Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin
Release date: October 2, 2009
I love horror movies and I also love comedies, so blend the two genres and you immediately have my interest, even if the final product is shockingly subpar. Just about every subgenre of horror, from mad scientist movies (Re-Animator) to werewolf movies (An American Werewolf in London) to even vampire movies (The Lost Boys), has seen their decaying shelf lives increased thanks to a lightning bolt to the heart in the form of some much-needed humor. When the horror movie monsters of old have outlived their usefulness, what better to keep them fresh than to point out how patently absurd they actually are? But when it comes to horror movie monsters being played for laughs the zombie always comes out on top. Even in George Romero’s classic Dead series, the zombies — while never less of a threat — are often regarded with a sense of humor because they’re creatures without any real personality and anything resembling a brain who act primarily out of instinct, kind of like petulant toddlers. As a result, they do goofy things like get caught on escalators, play with guns, and stand idly by while the living throw cream pies in their faces. Zombies are fun, but still scary. After all, you may find their dead-eyed antics amusing, but would you want to be one of them? I doubt it.
However, killing zombies still sounds like a lot of fun. If you have an IQ greater than your shoe size then you have the advantage over the walking dead. How many of us, after devouring every zombie flick we can get our hands on (even the shittier ones), have dug deep into the bowels of our horror-soaked imaginations and wondered how we would act in the face of a global zombie apocalypse?
We’ve watched every movie George Romero movie and at least two to three of the Return of the Living Dead flicks (the first two to three preferably) and read the works of Max Brooks cover-to-cover, so we all have daydreamed about our own possible survival scenarios in a world conquered by the shambling dead. What will we do when the majority of the planet’s population has either been turned into zombies or become food for the undead? Load up some shotguns, raid the local 7-11 for booze and beef jerky, and then hit the Hummer dealership, that’s what! Sure it would be mighty depressing to see your friends and loved ones get their intestines ripped out and their brains sucked out through their eye sockets, but many hours spent playing Resident Evil 4 and subsisting on a steady diet of Lucio Fulci films have prepared us for the worst, or what we hope is the worst. You kind of wish there was a special zombie-killing fantasy camp for horror geeks, or maybe that show Life After People should throw in a few people and a shitload of brain-munching mobile corpses.
Zombieland, directed by first-time feature filmmaker Ruben Fleischer from a screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, dares to show us a more sunnier side of trying to make a new life in the midst of a apocalypse of the walking dead. Socially awkward college student Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) believes himself to be the last man on Earth and has managed to survive thus far by adhering to a lengthy set of rules (illustrated by some neato on-screen graphics) and keeping up an exercise regiment. One day he meets up with the care-free badass zombie slayer Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and the two of them form an unlikely team as Columbus seeks to return to the home city that gave him his name (NOTE: None of the characters in this movie, with one exception, answer to their real name.). Along the way our intrepid duo encounters another pair of surviving humans, sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who pull a con on them and steal their weapons and Tallahassee’s beloved Cadillac Escalade. Eventually catching up with the girls Columbus proposes that they stick together until Wichita and her little sis reach their intended destination, a California amusement park called Pacific Playland. Along the way they’ll have surprise celebrity encounters, fall in love, and kill more than their fair share of zombies.
Coming out of a noon showing of Zombieland on Friday I was indeed a mighty happy man. This is a movie composed of an endearing love and respect for a genre that tends to be looked down upon and designed to entertain, pure and simple. It’s a lean, mean machine that never insults your intelligence. Zombieland was obviously made by horror movie fans for horror movie fans but it never comes off as an exclusive party that will only allow you to enter if you can correctly identify who played the Hare Krishna zombie in the original Dawn of the Dead. The precedent for movies like Zombieland was set in the 1980’s when the nihilism and moral darkness of 1970’s horror was quietly replaced by brighter, campier flicks that cheerfully melded horror to the more popular comedy genre and produced wild funhouse thrill rides like Return of the Living Dead, Fright Night, The Monster Squad, and the mega-blockbuster Ghostbusters. These movies provided plenty of quality scares along with a pleasurable light-hearted sense of humor. The stories moved fast, the characters were relatable, the dialogue was endlessly quotable, and the soundtracks were cheesy but still a real hoot to listen to. They were relatively inexpensive to make, hit all the right beats necessary to make a rousing screen entertainment, and were usually successful at the box office and if they weren’t then they typically found their audience on video and cable.
Zombieland has a much better future in store than the majority of horror films released these days that isn’t a PG-13 slasher retread, a remake, or yet another entry in the Saw franchise (which will keep going until the end of time if it keeps making money). Take away the zombie elements and you’d still have a sprighty popcorn action-comedy romp, but it wouldn’t be interesting. The makers of Zombieland have done their homework over the years, watched every walking dead opus they could find, and read Max Brooks’ seminal The Zombie Survival Guide time and again. The humor of the movie comes through naturally from the characters and the strange and horrific dilemma they find themselves mired in. It’s not a 90-minute-long winkfest despite the presence of some cheeky gags aimed at testing our own knowledge of zombie-themed multimedia (the “Zombie Kill of the Week” scene is one of the most memorable in the movie). The set-up is pretty basic and doesn’t waste any time on a lot of cumbersome exposition. The cause of the zombie outbreak, which I won’t reveal here because it’s one of the better throwaway jokes in the movie (such quick little bits of goofiness hiding amid the larger set-pieces make repeat viewings essential), isn’t some complicated deus ex machina but something so ordinary and pointless that it made me laugh out loud even though I’m pretty sure no one else in the theater was paying attention. While I laughed I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Only in America.”
I loved the look of the zombies in Zombieland. Director Fleischer, with some first-rate make-up effects work from a skilled team of technicians that includes FX veteran Tony Gardner (whose own work spans from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video to, most recently, The Hangover), gives a sense of faded individuality to his countless shambling hordes of undead cannibals. The zombie has always been a great vehicle for satirizing the human condition. Fleischer and his writers Reese and Wernick don’t take their zombies to the darkly comedic lengths as George Romero but they don’t shy away from portraying them as a constant threat to their main characters. The zombies of Zombieland move at various speeds, from Night of the Living Dead slow to 28 Days Later fast, and come in various shapes, sizes, and skin colors. Some of them are used for comic gags, others as figures of horror, and every time they work in their intended purpose. The clown zombie that shows up towards the end is good for a hearty laugh. Director of photography Michael Bonvillain (Cloverfield) gives the movie a look as bright and optimistic as its characters. The crackerjack editing of Alam Baumgarten (Dodgeball) leaves not a single trace of excess fat on the narrative. David Sardy, in only his second film as a composer (he produced songs for the soundtracks of Wanted and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels), delivers a competent score that doesn’t stand out but only serves to underscore the on-screen action and that it does nicely. His score is enhanced and more often than not overwhelmed by a cool soundtrack of new and vintage songs including tunes from The Black Keys, Chuck Mangione, The Velvet Underground, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, and Blue Oyster Cult. The Van Halen classic “Everybody Wants Some” that was featured prominently in the trailers gets some nice play in the movie and Metallica’s metal epic “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is perfectly set to a bravura opening credits sequence that resembles the mutant offspring of similar moments from the beginning of Watchmen and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (both directed by Zack Snyder oddly enough).
But the most crucial element that Zombieland would either fail or live on is its cast and Fleischer’s cast is the best part of the movie. First there is our protagonist Columbus played by Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale). Here’s a character with the potential to be completely irritating but thanks to Eisenberg’s welcome mix of charisma, insecurity, and warm goofiness he wins our sympathies right off the bat. Emma Stone (Superbad) and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) make for a lovable team as the sisters who know how to survive in a world gone mad. They’re a pair of tough cookies with wits as steely as the weapons they pack and can use without a moment’s thought. But the real star of Zombieland is the great Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, the gun-toting badass in a mighty Stetson and snakeskin jacket who represents the Everyman-turned-apocalyptic warrior we all imagine we could be one of these days. Harrelson’s performance, full of galootish humor and old world cowboy swagger, is one of his best in years and it’s proof that he’s one of our most underappreciated actors. Fortunately the filmmakers avoid making Tallahassee a one-note character by injecting the character with pathos and humanity through a slowly-unfolding backstory and a single-minded but relatable quest for a certain kind of snack cake that you’d think would survive to the end of the world. If any of the characters from Zombieland are going to immortalized as a popular Halloween costume in the years to come it will be Tallahassee. He’s an ass-kicking zombie slayer walking tall and busting undead head and he’s destined to become an iconic horror hero. As a nice bonus Fleischer and company throw in a hilarious cameo appearance that I will not spoil for all who haven’t yet seen the movie, but I will say that the scene doesn’t develop along the lines of a conventional cameo and turned out to be not just one of the best moments in the movie but one of the best in any movie made this year.
Zombieland is one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year. It’s a wild rollercoaster ride that packs in more laughs, chills, and thrills than most of the films released over the summer combined. Fans of horror, comedy, and adventure flicks should get a huge kick out of it. I know I did. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to nut up or shut up!