dead experience. “It was a heck of a moment for both of us and its significance sent us into terrifying zombie grins of geekish joy. The same man who had instructed Bill Hinzman—the first and fastest of George’s zombie children—to stagger across Evan’s City Cemetery in 1968, inspiring Russell Streiner’s Johnny to utter the famous line ‘They’re coming to get you, Barbara,’ had just instructed us. In geek terms, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.”

Except that it did indeed get “much cooler,” and in only a short period of time afterwards—June 2005 to be exact. “In terms of my childhood zombie love and my eventual participation in a zombie movie of my own, I could not have hoped for better closure on this particular chapter of my life than the world premiere of Land of the Dead in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” Pegg writes in Nerd Do Well. “The event was attended by a host of luminaries from George’s zombie anthology, all of whom I was thrilled to meet.”

Another idol of Simon Pegg, writer/director Quentin Tarantino, was likewise in attendance. The day after the Land of the Dead premier, Greg Nicotero took Pegg, Tarantino and Edgar Wright on a tour of filming sites in the Pittsburgh region that included the Evans City Cemetery from Night of the Living Dead and the Monroeville Mall from Dawn of the Dead.

“Despite inevitable modernizations, much of the mall remained recognizable from the film, particularly the utility areas and the boiler room, which echoed with the exact same whine of machinery that underscored David Emge’s wordless battle with a dead janitor,” Pegg remembers. “On the roof of the building, we stood where Ken Foree had kicked his way to safety and taken off into uncertainty with Gaylen Ross and grinned from ear-to-ear at being given access to such an auspicious location. It may seem strange to some that two grown men could derive such enormous pleasure from standing on the roof of a shopping centre in suburban Pittsburgh, but Edgar and I, it’s fair to say, were standing on top of the world.”

A world in which—for Simon Pegg and many others—the Steel City serves as its epicenter.

Anthony Letizia

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