Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Screenplay by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Tallahassee – Woody Harrelson
Columbus – Jesse Eisenberg
Wichita – Emma Stone
Little Rock – Abigail Breslin
406 – Amber Heard
Himself – Bill Murray
Clown Zombie – Derek Graf
Gore and Gags
In 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, the titular character admonishes his buddy Ed, “Don’t say the zed word!” Zombieland doesn’t bother with beating around the bush: these characters are some of the only living humans left in a world crawling with repulsive, flesh-eating zombies. Though the movie doesn’t entirely acknowledge previous zombie films, the characters seem perfectly familiar with the scenario. So familiar, in fact, they even have a sense of humor about it (which, if being realistic, seems unavoidable).
Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), whose original destination is his family’s home in Columbus, Ohio, opens the film with his set of rules for survival in the new nation of Zombieland. Like the rules for surviving a horror movie indexed in Wes Craven’s tongue-in-cheek horror homage Scream, these rules make perfect sense. Number one: cardio. Unfortunately, the movie opines, the fatties are the first to get eaten in Zombieland (this seems an almost-cruel poke at the current American trend toward obesity and push for thinness and exercise). Never get caught with your pants down. Always wear your seat belt. His rules appear in the background of shots in floating letters that interact with the set and characters—an interesting and smart use of CGI in a genre that sometimes relies heavily on makeup effects and too little on graphics.
Columbus seems to have survival figured out, except that he has no friends. Even before the zombie apocalypse, he was a loner, playing World of Warcraft and spending weeks on end indoors. Of course, he’s positively thrilled (and terrified) to meet cowboy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) on his journey. When they encounter Wichita (Emma Stone, Superbad) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine), he finds himself enamored with the beautiful girl he could never have hooked in normal America. Through trials and tribulations, the foursome manages to forge a mutually respectful and trusting relationship. It’s almost familial.
Throughout film history, the zombie apocalypse has been blamed on a space virus which causes all who cease breathing to reanimate and crave edible flesh. It’s been attributed to the “rage virus,” as in 28 Days Later. It’s been transmitted by bites and it’s been airborne. In Zombieland, the origin is shrugged off: “a contaminated burger.” There’s no real focus on humanity’s demise—the filmmakers here aren’t preying upon viewers’ tear ducts. It’s just something that happened, and some people lived and some people became flesh-eating crazies. Perhaps this is a backhanded commentary on what is perceived as the generation of nonchalance—or maybe it’s just a simple explanation for a complicated transformation. One way or another, it works here.
In George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, the characters mourn the demise of humanity while meekly reaping the rewards of consumerism. In Zombieland, the remaining coherent humans gleefully partake in any American’s fantasy. Previous zombie apocalypse plots have touched upon, but not fully grasped, the idea that if indeed 95% of America was felled by a virus, anything and everything is up for grabs. While the four characters in Zombieland enjoy their share of destruction and silliness, they’re still in search of symbols of normalcy—and childhood happiness. They head across the zombie-infested country toward Pacific Playland, an amusement park they all went to as children.
The final battle takes place amid the trappings of the ultimate American childhood fantasy (and some would say a glaring symbol of self-indulgence). Upon the roller coasters, drop rides, and inside the game booths at a brightly lit amusement park, the foursome has to fight for their lives against the slavering zombie horde. While Romero’s films concerned themselves with social symbolism (racism, family mores, consumerism), Zombieland takes joyful aim at American decadence—with a wink.
The movie never takes itself seriously. Tallahassee picks “Dueling Banjos” on a ruined banjo to call out the rednecks at a grocery store. Columbus tries to leave Tallahassee with a brutal one-liner and promptly runs into a bush. A certain beloved American comedian has a fantastic cameo with an unexpected ending. Eisenberg, Stone, and Breslin hold their own next to Harrelson. There’s little character development, but it’s not necessary in this kind of film. The movie isn’t really for the faint of heart, with its endless gore and focus on atrocious zombie kills; but for anyone who enjoys zombie movies, it’s a perfect way to spend an evening.
Shaun of the Dead was Edgar Wright’s “bloody valentine” to George Romero’s seminal Dead movies. Zombieland elicits comparison to both the Brit “romzomcom” (romantic zombie comedy) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). But though it’s alternately a comedy, a romance, a gorefest, and a buddy road-trip movie, Zombieland unravels many of the threads that make up the zombie genre. A good ensemble cast (three up-and-comers and the always-humorous Harrelson), great makeup effects, and fantastic writing create a lighthearted, fun homage to the classic undead movies of yore.