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Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus

Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee

Emma Stone as Wichita

Abigail Breslin as Little Rock

Amber Heard as 406

Directed by Ruben Fleischer


Confession time: zombies really freak me out. Play ’em any way you want – fast, slow, whatever. However they’re put on screen, the undead unnerve me – scariest monsters ever, in my opinion. So for me, the phrase ‘zombie comedy’ is an oxymoron. Oh, sure – I’ll laugh at a zombie film if it’s funny but deep down I can’t help but feel some anxiety when I see them running down a meal. Take Return of the Living Dead (1986), for instance. I agree that it’s a funny movie but yet while watching it I can’t help but feel a little bit of panic as the zombie hordes continue to grow, cutting the living characters off from every possible avenue of escape. What can I say – zombies just connect with some primal fear center in my brain. Maybe I have a thing about death, or I have an aversion to being eaten – who knows? But as genuinely hilarious as Zombieland is, I couldn’t help but tense up from time to time. But to me, that’s the sign of a true zombie movie. Some might be worried that this is going to be too broad of a farce but it absolutely isn’t. It just happens to follow some funny people through a serious – and ravenous – world.

The most often cited point of comparison with Zombieland is Shaun of the Dead (2004) but I didn’t see much of Shaun here. Yes, they’re both contemporary zombie films and yes they’re both deadly funny but that’s about it. Whereas Shaun was clearly a love letter to the Romero zombie tradition, Zombieland seems almost wholly indebted to 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Synder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Not only does it have fast zombies, but it also doesn’t feel like it’s carrying any kind of torch for Romero’s work. There are no “shoot ’em in the head” references here, for instance. Instead Zombieland introduces its own terminology for effectively putting down a zombie: “the double-tap.” If Zombieland doesn’t inspire it’s own following of worshippers who will be able to quote it verbatim, I’ll be very surprised. I believe there’s a whole generation who are going to discover their love of zombie cinema right here. At the same time, the old school fans will have no problem instantly adding Zombieland to their list of favorites.

As written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who till now have worked exclusively in TV – Zombieland was originally developed as a series) and directed by Ruben Fleischer (his first feature as a director), Zombieland is a work of sheer entertainment just as fleet-footed as its zombies. Reportedly, forty-five minutes were trimmed from the film for the final cut but that must’ve represented some brilliant pruning because from watching Zombieland you’d never think that anything had been sacrificed from the movie. Not in terms of splatter FX (which are wet enough to place this solidly in the ‘R’ category) but in terms of character work and storytelling. In balancing the interactions of its four main characters, in giving them each room to shine as individuals and as a group, Zombieland doesn’t feel rushed or truncated. It has such a natural flow – it’s episodic without feeling rudderless – that it’s hard to imagine that such a large chunk of the story was lost. I’ll believe it when I see the DVD.

Zombieland doesn’t have much of a plot per se. It’s not about the search for a cure to the zombie plague, or about the search for why it happened. It isn’t even about the search for survivors (that quest ends early on for one of the characters) or about rebuilding society (another staple of Romero’s films that doesn’t occur here). It’s a road movie where disparate people come together along their travels and discover a reason to keep traveling together, rather than to follow their natural instincts to go solo. In this way, in the gradual bond that develops between Zombieland‘s four main characters – Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus, Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, Emma Stone as Wichita and Abigail Breslin as Little Rock – Zombieland most closely resembles a Romero zombie film, specifically Dawn of the Dead (1978). What made Dawn great – to my mind, at least – wasn’t it’s socio-political underpinnings, or its seminal splatter FX. Those elements were important, sure, but what makes Dawn continue to endure as a classic even after its satirical message has been rendered trite by time and long after its groundbreaking FX has begun to look dated, is the attention that Romero gave to his characters.

As in Dawn, Zombieland has four leads and as in Dawn those four characters meet as two pairs that eventually fuse together into one surrogate family. The sections of Dawn that I continue to enjoy the most aren’t the action scenes – it isn’t about S.W.A.T. members kicking in doors and blowing off heads; it isn’t about motorcycle gangs swarming the mall, navigating their way through shuffling zombie hordes – it’s the scenes that Romero devotes to his foursome’s downtime. It’s about the scenes where they play together, living it up by literally having the world (or at least a piece of it) to themselves. Likewise, it’s the scenes where Zombieland‘s quartet of survivors get carefree (as much as those in constant vigil from zombie attacks can be carefree) and discover how to enjoy “the little things,” as Tallahassee says, where Zombieland transcends the run and gun adrenaline rush of standard zombie movies and delivers something that the undead can’t exist without: living, breathing, full-blooded people.

In the interest of pointing out that Zombieland isn’t quite perfect, the amusement park finale feels forced – well executed from a directorial standpoint but forced in terms of the story and the characters. Yes, it’s a destination that these characters have been traveling throughout the movie to see but yet it’s hard to believe that once they get there that people who have shown so much savvy in surviving would consider it a smart idea to power up an amusement park. Because, you know, that’s not going to attract zombies or anything. It’s as though the writers were determined to have zombies running around an amusement park and were willing to forfeit a little logic to make it happen. And honestly, I’d make that same trade-off myself because it is an undeniably cool sight. Oh, and in a factual gaffe, Anaconda is referred to as an R-rated film when actually it’s PG-13. But really, how often do movie fans hear people getting things wrong when talking about movies? All the time – so I’ll credit that mistake as ringing true to life.

For the hardcore zombie fan, Zombieland is admittedly a long way from the maggot-encrusted mug of Fulci’s Zombie (1980) or from Capt. Rhodes’ seeing his legs dragged down the hall (“Choke on ’em!”) in Day of the Dead (1985) but zombie fans don’t have to feast on guts alone. As it turns out, a little heart is good too.