Director : Ruben Fleischer
Screenplay : Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Jesse Eisenberg (Columbus), Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee), Emma Stone (Wichita), Abigail Breslin (Little Rock), Amber Heard (406), Bill Murray (Himself), Mike White (Gas Station Attendant), Derek Graf (Clown Zombie)
Sometimes I wonder if George A. Romero had any idea what he was doing back in 1968 when he unleashed Night of the Living Dead on the world. Did he have any clue that he was creating what would become one of the most malleable of horror subgenres? Granted, zombies had existed in the movies prior to Romero’s grisly little black-and-white shocker, but the idea of hoards of the living dead surrounding and eviscerating the living was a brilliantly horrific and utterly new idea, one that has spawned innumerable copycats and knock-offs and, in recent years, parodies, most notable Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004), whose fine balancing act of comedy and horror I was sure had driven the last nail into the coffin of zombies as anything other than comical. Yet, just like their relentless quest for human flesh, zombies have persisted, given new life by the concept of the “fast” zombie introduced in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2003), which also used the idea of an infectious contagion, rather than mysteriously resurrected corpses, to create its zombie throngs.
Which is where Zombieland comes in. Penned by television scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and helmed by first-time feature director Ruben Fleischer, it is an assured riff on zombie traditions, smartly playing the most basic concepts of the genre absolutely straight (the desolation of the post-zombie-apocalyptic world, the ravenous horrors of raging flesh-eaters, etc.), but allows us to view them through a deadpan ironic lens, thus casting the horrific in an undeniably comic light. The story is narrated by a young man named Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), who admits that he is an unlikely survivor given that he is wracked by phobias and so antisocial that he rarely ventures outside his apartment. Yet, it is those very traits that have helped him survive the zombie apocalypse, which he helpfully explains in voice-over as a set of rules he has developed that increase his chances of survival (e.g., stay in good cardiovascular shape, always check the backseat of your car, make sure a zombie is really dead when you shoot it, beware of bathrooms, etc.). Eisenberg, who has perfected the art of the sincere, nervous young man in films like Roger Dodger (2002) and Adventureland (2009), is an immediately likeable protagonist, and his descriptions of common-sense survival have a wonder comic edge to them without slipping too far into self-conscious “rules of the game” satire (in this way the film plays like an abridged visualization of Max Brooks’ amusing book The Zombie Survival Guide).
Columbus, who is so named because he is traveling to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, hitches a ride with another survivor, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), so named because … well, you see the pattern. Tallahassee is in every way Columbus’s opposite: Played by Harrelson as Mickey Knox’s less sociopathic cousin, Tallahassee approaches his survival in the zombie apocalypse with both brute force and the undeniable sense of glee that comes with writing your own rules. Where Columbus treats survival as an intellectual exercise in rationality and practicality, Tallahassee goes about it like a wrecking ball, simply bulldozing over any zombies that get in his way with the assortment of weapons he keeps in the back of his SUV.
While in a grocery store looking for Twinkies (Tallahassee’s one obsession), they come across two more survivors: a young woman named Wichita (Emma Stone) and her preteen sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), whose accomplished con artistry has helped them survive, but also keeps them at a natural distance from anyone else. This leads to one of the genuine surprises of Zombieland, which is how well the four main character cohere into an unlikely family of sorts. The film’s brawny mixture of comedy and horror keeps it fast and furious, and its depiction of a world with no rules gives it a sense of anarchic wish fulfillment (who hasn’t wanted to trash a cheap souvenir shop or grab any Hummer you can hotwire?), but the gradual emotional connections forged among Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock give it a surprising amount of heart.
Fleischer approaches the material with an anything-goes visual dexterity, epitomized during the Metallica-infused opening credits sequence, which captures various shots of horrified victims attempting to flee ravenous zombies in extreme slow motion that simultaneously heightens both the abject terror and the comic absurdity of it all. Fleischer doesn’t shy away from the gore, but instead relishes the gooey and the gross as yet another avenue for turning our expectations inside out. The film is never particularly scary, although there is a great jump moment in a flashback sequence depicting Columbus coming face to face with his first zombie, which is unfortunately his hot neighbor (Amber Heard) who comes to him for solace after a homeless man tried to bite her (and apparently succeeded). Instead, Fleischer builds tension and suspense, particularly in the climactic sequence at an amusement park in Los Angeles, which finds Wichita and Little Rock trapped on one of the rides with an ocean of zombies beneath them and Columbus and Tallahassee racing to their rescue (granted, this situation develops from positively idiotic behavior on the part of the two girls, but by that point in the film you just have to go with the flow).
Zombieland arguably comes off the rails a bit during an extended sequence in the middle when the main characters find themselves in the palatial Beverly Hills mansion of a certain Hollywood actor; it is the one point in the film where it wears its postmodern comedy a little too proudly on its sleeve and takes a broad approach to physical comedy that undermines its more sophisticated balance of the gory and the droll. That misstep aside, Zombieland manages to successfully rework the familiar in a way that pokes fun at its living-dead predecessors while also recognizing the underlying sense of dread that has allowed the genre to thrive for nearly four decades. It doesn’t break any new ground, but the pleasures it offers suggest the underlying importance of the one new rule that Columbus learns via Tallahassee: You gotta enjoy the little things.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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