There's a scene in the new British rom-zom-com (translation: romantic zombie comedy) Shaun of the Dead that captures the movie's cheeky sensibility in a nutshell. After a night of hard drinking, Shaun (Simon Pegg), your typical 29-year-old London slacker, stumbles out of his home and makes his way to the local bodega for his usual liquid breakfast. If his step seems slower than normal, that's due to a wicked hangover and, more importantly, the fact that his longtime girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) just dumped him the other day, correctly claiming that he lacked ambition. As he staggers bleary-eyed towards the corner store, he's clearly a million miles away, lost in his own sad little world. Shaun is so distracted he doesn't even notice that his neighborhood has gone to hell overnight. Windows are broken, cars are on fire and trash is strewn all over the street. Meanwhile, off in the distance, several flesh-eating zombies (formerly Shaun's neighbors) are slowly making their way towards the oblivious young man. The setting is straight out of George Romero's Dead trilogy, but instead of whipping out his trusty gun/shovel/other implement of mass zombie destruction, our hero simply picks up his drink and makes his way back home, never realizing that anything is amiss.

It's this deadpan wit that makes Shaun such a pleasure to watch. Unlike other recent horror parodies-most notably the Scary Movie series-director Edgar Wright and star/co-writer Pegg genuinely admire the movies they are poking fun at, and their respect for the genre goes a long way to winning over the audience. That's not to say that you have to be a horror fan to enjoy Shaun of the Dead. While only hardcore fright buffs are going to catch all of the little details (Shaun works at Foree Electronics, named after Dawn of the Dead star Ken Foree; a classy restaurant bears the name of Italian horror director Lucio Fulci), there's enough here to keep everyone in stitches. It helps that the filmmakers put as much emphasis on the "rom-com" as they do on the "zom"; in fact, you could remove the zombies altogether and the film would still play as an above-average romantic comedy.

Credit must go to Pegg and Wright for creating such endearing characters. It would have been easy to settle for the usual group of bland victims, but this is a surprisingly rich cast, starting with Shaun, who is one of the year's most likeable movie heroes. His appeal lies in the fact that he's so instantly recognizable; many viewers-especially those in their 20s-will probably know a Shaun or may be Shaun themselves. Like Ash, the hero of Sam Raimi's classic Evil Dead trilogy, he's an ordinary fellow who suddenly finds himself thrust into unfamiliar circumstances and must rise to the occasion. (He's more of a nerd than Bruce Campbell's alter ego, though.) Pegg played a similar role on the popular British TV series "Spaced" and he has the right low-key sense of humor to anchor the film. He's also happy to play the straight man to some of the more broadly comic supporting characters like Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun's obnoxious best friend. Where Shaun feels guilty about his lack of initiative, Ed is perfectly happy to sit on the couch all day playing video games and shirking his chores. This is the kind of latter-day John Belushi character that could grow insufferable very quickly, but Frost plays it with the right mixture of boorishness and affection. The script gives every actor his or her chance to shine, even Ashfield, who, as The Girlfriend, is stuck in the role that is normally laugh-free. Penelope Wilson and Bill Nighy also share some great scenes as Shaun's mother and stepfather, and Lucy Davis ("The Office") sparkles as Liz's ditzy galpal, a wannabe actress who at one point leads the group in an impromptu class on how to imitate the undead.

Although Shaun of the Dead is primarily a comedy, the movie takes a darker turn in the final half-hour when Shaun and his small band of survivors hole up in a pub and attempt to fight off the hordes of zombies that are beating down the door. This sequence is an obvious recreation of Night of the Living Dead and director Wright mimics Romero's classic in mood and style. The laughs fade into the background as you realize that these people are really fighting for their lives. It's not spoiling anything to say that the movie ends on an upbeat note, but for a while there it actually is fairly harrowing. In its own way, Shaun of the Dead is as good a zombie film as Evil Dead II, Dead Alive and Dawn of the Dead. Like those classics of the genre, this is a zombie movie with brains. Or, as the zombies themselves would put it, with braainnnnssss.

-Ethan Alter