Zombieland (2009) / Horror-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for violence, gore and language
Running time: 88 min.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin
Cameo: Bill Murray, Mike White
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Review published October 30, 2009
Refreshing, in these times, to find a spoof on a genre of films that isn't just a rattling off of pop culture references and obvious sight gags, though Shaun of the Dead is still a favorite for many audiences. In many ways, it's an updating of another cult 1980s zombie spoof, Night of the Comet, except with better budget for actors, crisper direction, and punchier script. The makers of Zombieland would rather tell a straightforward story infused with humor and homage for those who truly appreciate the zombie-horror genre rather than go for broad appeal snarkiness.
It works, and works well, thanks in large part to first-feature director Ruben Fleischer's dead-on sense of style in the action department, marrying horror and car chases in a way that pushes the story forward without losing in excitement. At only 88 minutes, it gets in and out of the material without being hasty, and without overstaying its welcome. It's not aiming to be high art, and it isn't out to scare anyone. It's a b-movie genre excursion made by people who know and love these kinds of movies, and if you're of this set, it's more treat than trick.
The premise is simple, and standard for the genre it is spoofing. The setting is the not-too-distant future, when humankind has been overtaken by a lightning-fast spreading virus, which made the jump to humans from mad cow disease, that leaves the afflicted as mindless, cannibalistic maniacs. Normal humans have dwindled to near extinction, but survivors do still remain. The main protagonist in the story is a squirrely, reclusive nerd (Eisenberg, The Squid and the Whale) who has created his own guide to survival amid a world gone mad. He is later dubbed "Columbus" by an older, more adventurous survivalist (Harrelson, Management) who is called "Tallahassee" (so as not to get too attached to potential future zombies, no real names are used), who picks him up on a hitchhike. They later run into a pair of grifter sisters, who are dubbed Wichita (Stone, The House Bunny) and Little Rock (Breslin, Definitely Maybe), and though they get taken by the younger self-servers, they find strength in numbers by trying to ally themselves with whomever is still out there fighting the inflicted masses.
Zombieland not only benefits from a lean script and tight direction, but also from the quality of its small ensemble of actors, who are specifically cast to fit their respective archetypes. Particularly memorable is Woody Harrelson as the cavalier, and somewhat chaotic redneck, Tallahassee. He provides the right amount of charisma and action-oriented chutzpah to make what might have been monotonous road trip clichés and zombie stomps fun. Eisenberg offers up his usual nebbish personality as the perpetual fish out of water. Stone and Breslin round out the cast nicely as the opportunist girls who do for self above all others, preying on being helpless to gain the upper hand.
Sprinkled with little personality bits here and there (Tallahassee's mad quest for an ever-elusive Twinkie, Columbus's crippling fear of clowns, etc.), Zombieland doesn't break any new ground in the horror genre so much as make for a strong dose of escapist fun for knowing fans of the films. It's for those who enjoy unbridled action and twisted humor more so than horror (it's just not a very scary film in the slightest), but proves that there's still some life in the realm of the undead.
©2009 Vince Leo