Anyone who is/was surprised that Zombieland took this weekend’s box office in the US hasn’t seen the movie, because this flick is a fun, episodic romp through the inevitable zombie apocalypse that is more likely to thrill than offend. The nice thing about a zombie horror/comedy/road-trip film that clocks in under 90 minutes is that the enjoyable moments never stop coming and – on the off chance this film doesn’t do it for you – the pacing stays consistent.
The flick is the directorial debut from Ruben Fleischer who has directed a few episodes of Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show and from Paul Wenick and Rhett Reese, two writers that cut their teeth in television.
The plot follows Jesse Eisenberg (reappearing in a “land” movie after this year’s Adventureland) as Columbus, a geeky shut-in WoW player who finds himself one of the last human survivors of the zombie apocalypse based on his social anxieties and list of rules to survive Zombieland. Along the way, he meets Tallahassee, played by Woody Harrelson (unironically doing his best Woody Harrelson persona), a snake-skin jacketed redneck who has a penchant for zombie killing.
The buddy comedy is interrupted when Columbus and Tallahassee are conned by Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two sisters on their way to Playland outside Los Angeles. The unlikely group of friends bond on their way West, flirting, bullshitting and killing zombies until a very funny cameo appearance by a certain Ghostbuster in his Hollywood mansion.
Wenick and Reese originally wrote Zombieland as a television pilot and sold it to CBS, who eventually killed the project and gave the rights back to Wenick and Reese. The pilot was expanded into a feature-length script by adding what would have been episode two to the pilot plot and Zombieland was birthed again as a feature.
The Zombieland script started making the rounds in Hollywood, languishing in the screenplay piles for eventual stars Eisenberg and Harrelson. In 2007, the script made the Black List, a yearly list assembled by Hollywood insiders naming the best unproduced screenplays making the rounds in the industry. Zombieland got picked up for Sony, who gave it to Fleischer, the rookie film director, and funded it to the tune of $23.6 million.
This is how projects come out of left field to really surprise you: a script that came to be purely based on the quality of its content on the page. In a year where at least half the films released on any given week are adapted from a book, video game, This American Life episode or toy line, it’s a breath of fresh air to see Zombieland and enjoy the hell out of it.
The zombies of Zombieland really get their change to shine for the first half of the film, when we’re dropped into the middle of the zombie apocalypse, which is just fine, because I don’t know a single fan of zombie movies that doesn’t secretly (or publically) have their own plan for the eventual dawn of the zombie apocalypse. People who have read World War Z (by Max Brooks, adapted screenplay currently at Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company) have especially realistic strategies for surviving the downfall of non-zombie civilization. The basics of any given apocalypse are the same and usually comprise the first few minutes of any zombie movie. Zombieland knows its audience well enough that it disposes with the apocalypse story with a few well-placed lines: patient zero ate a contaminated hamburger with an evolved version of mad cow disease. Simple.
Because the film is a television pilot, some of the outings feel like episodes tied together with greater one-off glimpses of character. In a specific example, we learn that Harrelson’s Tallahassee had a child that he lost once things went zombie. Instead of allowing this to motivate Tallahassee’s action like a B-movie would do, here Tallahassee has instead been given as maddening hankering for a Twinke. If Zombieland was a television show, a few episodes would be spent finding Tallahassee’s Twinke, but the child would be left for sweeps week or a season finale. In the film, the eventual Twinke is Tallahassee’s character dénouement after a zombie-killing climax, leaving the question of Tallahassee’s parenting character flaw open, ready to be explored further should Zombieland get a sequel.
Zombieland’s focus on character comedy often gave me the feeling that I was getting a glimpse into the beginnings of something instead of a complete picture or plot. Luckily, the comedy of a continent of zombies doesn’t require much in terms of an inciting incident. The film layers on elements of a romantic comedy, zombie horror flick, buddy movie and road trip film in an attempt to distract from its episodic structure. The format fits the film since staying put in a post zombie apocalypse world makes no sense.
The structure and the theme don’t allow Zombieland to make a lasting impression, but it doesn’t really want to, it just wants to entertain you with its gore, witty banter and situation comedy. In that sense it succeeds wildly. If you’re the type of person wondering what Zombie Rules fall in between the few we get to see, there will be lots of holes to poke your fingers through. Thing is, those holes are deliberate gaps that were chiseled into the plot to provide character comedy – no one promised you an entire list of Zombie Rules.
I knew I had gotten my money’s worth with Zombieland as soon as the slo-mo credits over Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” ended, and that was before I even knew the other three main characters this film make dance in front of you. It’s visual candy, it’s pot for people who don’t smoke, it’s a laughably fun experience for anyone who has thought about their reaction to the zombie apocalypse and if contains the apology for Garfield that I’ve always wanted to hear.