Keep on Rotting in the Free World: Zombieland

Zombieland, the latest entry in the nascent zombie-comedy subgenre, is a film of few surprises. Its archetypal characters are just fleshed-out enough (no pun intended) to keep us interested, and the requisite explanation for the zombie apocalypse is nothing we haven’t seen before. The film doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, nor does it need to: it sticks to a tried and true formula, and relies on the always-charismatic Woody Harrelson to keep us entertained. More Shaun than Dawn, the Ruben Fleischer-helmed film, which proves that boy-meets-girl-meets-zombie can be a recipe for success, delivers just what you’d expect and hope for: gore, laughs, and fun by the bucketful. On a related note, who the hell is Ruben Fleischer?

A pretty lucky guy, as it turns out. Calling Zombieland a directorial triumph would be going too far, but Fleischer’s handling of the film is certainly as good as it needs to be, and it seems a sequel is already in the works. Could this be the advent of a new hybrid genre–the buddy zombie-killer–and could a second installment work as well as the first?

Probably. This is the kind of movie that lends itself well to episodic sequels: it’s well-paced, holds your attention without requiring too much of it, and the characters are likeable enough. In short, it’s an engaging popcorn movie. Keep in mind that this is far from a realistic, boredom-of-survival kind of zombie flick. Things are never especially bleak for the four intrepid undead-killers, all of whom are referred to by the cities they’re traveling to or from: Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), and sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigal Breslin). Though it’s kind of a relief to not worry much about the film’s protagonists–who would dare kill off Olive Hoover from Little Miss Sunshine?–raising the stakes a bit would balance the comedy/suspense scale a bit. As is, it’s rather lopsided: there are far more laughs than frights. Part of the fun of any zombie flick, comedy or otherwise, is in wondering who will survive and who won’t. There’s no need to wonder in Zombieland, but maybe there should be.

Eisenberg does a convincing Michael Cera impression (or is it the other way around?), which is really a shame: his performance in The Squid and the Whale–unlikable though his character was–was quite good, and I’d like to see him distinguish himself more. (As an aside, this was one of two movies Eisenberg appeared in in 2009 whose titles ended in -land and which took place in amusement parks. Weird.) Harrelson, as the group’s de facto leader, is the movie’s highlight: he plays the antihero well, with equal parts badass and funnyman. Tallahassee’s ultimate goal of finding the last surviving Twinkie in America is contrived and even a little stupid; that Harrelson makes it even semi-believable is a feat unto itself. He also lead us to one of the most memorable cameos in recent memory, details of which I won’t divulge, other than saying it’s the funniest segment of the film.

The sisters’ presence is almost an afterthought. It takes quite a while to actually like either character, whose trust issues lead them to con everyone they come into contact with, including Columbus and Tallahassee. The bumbling straight man/loose cannon dynamic between the latter two serves as the film’s best relationship, and the two have genuine onscreen chemistry.

There are a few misses, however. Columbus’s generic narration, for one: he gives us the typical backstory about how he’s never had a close relationship with his family (which then makes it conveniently easy for him to completely forget about them and move on), never had a girlfriend, etc. Too, I could have done without the inclusion of his survival list, which is sometimes distractingly superimposed on to the screen: #1, Cardio; #3 Fasten your seat-belt; #17, Don’t be a hero; and so on and so forth. And, for the kind of film that’s perfect for one-liners, they could probably have done better than repeating “Nut up or shut up” three times. But few, I expect, are interested in seeing Zombieland for brilliant characterization or an in-depth look at the breakdown of society: watch it for inventive ways of killing zombies and a few good laughs, and you won’t be disappointed. Just go easy on the popcorn if you have a weak stomach.

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