As we write this, the finale of the Cornetto Trilogy is entering its final stages. The World’s End is the third (well, third and a half if you count ‘Paul’) movie in the unofficial trilogy of genre fiction/comedy/blisteringly funny, smart and frequently touching dissections of the male geek psyche trilogy that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg started with Shaun of the Dead. The first two movies, Shaun and Hot Fuzz, are fiercely smart love letters to and parodies of zombie movies and cop movies respectively and The World’s End is…well…here’s the thing. We don’t know. There’ve been conflicting reports ranging from zombies and a musical number to Simon Pegg claiming the movie isn’t actually about the end of the world at all. What we do know is that, decades after they first attempted it at college, a group of friends try and complete an epic pub crawl as…something, begins to happen out in the world. We know Wright is directing, know Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are front and center and we know that this time they’re being joined by a supporting cast including Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine and David Bailey, who I fervently hope, is making his peace with spending the next few years being asked if he’s going to be playing William Hartnell playing the 1st Doctor again soon. We also know it will involve a flavor of Cornetto ice cream, because, in each of the previous movies, the ice cream has appeared. All the signs point to The World’s End being a perfect capstone to two of the smartest, most interesting geek culture movies of the last twenty years.
But what if Shaun wasn’t the first movie? What if the trilogy had taken us down a different path. Like the man says, come with us now on a journey through time and space as we explain how, one universe, Edgar Wright’s first Cornetto movie was both very different and weirdly familiar…
Island of Lost Scripts
In 2002, riding high on the success of Spaced, Wright and Pegg went to LA to meet with the studios. They had a script ready, a self styled ‘zomromcom’ about a feckless young Englishman who finds himself forced to step up again and again as the cosy world he’s built himself is literally eaten away by the zombie apocalypse. The buzz on the script was huge, Spaced had closed out as a vast critical success and its cult status was achieved and the whole movie could be filmed, in London, for a modest budget.
There was just one problem; no studio would finance it shooting there. Pegg and Wright took meeting after meeting, all positive and all, in the end, boiling down to one request;
‘Can you set it in LA?’
The pressure on the two was almost indescrible; they were, at this stage, two UK comedy writers without a tremendous amount of work behind them and they’d been handed the brass ring; a shot at Hollywood. To turn this down would spell career suicide but to compromise the script’s inherent Britishness could mean the exact same thing. In interview years later, Wright admitted they’d kicked around rewriting it for a female lead and calling it Dawn of the Dead, but it had never gone anywhere and, for a while, it seemed Wright and Pegg would do the same.
Until they came up with an idea; they were untried, untested as big screen scriptwriters.
So why not take the initial script out of their hands altogether? The plan they presented was simple; give us carte blanche access to everything you have in devel0pment hell, we’ll pick a script, pitch it and if you like it, then that’s what we’ll push ahead on. Then, if it’s successful, Shaun would be next on the list.
Universal agreed, and Wright and Pegg picked an undeveloped script from 1987 by SHORT CIRCUIT writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock entitled “Tremors”.
The RomMonCom was born. (Romantic Comedy, with Monsters)
Tremors is set in the Desert town of Perfection Valley and follows the misfortunes of two British ex pats with one time big ideas trying to make their way in the world.
Valentine (Val) McKee (Simon Pegg) came to the US on a gap year and never went back. His work as a handy man in Perfection Valley means he knows, and is liked by, very nearly everyone but also means he has no reason to move on. The fact he lives, and works, with best mate Earl Bassett, also an ex pat and handyman but more the ‘logistical side of things’ (And Perfection’s one and only drug dealer) doesn’t help either. The pair live on the outskirts of town, have all the beer, money and food they know what to do with and can drink for free at Chang’s as long as they unblock the toilets regularly. Life is good.
Life is also complicated. Val has been dating Rhonda, a geologist surveying the valley for the last six months. Now, she’s a few weeks off finishing and heading back to Berkeley. She’s asked Val to come with her. He hasn’t said yes yet. Things are getting awkward. They’re not helped by the fact Earl, whilst utterly charming, is also a foul-mouthed loser:
Earl: Can I get… any of you cunts… a drink?
Matters come to a head when, on Rhonda’s last night in town, Val suggests they eat at Chang’s. With Earl. Again. Rhonda leaves him and a grief-stricken Val is taken out into the desert by Earl to play house music, blow stuff up and get drunker. The two men pass out on a rock and the camera tracks up as we see vast wakes in the sand, as though something huge was moving beneath the surface, pass the rock on each side and head to town. Unknown to the hapless duo the desert is crawling with giant underground monsters called Graboids. And they’ve found the town…
Walking to Walter Chang’s the next morning to buy a Cornetto, Val finds out from Walter about the disappearance of the doctor building his house on the other side of the valley. Curious, but hung over, he’s stumbles home. He’s barely through the door when there’s a scream, high pitched and squeaky, which is revealed to be Earl. He’s hiding by the back porch, watching their tool shed. The shed subsided in the night as a Graboid passed beneath it and now the creature, screaming in pain, is trying to tear itself free. The fact it takes a while for them to realize this leads to one of the best exchanges in the movie:
Val: Is it still out there?
[Earl checks, revealing a graboid appearing at the window]
Earl: Yeah. What you think we should do?
Val: Have a sit down?
Finally realizing they have to do something they start pelting the beast with cans of beer.
Val: Don’t throw that, its imported
The Graboid breaks free and the pair kill it using various power tools (Wright would later say in interview this scene is crammed full of references to classic ’80s video nasties. Fans also note the S-MART ‘Employee of the Month’ shirt Earl is wearing for much of the movie.) However, walking back along its trail they notice other creatures heading for town. The only reason they were able to kill the one beneath the shed was because it was trapped. Perfection is in a lot of trouble. They need a plan. They get:
What follows proved to be another fan favorite sequence, starting with Val saving the town pogo record holder (Played by young Ariana Richards) from a Graboid, taking in Val and Rhonda’s (sort of) reconciliation, the revelation that the bookish, polite Rhonda can out swear Earl and Val, Rhonda, Earl, Chang and the other townsfolk killing a Graboid with pickaxes to the tune of the Queen song “Don’t Stop Me Now” on the Jukebox in Chang’s before they retreated to the roof.
The movie takes a dark turn as, despite Val heroically leading one Graboid away on foot, several townsfolk, including Chang, are killed and Val, coming to his senses and realizing they need to leave, retrieves the radio from Chang’s and calls local survivalist Burt Gummer. With his ultra heavy-duty tractor, and the trailer that Val and Earl were going to turn into a swimming pool hitched up, Burt comes and gets the survivors and leads them out to his compound, showing them his gun vault, which Earl responds to with the now classic line:
EARL: By the power of Grayskull…
They recuperate and Burt assures them the Graboids can’t get in right before one smashes the wall of his gun vault because Earl couldn’t be bothered to close the gate behind them. Everyone bar Burt, his wife, Val, Rhonda and Earl are killed and Val finally loses it at his oldest friend, screaming at him about how unreliable he is.
The survivors realize they need to get out of the valley to get help. The only way to do this is by riding the tractor out across eight klicks of pure sand, but, as Rhonda notes that on the way they’ll pass the geological survey station she was working at and can use the charges she has left to defend themselves. The survivors gear up, in a scene which riffs on the arming up scene in Predator (And would later itself be riffed on in Slither), and they head out.
The Graboids attack almost instantly and just as they reach Rhonda’s, the Graboids tear a wheel off the trailer, trapping them. Seeing them on the verge of being over-run, Earl leaps from the trailer and runs off, the vibrations of his footsteps drawing the Graboids away. Val and Rhonda get the charges but the largest Graboid they’ve yet seen tears through the shed and a lit charge is dropped into the box of unlit ones. Val grabs a handful, as Rhonda punches the Graboid’s mouth tentacles out of the way and they run out of the shed just as it blows up. Trapped on a rocky outcrop, with a cliff to one side, another Graboid swarming the trailer and Earl presumed dead, all seems lost. In a surprisingly dark twist, they reconcile and talk about asking Burt to kill them at range, leading to Val’s memorable line;
VAL: I don’t think I have it in me to lose my job, my house, my best friend and ask the local gun nut to kill my girlfriend and I in the same day.
RHONDA: Who says I’m your girlfriend?
Val’s had enough. He kisses her, grabs the charges and sprints out towards the cliff, yelling and screaming. The others watch, horror struck as the Graboids all turn and head straight for Val. Standing at the very edge of the cliff, he lights and throws all the carges behind the Graboids, the sound and vibration enraging them and driving them even faster towards him. Val, clearly terrified, holds his ground and at the last possible second leaps aside as the Graboids smash through the cliff beneath him and…sail into thin air and crash to the ground hundreds of feet below, dying instantly.
With Val about to join them, dangling over the cliff edge. Rhonda runs to save him and hauls him back onto solid ground, just as a Graboid scream echoes nearby. The survivors, bloody and tattered, turn to face the new attack and find…
Earl…with a pet Graboid.
EARL (LOOKING AT EVERYONE’S AMAZEMENT): ….What?
Embracing his friend, Val asks how he’s alive and Earl explains he threw everything out of his pockets as he ran off, including his stash. Which the Graboid ate. And which appears to have calmed it down. The screen fades out on him talking to Burt about tourists coming to Perfection, and Val and Rhonda kissing.
It fades up on ad for a brand new Perfection Game Reserve, with Burt as the Head Warden. We see footage of the military coming into town and securing the Graboids, find out Burt refused to let the carcasses off his land until he was given an extensive grant and how Rhonda now divides her time between University of Texas, where she lectures about Graboids, and town, where she helps run the reserve along with Earl and Charlie the Graboid, still permanently high. Val for his part? Is married to Rhonda and taking classes at U of T. He’s training to become a zoologist but in the meantime, he’s still fixing toilets. Just to keep his hand in…
Reception and Sequels
The movie opened modestly, was critically acclaimed in the genre press for the unusual step of being a monster movie set almost entirely during the day and continues to enjoy a long life on DVD and On Demand services. No less than three sequels and a short-lived TV show were produced, none of which involved Wright, Pegg and Frost in any way. This wasn’t out of any sense of falling out, after all the studio were extremely pleased with the results, but rather a sense of them having ‘graduated’. Interestingly though, the franchise would remain a regular stopping off point for English screen writers cutting their teeth in Hollywood, with both Harold Overman and Toby Whithouse writing sequels. Also, the Spaced connection remained a close one, with Jessica Hyne starring as a colleague of Rhonda’s in the sequel and Michael Smiley appearing as both the new head of the Game Reserve in Tremors III and the TV show and his own, great grandfather in the hugely entertaining Steampunk prequel, Tremors IV. That movie was directed by Greg Mottola, who would go on to work with Pegg and Frost on Paul.
Spaced fans, still smarting from the confirmation of there being no third series, were split. Many were extremely fond of the movie but many others decried it as the three having sold out. Two of the most vocal criticisms were that they should have made the film in the UK and that Burt Gummer, Michael Gross’ character, was just a beefed up version of Mike, Frost’s character on Spaced. Wright answered the first criticism both with Shaun of the Dead, which he directed to huge acclaim immediately after Tremors, and answered the second when the DVD of the movie was released. A deleted scene sees Burt asks Val and Earl whether they know his nephew Mike, who lives in the UK. Earl opens his mouth to speak and Val cuts him off. It also caught some criticism over the perceived homosexual nature of Val and Earl’s relationship:
Val: [about Earl] He’s not my boyfriend!
Earl: [handing beer to Val] It might be a bit warm, the cooler’s off.
Val: Thanks, babe. [winks]
This was also answered by Wright turning the right wing criticisms of the movie into a marketing tool, arranging for a two day film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse, alternating movies dealing with homosexuality and buddy action movies. The festival is still running today, and Wright is viewed as a friend of both the cinema and the city.
-Wright parlayed his success into not only Shaun of the Dead but a permanent ‘talent exchange’ arrangement with the US. This led to him essentially splitting his career between the US and the UK, culminating in the confirmation of his Ant-Man movie at ComicCon in 2012. Rumours persist that Wright is front runner to take over control of the Marvel Movie universe when Joss Whedon steps away but those have yet to be confirmed. The possibility of him directing an episode of Doctor Who however, refuses to go away and Wright seems likely to go behind the camera there for Season 8 in 2014.
- Pegg, despite the doubts of some elements of British fandom, became a movie star in his own right in the US, appearing in the Mission:Impossible and Star Trek reboot series. He also narrowly missed out on a stint on Doctor Who, and, at time of writing, is one of the last few actors in contention for the lead role in Doctor Strange.
-Frost also made it big in the wake of Tremors, not only through working with Wright and Pegg but as a regular fixture on US TV. His laconic, deadpan approach on screen and his fierce love of cooking off made him a personality in his own right leading to him being invited to appear on shows as diverse as Man Vs Food, Dancing With The Stars and The Daily Show.
-The Cornetto trilogy became, in the end, two. The UK trilogy consisting of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End concludes this year but the US version has remained frustratingly incomplete with only Tremors (Red), and Paul (Green) completed and controversy surrounding Paul’s status as a Cornetto movie given the fact it was directed by Mottola. However, in the last few months it’s been confirmed that Wright has chosen another script from the vaults;
an abandoned 1980s action comedy called Police Academy.
It seems that the American blue Cornetto is finally on the way. Even better, Wright and Pegg have confirmed this is the long-rumored crossover movie. Sergeant Nicholas Angel is going to America. And he’s bringing his ice cream with him.