The Good: Generally good character work, Awesome (gross!) effects, Good acting, Fun plot
The Bad: Characters still make very stupid mistakes!
The Basics: Funny and full of gore, Zombieland is a surprisingly fresh zombie film!
It is a very rare thing for me to go to a horror movie and enjoy it. It is an even more rare thing for me to take my wife to a screening of a horror film and have her smiling and having a good time still when we come out. And yet, when we went to a screening of Zombieland together, that is exactly what happened. In fact, my wife has seen the film twice now and I think she is angling to have it added to our permanent collection. I suspect her enjoyment of the movie has com, in part, from the fact that Zombieland has been horribly misrepresented in its advertisements as a horror film. Make no mistake: Zombieland is one of the goriest, most graphically violent films I've seen (and enjoyed) from 2009. But it is a comedy before it is a horror and while there are scary moments, they are vastly outnumbered by the beats that are just gory or are actually laugh-out-loud funny.
Zombieland follows on a recent cinematic rebirth in the interest in zombie movies sparked by the success of 28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later and the more broadly popular (and arguably less zombie-focused) I Am Legend. And amidst a ton of zombie movie remakes and films simply adapting popular undead literature, Zombieland arrives as a welcome original work. It is sharp, funny, and while the characters make some truly lame mistakes that put them in peril, it is generally populated by smart characters who have a realistic sensibility of where and when they are. And, in my current tradition of hating voiceovers, Zombieland actually uses voiceovers (and on-screen notations) remarkably effectively for both humor and viewer education.
Columbus, so nicknamed because of where he is headed, is a young man who has survived the viral outbreak that created zombies out of most humans through a list of rules. Keeping fit through cardio exercises, alive through always buckling up and being cunning about where and when he uses a bathroom, Columbus has been on the road when he encounters another human uninfected by the virus, Tallahassee. Tallahassee is a psychopathic man who lives by his wits and his exceptional arsenal of weapons. Obsessed with finding a Twinkie, Tallahassee agrees to take Columbus in his beefed up SUV to increase their chances of survival. Tallahassee's obsession with finding one of the remaining Twinkies on the planet puts both in peril when they stop at a grocery store and are taken hostage by two young women, whom they nickname Wichita and Little Rock.
After being swindled by Wichita and Little Rock, the men find another ride and a new arsenal of weapons and they set out west toward the Pacific Playland, which is where the women were headed. After finding their latest trap, the quartet decides to head out together. And when they make it to California, they find themselves in the least likely accommodations, getting closer. Only, when Little Rock and Wichita head out from the sanctuary must Columbus violate his rule ("Don't Be A Hero!") to rescue the young woman he has fallen for.
Zombieland is surprisingly funny, a fact which is almost lost on viewers as the opening credits roll. The opening credit sequence, a slow-motion montage of carnage that is stylistically similar to the opening of Watchmen, illustrates the zombie rampage, though it has some laughs (most notably the stripper chasing the client of the strip club. And the jokes are not often mixed with the graphic gore, so Zombieland becomes very easy to watch. Most of the humor is verbal ("Don't get stingy with the bullets" and "You almost knocked over your alcohol with your big knife") and there is a peculiar wit to the characters in Zombieland that makes it engaging.
The gore in the film is excessive and my squeamish partner clung to me at various points, but more often than not - usually when zombies were sinking their teeth into extras and pulling out veins that looked like spaghetti - she was whispering "That looks so fake" to me. This made the horror in the film completely disarmed and much easier to watch as a result. She is right; outside the moments where 406 (Columbus's neighbor at the outbreak of the plague) hobbles toward him on a stump of an ankle, the film is not disturbingly graphic.
Still, though, Zombieland is robbed of anything remotely near perfection by two things. The first is that the pathogen is never clearly defined. Columbus references that the infection began from someone eating bad meat, but the spread of the virus is implied to be airborn or bloodborn at times. The speed and virulence of it - the United States has collapsed two weeks after the outbreak - seems to imply airborn or a ridiculously virulent airborn variety. That the virus might be only contagious by bite (implied in the scene that introduces Little Rock) makes far less sense given the speed of the virus. Because it is not clear, it is hard to buy some of the scenes where Tallahassee is eagerly chopping up zombies at close range.
As well, Zombieland is populated by four surprisingly smart characters who do some ridiculously stupid things. When Wichita reaches her destination she does a predictably stupid thing which puts all four of the characters in serious peril. More than that, the group finds a real sanctuary in the home of Bill Murray, but they move on based upon old goals. That the characters do not truly grow enough to illustrate a clear understanding of the perilous world they are in is troublesome.
But what works beautifully is the overall narrative; Columbus is a realistic and sensible character and watching him take the steps necessary to survive is entertaining. Columbus is ably performed by Jesse Eisenberg and he plays a young man (which he is) very well. He has great ticks and eye movements as an overly-cautious obsessive compulsive survivor and he works. Here he establishes well a credibility to later play the genius protagonist in The Social Network. As well, he plays off Emma Stone (Wichita) and Abigail Breslin (Little Rock) remarkably well.
But it is Woody Harrelson who steals the film, especially in scenes he is paired with Bill Murray for. Harrelson has no hint of his hapless character from Cheers. Instead, he plays Tallahassee as smart and dangerous and he pulls the role off perfectly. He plays Tallahassee with a realistic intelligence, but also manages to carry the few moments the survivalist shows he has heart. He makes Zombieland cool, where Eisenberg holds most of the film's humor.
Anyone who likes comedy and can stomach gore will find a lot to enjoy in Zombieland. It is gross, but it doesn't let up with the humor, even in the later moments of peril. It is stylish and cool and very entertaining. And as a public service, stick with it through the credits; there is a bonus scene (blooper) at the end of the credits.
For other horror or comedies that blend genres, please check out my reviews of:
Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters
The Land Of The Lost
For other movie reviews, please click here to visit my index page!
© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.