Saturday, October 3, 2009


Budget issues clearly affected Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland: for all the talk of a worldwide plague of infected, the streets and cities that characters move through look surprisingly vacant, with only a small portion of zombies in each location, if at all. It's a noticeable flaw, but a slew of gory gags and absurd one-liners make Zombieland a terrific piece of popcorn entertainment, one with more "turn off your brain" fun than almost every blockbuster that came out this summer.

Jesse Eisenberg plays the unnamed protagonist, a virginal college student who survived the mass panic and death by virtue of having no strong ties with anyone, thus preventing him from being tied down. Now that the infection has consumed seemingly everyone else, though, he decides to head to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio to see if his parents survived. Eisenberg dryly narrates the film, ticking off his list of do's-and-don'ts for living in Zombieland like a DIY version of Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide.

Before long he meets "Tallahassee" (Woody Harrelson), a loopy, shotgun-totin' madman scouring the country in search of a Twinkie. Columbus and Tallahassee band together out of an unspoken euphoria at meeting another uninfected human being, though each thoroughly irritates the other. Harrelson is a terrific character actor who excels in off-center roles, and without him Zombieland would be half as fun, if that. He drives his modified SUV on wrecked highways, taking out zombies with relish and finding only the lesser Hostess treats in cleaned-out grocery stores and food trucks.

Eventually, the lads stumble upon a duo of con artist sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) who trick them out of their guns and ride. Through a series of predictable events, the quartet winds up together headed to California so Wichita can take her little sister to the amusement park they used to love. Is it a stupid plan? Well, yeah, but there's something delightful about some of the last remaining humans on the planet getting away from their daily struggle for survival in order to ride roller coasters that give the sensation of cheating death.

As with most zombie movies, Zombieland focuses more on the survivors than the undead, but here it works to the film's detriment. Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese's script generally avoids any sense of peril and displays only a scant few moments of reflection and coping; combined with the overall lack of zombie extras, there's a distinct lack of danger in most scenes. In fact, a good portion of the film takes place in a lush Hollywood mansion totally free of a zombie threat.

But the film works, and it works well, because the writers manage to make a post-apocalyptic hellscape into an absurd road movie. When infected do show up, the living dispatch them in creative, over-the-top ways that make for some of the best gory physical comedy this side of Sam Raimi. The fourth wall-breaking narration adds a wry commentary on these grisly dispatches and numerous on-screen cues remind us of Columbus' survival rules as they are put into practice. Furthermore, that extended time in the mansion doesn't kill the momentum like it should as it's predicated on a cameo appearance so unexpected and wild that the scene actually bolsters the movie's energy rather than sap it. And that's nothing compared to the final sequence involving a massive battle at the Californian amusement park, when an appropriate amount of zombies finally show up and the wheels come of the logic train for a bloodbath that plays like a mix of Dawn of the Dead and Looney Tunes.

Zombieland is not a film that will stay with you and make you ask questions. It's as brainless as a zombie victim, and you can see just about every plot point coming a mile away (the people in my audience all joined in loudly whispering what they thought would happen next, and I confess I didn't mind since we were all batted about a .800). But it's buoyed by its sense of peevishness and its fantastic cast, all of whom know what notes to hit and where to alleviate any moment of seriousness with a quick one-liner. An odd entry into the modern slacker canon, Zombieland ultimately posits that, in the event of an apocalypse, the meek shall inherit the earth not because of patience and humility but because the loners, outsiders and slackers won't have to deal with "normal" people anymore.

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