“Shaun of the Dead” isn’t Edgar Wright’s feature directorial debut (that would be 1995’s “A Fistful of Fingers”), but it is the film that put the English writer-director on the map as one of the most original voices working in cinema. The horror comedy starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost presented Wright with the challenge of directing dozens of zombie extras at once. In a new interview looking back at his 2004 breakthrough, Wright tells The Guardian that he only landed extras for “Shaun of the Dead” because of an open casting call appealing to fans of “Spaced,” the Channel 4 sitcom he created with Pegg.
“We wouldn’t have been able to make the film without fans of ‘Spaced,'” Wright said. “We put a call out, asking them to be our zombie extras, and the response was overwhelming. We had no money to pay them, though, and I’m keenly aware that after the long hours they put in, some of them weren’t ‘Spaced’ fans afterwards.”
Wright has a handful of hilarious stories from the “Shaun of the Dead” set about his zombie extras, most notably the time when one of them was so in character he bit Wright’s leg. As the director explained, “Our zombies spent a week cooped up on set. They had to stand outside the Winchester, the pub where our heroes take refuge, banging on the windows and not doing much else really. When we eventually involved them properly, they had this electric energy: a pure, crazed hysteria. I needed to record some zombie sounds so one lunchtime I stood in the middle of the pub and asked them all to attack me. One came straight at me and bit my leg. They’d gone feral.”
As for the zombie kids that appear in the movie, Wright was basically forced into using them. “A bunch of kids were unhappy about us filming on their estate. They threw stones and eggs,” the filmmaker said. “The only way we could stop them was by giving them parts. They went through full makeup and eventually became teenage zombies. It was a case of keep your friends close but your zombie enemies closer.”
“Shaun of the Dead” opened in the United Kingdom in April 2004 to strong reviews and buzz from Stephen King that the movie was destined to become a cult classic. The film’s domestic release began in September and it grossed $13 million in the U.S. The movie ended its worldwide box office run with $30 million, picking up two BAFTA Film Award nominations along the way. The success of the film was far from what one of the zombie extras predicted on set.
“An extra came up to me one day and, thinking I was a crew member, said: ‘Straight to video, this one,'” Wright said. “The success rate for British films was still quite low and one of the biggest jobs was convincing everyone the effort was going to be worthwhile. Later, we sent all the people who said nice things about the film a name tag, like Shaun’s but with their name on it. I got an email from Stephen King telling me he was wearing his. And when Simon and I eventually met George Romero, he had his on.”
Wright is returning to the horror genre later this year with the debut of “Last Night in Soho,” which Focus Features currently has scheduled for a September 25 release. Read Wright’s latest interview on the making of “Shaun of the Dead” on The Guardian’s website.