How Shaun of the Dead Got a Boost From Hollywood and Comic-Con Geeks

How Shaun of the Dead Got a Boost From Hollywood and Comic-Con Geeks

It’s kind of mind-blowing to think about just how much of an impact the 2004 film Shaun of the Dead had on modern film history. To start, though the trio had worked together before on a show called Spaced, the film, for the most part, introduced us to director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Wright has gone on to make some of the most exciting, innovative films of his generation like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Baby Driver.

Pegg and Frost have appeared, both together and individually, in so hugely popular movies and shows, it would be silly to even begin to list them (Star Trek, Attack the Block, etc.) The film also was followed by two equally beloved pseudo sequels, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, while instantly setting the bar for genre mashups moving ahead. But none of that would have happened without a little help from their friends and San Diego Comic-Con.

io9 is hugely excited to offer an exclusive excerpt from the new book You’ve Got Red On You by Clark Collis, which is available now. Collis works at Entertainment Weekly and spoke to not just Wright, Pegg and Frost, but about 60 other people too to dive into every aspect of Shaun’s origins, creation, and reception. In this excerpt, Collis writes about how the film community at large, and an event at San Diego Comic-Con, set the stage for everything to come.

One of the most surprising, and delightful, things I learned while writing You’ve Got Red on You was how much support this very British film received from American filmmakers in the lead up to its September 2004 release in the US,” Collis told Gizmodo via email. “Zombie king George A. Romero gave Shaun an early thumbs-up and provided a quote for the movie’s poster, as did Robert Rodriguez, Sam Raimi, and Quentin Tarantino, who hosted a screening of the film at his house. Meanwhile, make-up effects legend and future Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero and Hostel director Eli Roth were on hand at the 2004 San Diego Comic Con to lend their support to the movie, as revealed in the excerpt below.”

You've Got Red On You by Clark Collis (Image: 1984 Publishing)
You’ve Got Red On You by Clark Collis (Image: 1984 Publishing)
The most important stop on the Shaun of the Dead promotional tour was San Diego, where the city’s annual Comic-Con was held on the weekend of 22-25 July. In the previous few years, major studios had begun to fully realise the showcase potential of the event. A host of upcoming releases had a presence at the 2004 Comic-Con, including Batman Begins, Alien vs. Predator, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, and Exorcist: The Beginning. Focus Features, which was distributing Shaun, had arranged for star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright to attend Comic-Con and appear on a Shaun of the Dead panel. “That was my first Comic-Con,” says Pegg. “We’d never seen anything like it. I remember going out into the main hall and being like, ‘Holy crap, this is Mecca for nerds.’ We did signings, and people came and got autographs and stuff. I met Carrie Fisher. She was doing a signing, so I lined up and talked to her, and that was amazing.”

Focus had decided to screen the movie in its entirety at Comic-Con, an unusual strategy for a major studio release. “Comic-Con was a big part of our launch,” says then-Focus publicity chief Adriene Bowles. “We knew that going there would be challenging without star power. We were [originally] only going to screen once, and we ended up adding two more showings. It was really important to Edgar that we not turn anyone away, so we kept adding screenings. It was extraordinary, given that we were coming in as an unknown quantity. They were packed houses, and it just played through the roof.” Wright recalls the Comic-Con screenings as being a highlight of the entire Shaun of the Dead experience. “The film just absolutely killed at Comic-Con,” he says. “It is that funny thing that Americans are much more uninhibited in terms of laughing. I remember me and Simon standing at the side after doing our intro, looking at each other like, fucking hell, they’re really loving it. It got a rapturous reception every night.” At one of the screenings, an ebullient Wright even indulged in a little prop comedy. “Outside, in the multiplex, was a massive cardboard cross promoting the Exorcist prequel,” says the director. “For one of the Q&As, I came in with the Exorcist cross, which was massive, like 3.66 m tall. There were just a lot of hijinks.”

Greg Nicotero attended a screening with Dawn of the Dead star Ken Foree, after whom Pegg and Wright had named Shaun’s workplace, Foree Electric. Nicotero was delighted to meet the pair of Brits, and profusely apologised for accidentally buying an unauthorised DVD of their film. “I said, ‘Listen, guys, I love the movie,’” says Nicotero. “‘I thought it was funny, it was brilliant, I talked to George about it, but I’m a little embarrassed to tell you that I did not realise that the movie was not officially available on DVD.’ They were like, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it.’ I told the guys, ‘Anything that you ever need me to do to help promote the movie, [I’ll do it].’”

Pegg and Wright were shepherded around Comic-Con by publicist Jeff Walker. “We hit it off immediately,” Walker says. “We introduced them to the whole world of Comic-Con, and vice versa. This was a love affair between the fans and filmmakers like I had never seen.” The Shaun of the Dead panel was moderated by Walker and took place at 12.30 p.m. on the Sunday. “By the time we had the film, the schedule for Comic-Con that year was already full, and the only way we could get them in was on a Sunday,” Walker explains. “Sunday wasn’t traditionally a very big panel day at Comic-Con, but we had a very good crowd.” The panel was an occasionally rambunctious affair. At one point, Wright and Pegg were heckled by an audience member who complained that their film was “a total rip-off of Dawn of the Dead.” The heckler was, in fact, Wright’s chum Eli Roth, the 32-year-old writer-director of the gruesome 2003 horror hit Cabin Fever, about a group of friends who contract a flesh-eating virus.

Wright had met Roth in February at London’s Empire Awards, an annual event hosted by the eponymous movie magazine, where the American filmmaker was nominated in the Best Newcomer category. “I just really loved him,” says Roth of Wright. “We got each other straight away.” Wright had reconnected with Roth in May during to a trip to Los Angeles, and the pair attended the Saturn Awards, which celebrate science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies. “I took Edgar as my date,” says Roth. “I hadn’t seen his movie, but I took him on the red carpet, and I was like, ‘He’s made the most brilliant new film, it’s called Shaun of the Dead.’ Edgar was just laughing. He’s like, ‘You haven’t seen the movie!’ I was like, ‘Well, now you’d better show me the movie, and it had better be good.’”

Roth finally caught up with his new friend’s film at a screening set up by the Cabin Fever director’s agency, CAA. “I loved it,” he says. “Edgar and Simon are so funny and so smart. You can’t discount Peter Serafinowicz, who’s a genius. He’s never mentioned in the mix, but he’s really a major ingredient with that team. The cast was so good in that movie. You think about the comedy genius of Pegg, Frost, Serafinowicz, and Edgar, and then you throw in everybody else. Lucy Davis. Bill Nighy.” Roth was particularly taken by the film’s conclusion, when Shaun visits the zombified Ed in the shed to play video games. “It was sweet, you got emotional,” says the director. “It felt like this is what Gen X-ers would do if there was a full-on zombie attack. You’d keep your roommate chained up playing video games. Of course. Why wouldn’t you? Now you’ve got someone to play games with. It was brilliant.”

Let me tell you, the first time I saw Shaun of the Dead was at this very San Diego Comic-Con. And that audience, which I was a part of, had no idea what they were in for. The film was so fresh, so fun, so surprisingly emotional, it instantly felt like it became everyone’s favourite movie. I know I left San Diego that year raving about it to all my friends. I’m sure many others did too. And the rest was history.

Read more in Clark Collis’ You’ve Got Red On You, which is now available.

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.