Zombieland‘s not much of a horror movie. There are some
really good scares in the first act, and it’s set in a world that’s
been devastated by zombies (but not, I think, the undead. These zombies
seem to be much more like the Rage-infected types from 28 Days Later and
less like the ghouls of George A. Romero’s films), but if you’re hoping
for a really gory, juicy, splattery zombie movie, look elsewhere.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you’re looking for an incredibly funny, sweet, smart and enjoyable movie, Zombieland is
right for you. The zombies exist at the backdrop against which Columbus
(Jesse Eisenberg), a neurotic, Woody Allen-esque survivor and
Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an ass-kicking tough guy survivor, have
a relationship. This movie could have been set in the world of Mad Max or
after a meteor hit the planet; the important thing isn’t that there are
zombies, the important thing is that there’s no one else.
Well, no one else except two girls. Wichita (an almost unearthly
looking Emma Stone) and her little sister Little Rock are making do on
their own, scamming and scavenging. These two groups collide and make
for a sweet and funny little family. I know that sounds kind of awful,
but believe me when I say it’s not, and that a huge part of what makes
this all not awful is the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Many
of the jokes are dagger sharp, and no joke opportunity is wasted. But
Reese and Wernick don’t just chase gags – they find the organic,
believable ways to have characters say these lines. And Zombieland is full of great lines – this movie feels like a quoter’s dream.
Director Ruben Fleischer does some really impressive stuff. This isn’t
a 100 million dollar movie, but he’s able to find the views of American
desolation that sell this as being post-apocalyptic. He places the four
figures within these big, empty landscapes in ways that emphasize their
closeness against the big, scary empty out there. That’s really what Zombieland is
about – not about the rules for surviving a zombie plague (although
that’s a very funny and very visual running gag throughout the movie),
but about how damaged people can come together to find happiness and
If you were to take Zombieland at name value – ie as a
zombie movie – it’s one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen. For one thing,
it’s completely hopeful. Zombie films are, by their nature, almost
always bleak. There may be a glimmer of hope at the end, but usually it
feels like a band-aid on a gaping chest wound. Every good zombie movie
has a sociopolitical layer, and Zombieland is no
different, but this sociopolitical layer is about Obama, and about the
end of the recession. This is a movie about making it through the bad
times and seeing the other side. That’s kind of cool, but I have to
admit that it left me a touch disoriented at the finale, because I’m
just not used to walking out of zombie films feeling… good.
The chemistry between Eisenberg and Harrelson is so good it’s almost
obscene. This is a tough relationship to pull off – Tallahassee
immediately senses that Columbus is a bitch – but they navigate the
waters well, without ever becoming too touchy feelie or even chummy.
It’s a real relationship that maybe wouldn’t happen in the normal
world, but in the chaos of Zombieland these two opposites together make
perfect sense. Breslin and Stone are good, and Stone particularly has a
great sort-of bad girl thing down, but they don’t come close to
matching the wattage of their male co-stars.
There’s also a secret cameo in the film – hell, cameo doesn’t even do
it justice. It’s an amazing sequence that works like magic and that,
even though it comes towards the end of the second act, really gels the
movie together tonally. It’s a sequence that defines what Zombieland is and what it’s trying to do, and it sums up why I like this film so much. It’s a bummer that I can’t talk about it.
One thing about Zombieland that I want to call out for
specific commendation: this is almost 100% a post-zombie apocalypse
movie. With the exception of a flashback or two, this film completely
takes place after humanity has been wiped out. It’s not about people
trying to figure out how to survive or crawling from the wreckage, it’s
about people who have survived and how they live their day to day life
in this world. We haven’t seen enough zombie movies like that, and it
really sets Zombieland apart from the walking (or in this case running) dead glut we’ve experienced the last decade.
Zombieland was originally conceived as a TV pilot, and I
think you can still see that element in the film’s ending. I certainly
would love to tune in every week to follow the adventures of Columbus
and Tallahassee and Little Rock and Wichita; these are engaging
characters set in a vivid world with the benefit of smart, really
fucking funny writers putting words in their mouths. What else can you
ask for? Well, maybe some more gut-chomping, but not every zombie movie
can be Day of the Dead.