Zombieland shares a sensibility that should be familiar to video gamers. It aims for as high a body count as possible, all in an exploration of the maximum number of ways that the bodies of the living dead can be reduced to jelly.
Set in a post-apocalyptic America where zombies run amok and human beings appear to be few and far between, Zombieland takes the point of view of misfit Columbus (Michael Cera knock-off Jesse Eisenberg), a Judd Apatow-style social klutz who battles the undead.
The zombie genre has come a long way from the days of George Romero’s terminally creepy Night of the Living Dead, most noticeably in the way that humor has become a feature of the postmodern zombie film. But director Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland is especially comprehensive, combining elements of many genres. (Fleischer was aided and abetted by screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick — it took two people to write this?)
It’s a road movie about Columbus’ efforts to return to Columbus, Ohio, to reunite with his parents. (Characters are named for their hometown.)
It’s also a buddy picture about the goofy teen and the tough-as-nails, zombie-killing, Twinkie-loving renegade Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) that Columbus meets along the way.
A video game-playing shut-in, Columbus gets out of his shell thanks to the gentle bitch-slapping of Tallahassee, who not only drives a weapon-filled Escalade around the decimated landscape but plays Hardy to Columbus’ Laurel. In the longstanding tradition of such buddy movies, two things happen to the men, both utterly expected. Columbus grows a pair, and Tallahassee softens up and lets down his guard.
Zombieland is also a love story in which Columbus tries to woo sexy teenager Wichita (Emma Stone). The two partners in zombie-killing meet Wichita and her little sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) when the girls hoodwink the fellas out of their Escalade assault vehicle before eventually teaming up with the boys.
And, finally, Zombieland is a self-referential treatise on the zombie film (as every post-Shaun of the Dead zombie film now seems to be). Zombieland opens with Columbus’ voice-over narration as he ticks off a core set of rules for not becoming zombie lunch, things like always looking in the back seat and never assuming your first zombie strike has killed the beast. The rules float over the action like footnotes and offer an initially witty, imaginative way of lampooning all those unspoken movie rules we embrace like sacrament.
But more than anything, Zombieland is a teenage fantasy come to life, a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off featuring the undead and a set of heroes who tool the ravaged countryside in supersized Cadillacs and brandish guns, chainsaws, and garden tillers as they destroy legions of flesh-eaters. Zombieland operates from the mildly antisocial thrill of endless destruction and an absence of role models conveniently eliminated in the zombie apocalypse.
The film’s heroes hole up in a Hollywood mansion, joyfully destroy the tacky curios at a Native American tourist trap, drink fancy wine from the bottle, and go to deserted amusement parks. Uber-geek Columbus even entertains the idea of hooking up with hottie Wichita. Since the rest of the male population has been reduced to the walking dead, Columbus’ chances are pretty good, even though we know from the Superbad school of romantic fiction that the geek always gets the babe in the end.
Zombieland can be fun at times in the manner of The Three Stooges and snowball fights — it’s anarchic, ridiculous, and pointless. The best part of the movie may be midway through when the four zombie-refugees find haven in a plush Beverly Hills mansion. Zombieland‘s film studio, Columbia Pictures, has warned critics not to reveal the megastar who lives in that mansion and makes a cameo on screen — apparently viewing it as some life-changing linchpin on which the success or failure of their film hinges. The warning also turns film critics into creepy cohorts helping to fulfill the corporate objectives of a movie studio. Columbia probably should have expended more energy on fine-tuning the often-sophomoric script. Because Zombieland‘s special top secret guest star adds a degree of imagination to the script that only serves to point out how emaciated the writing is at other moments. If Columbia had any sense, they would play up this star cameo.
Zombieland is kitsch whose veneer of irony doesn’t mean it isn’t kitsch. This is a movie, after all, that pumps up its audience on the thrill-value of zombies whose heads are crushed like overripe grapes and who get brained with car doors, fall from great distances onto concrete, and then closes with a message about the importance of family.
Umm, how sweet?