A Slice of Fried Gold: Looking Back at the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy
As Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho makes its theatrical release, we take a look at the three films that made him one of Britain’s most popular directors...
What do you do if you spot a pair of zombies in your back garden? You're British and you aren’t a gangster or a farmer, so you don’t have a gun. Toasters, mug trees, and the contents of the kitchen drawer prove ineffective, and you haven't got the key to the garden shed. The next thing that comes to hand is your box of vinyl records…but which ones to throw?
The zombies are so slow that you have time to flick through and decide which records to save and which ones to fling at the flesh-eaters shuffling towards you. Purple Rain is a keeper, but the Batman soundtrack? Throw it…
This classic scene from Shaun of the Dead is a great example of how Edgar Wright takes an American genre and puts a quintessentially British spin on it.
Edgar Wright on the set of Last Night In Soho. Photo by Greg Williams.
He has always worn his homages on his sleeve but, as a writer, he gives the material enough of a unique wrinkle to make it feel like something fresh. It’s a trick he repeated throughout his three most cherished films to date: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, which affectionately became known as the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
“Go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for this to all blow over...”
In 2003, around 300 homes were evacuated in our neighbourhood when some silly sods set fire to a garage stacked with old gas canisters. My flatmate and I didn't get the memo; we were left walking around wondering why the shops and the pub were closed. We only found out what was going on when a reporter from the local radio station later stopped me in the street and asked for my reaction to the dramatic events.
About a year later, Shaun of the Dead came out. At the beginning of the movie, two guys in their twenties, Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Ed (Nick Frost) are oblivious to the start of a zombie apocalypse all around them. To be fair, it’s a bad week for Shaun - he gets no respect at work, he’s just been dumped by his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), and he has to deal with his other housemate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), who can’t stand Ed laying around the place all day. As the zombie situation worsens, he also needs to get his mum (Penelope Wilton) to safety after his stepdad (Bill Nighy) gets bitten by an undead attacker. But where could they possibly go that’s safe?
After the gas canister incident, two blokes missing the start of the end of the world totally checked out. That was the genius of the film - the way Shaun and his small circle of family and friends reacted to the zombie crisis felt exactly how real people would react, and it struck a chord with the British public.
The writing was note perfect. Take Ed’s cliched relationship advice (“It’s not the end of the world.”), that awkward moment when you bump into an old friend (Yvonne: “How are you Doing?” Shaun: “Surviving.”), or stepdad Phillip’s reaction to a zombie bite (“I ran it under a cold tap.”) This was a zombie movie we could actually relate to.
My own circumstances were uncannily similar to Shaun’s, which made it feel even more familiar. I was also adrift in my mid-twenties, working for an electrical retailer with a name tag on my shirt, and transitioning from living with my flatmate to moving in with my girlfriend. On the surface, Shaun of the Dead might have been a comedy horror about a small group of people trying to survive a zombie horde, but on a more resonant level it was really about growing up and the uneasy process of becoming a proper adult.
Nowadays, zombies are so common in movies, TV shows and video games that we’ve long since reached a saturation point. When Shaun of the Dead was released in the spring of 2004, the genre was only just starting to claw its way out of the grave after a quiet 90s. It was part of the early zombie renaissance along with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s effective remake of Dawn of the Dead. Scholars attributed the reinvigoration of the genre to a strain of post-9/11 anxiety, with the undead representing the “inescapable realities of unnatural death”.
While Boyle and Snyder’s zombie flicks were in the same nihilistic vein as George A. Romero’s original Dead trilogy, Wright’s film pulled off the trick of irreverence while also remaining faithful to the tropes established by the venerable “Godfather of the Dead”.
Wright understands that slow, shuffling zombies are faster than quick ones, sharing the same nightmare logic of bogeymen like Michael Myers in Halloween. They might move slowly, but no matter how fast you run or how well you hide, they will always catch up with you.
A single zombie isn’t that scary. You can out-walk this thing, no problem. It is the relentless, inevitable build-up of the dead which is terrifying, until they reach critical mass and the survivor’s defences buckle under the sheer volume of the onslaught.
We only get tantalising hints at what causes the outbreak in Shaun of the Dead. Much like the Romero originals, it is left disturbingly vague, adding another unsettling element - the feeling of being cut off from the outside world and reliable information. The protagonist’s true enemy is usually human nature itself, often personified by individuals within their group who are only looking out for their only selfish interests. Shaun and Ed’s efforts are constantly undermined by David (Dylan Moran), a snide nerd who secretly holds a candle for Liz.
If Shaun of the Dead has one flaw, it is that Shaun seems remarkably well-adjusted in the final scene considering what he has just endured. It’s a minor quibble because Wright at least takes time to acknowledge that the poor shuffling creatures were once real people with lives, jobs, family, friends, hopes and regrets, just like the rest of us.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
“The greater good!”
There are few things better than bonding with someone over movies, and shared favourites can mean an instant friend for life. This is at the heart of Hot Fuzz, Wright’s loving homage to Hollywood buddy action flicks like Bad Boys, Point Break and Lethal Weapon. Pegg stars as Nicholas Angel, a humourless supercop from London who gets shipped out to a sleepy country village because he’s making the rest of the police force look bad. There he teams up with PC Danny Butterman (Frost, of course) to investigate a series of murders disguised as grisly accidents.
The success of Shaun of the Dead meant a bigger budget and a bigger cast - watch how Wright cheekily flaunts cameos from Bill Nighy, Steve Coogan, Martin Freeman, Peter Jackson and Cate Blanchett within the opening scenes.
It also meant he could stage some impressively mounted set pieces, making Hot Fuzz easily on par with the action movies it references. In his unassuming way, Wright has become one of the best directors of action at work today. Unlike, say, Christopher Nolan or Michael Bay, he always ensures three things: one, the audience knows who is doing what, and why; two, where they are in relation to other protagonists and/or antagonists, and the environment around them; and three, that we can actually follow what is going on, largely keeping action in camera.
Trying to decide which is best out of the Cornetto trilogy is an enduring subject of pub debates; I know quite a few people who think Hot Fuzz is the best of the bunch. For me, it is simply the least best out of three excellent movies. It is at its strongest when playing as a fish-out-of-water comedy with Angel the “big cop in a small town”, coming to terms with the ways of village life. That means busting underage drinkers in the local pub, attending church fetes, hunting for a missing swan, and trying to decipher the local accent.
As with all three movies, a large part of Hot Fuzz’s appeal is the dynamic between Pegg and Frost and Angel and Butterman. The characters and their relationship are drawn quite broadly compared to the other two films, and this simplicity means it lacks a little of their heart and emotional depth.
That aside, Pegg and Frost are backed up by a brilliant supporting cast. Jim Broadbent plays Danny’s dad, the local chief inspector, and deserves a special Oscar just for the way he delivers the line “A big bushy beard!”. Olivia Colman gets some saucy laughs as the village WPC with a cheeky line in crude double entendres. Paddy Considine and Rafe Spall are hilarious as two surly detectives who take an instant dislike to Angel. Timothy Dalton is devilishly smarmy as the sinister manager of the local supermarket and prime suspect in the murder case. The list goes on and on.
Eventually, Hot Fuzz runs out of jokes and becomes a little too close to its source of inspiration, but it is still the most laugh-out-loud funny film of the trilogy. Wright shot the film in his hometown of Wells in Somerset, which doubled for the picturesque fictional village of Sandford. Wright makes an uncredited cameo as a shelf stacker in the supermarket - a job he once had as a teen.
Returning to his old haunts also evoked memories of an epic teen pub crawl, which found its way into an early screenplay. That idea was later developed into…
The World’s End (2013)
“Ever have one of those nights that start out like any other but ends up being the best night of your life?”
By the time The World’s End was released in 2013, I’d lived abroad for four years. Much like Shaun of the Dead, it struck an immediate note of familiarity with me. Visits home to the UK were always odd, returning to a place I’d known for most of my life but was now seeing through new eyes. Everything is the same but different. My hometown Ipswich seemed smaller, shabbier, darker, emptier. It felt eerily quiet after the pubs closed at such an early hour, and positively spooky when the streetlamps went out at midnight. Suddenly, the locals seem alien, talking in a funny accent and behaving strangely. It’s almost as if the place you grew up has been taken over by beings from another planet…
This strange bittersweet feeling is central to The World’s End. Gary King (Pegg) is an immature alcoholic in his forties who persuades four of his old friends to return to their hometown of Newton Haven in the hope of completing "The Golden Mile", an epic pub crawl they failed during their teens. The others have all matured, but Gary is still stuck in the 90s, desperate to relive the glory days of his teenage years.
The friends aren't too excited about the prospect, least of all Andy (Frost), Gary's former best mate who is now a teetotal lawyer. Reluctantly, they go along and notice some unusual changes to their old hangouts and the people they recognise. Gradually they realise that everything seems so different because it is different - almost everyone has been taken over by alien replicants, or "Blanks".
The World's End is the most densely layered of the three Cornetto films, packed with tiny background details, jokes and references, plus Wright’s love of foreshadowing - almost everything set up earlier in the film pays off later. He establishes a rich and believable relationship between the five old friends, and their bickering feels firmly grounded in reality. If you’ve ever attended a reunion, you know how strange it can be chatting to someone you haven’t seen for decades, but still retain a connection with thanks to your school days. The screenplay, again written by Wright and Pegg, gets the awkwardness spot on.
Pegg and Frost basically swap roles from Shaun of the Dead, with Pegg playing the irresponsible man-child and Frost playing the sensible one this time around. Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan make up the other "Five Musketeers", and we also get Rosamund Pike along for the ride as Gary’s old crush from high school.
They are all great, but Pegg is most impressive as Gary, putting in the performance of his career. He gets most of the laughs but he’s also a tragic character, determined to keep drinking and complete the pub crawl even when it becomes clear they are in mortal danger. Still dressing and acting like a teenager, there is something desperately sad about his relentless laddishness, and details like him still playing the same mixtape from his halcyon days. Pegg has since talked openly about his problems with alcohol and says the film was his way of telling people about his former addiction, and it certainly puts the performance in perspective.
If there is a downside to The World’s End, it is that Wright makes it too much of a good thing. The twelve pubs of The Golden Mile are a lot to cram into an already packed runtime, and it gets a little wearisome towards the finale. As for the post-apocalyptic coda… it’s a bit forced and not exactly the Trilogy’s finest moment, but at least we got that final Cornetto reference in there. Despite this, The World’s End is a fantastic conclusion to the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, which have become some of the most loved British comedies ever made.
Pegg and Frost have worked together without Wright with varying results, from the quirky supernatural comedy series The Truth Seekers to the stoner alien comedy Paul. There is still much chatter among fans whether the trio will collaborate again in the future, and neither of them seems to rule it out. As for now, they have given us three almost perfect comedies to cherish, and maybe it would be best if they left it there. After all, remember what happened with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?
Which is your favourite film from the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, and why? Let us know!
Last Night in Soho is on general theatrical release in the UK, US and Ireland now.
Thanks Lee! We have just booked our Last Night In Soho tickets at London's Haymarket Cinema, it features in the film!
Adam and the Art of the Movies team