Zombieland (United States, 2009)October 02, 2009
Simply put, most horror films are not scary. There are exceptions, of course, but those are increasingly rare. I think the last horror movie that had me on edge may have been The Mist, and that was released two years ago. Nevertheless, the genre remains incredibly popular, so what better way to populate it than with movies that recognize the comedic potential of many staple horror situations? What was once an obscure and often derided cinematic category, the "horror comedy," has come into its own. Films like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, Don Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-Tep, Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man, and (most obviously) Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's Shaun of the Dead have paved a path that allows productions like Zombieland to make their road trips with ease. The key with this movie, as with the others (and many more like it) is that, although there are "boo!" moments and gore, comedy always trumps horror. The production wants viewers to laugh; if they leave the theater without doing so, the filmmakers have failed to do their jobs. Zombieland is funny - sometimes very funny - and has a clever script. Director Ruben Fleischer, making his feature debut, and screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick have accomplished what they set out to achieve.
The zombies of Zombieland are members of the "new breed," meaning they're not self-exhumed corpses that have come back from the dead to terrorize the living, but plague victims whose brains have rotted, leaving behind violent, cannibalistic shells. By the time the movie has started, the epidemic has long since swept across the globe, infecting nearly the entire population. Humans are few and far between. Our narrator, "Columbus" (Jesse Eisenberg), who bears the name of the city from which he hails, has survived into the post apocalyptic era by following a list of 31 rules - stay in good shape (to outrun the zombies), beware of public bathrooms, always wear a seatbelt, don't be a hero, etc. Whenever Columbus follows one of these rules, Fleischer helpfully prints the rule # and description on screen to remind us.
Despite having been born in Columbus, our hero is in Texas when the action begins. He's trying to get home, mainly because he hopes to see a familiar face. He encounters the redneck zombie-killer Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, providing his best performance in years) on the road. Tallahassee is headed for Florida and has two great passions in life: kicking zombie ass and finding an edible Twinkie. They later hook up with sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who aren't what they initially seem to be. Little Rock provides Tallahassee with a surrogate daughter of sorts while Columbus hopes that Wichita might be girlfriend material - not that he has parents he can bring her home to meet.
Although the zombie presence always exists in the background, much of the movie plays out like a traditional road trip, with four diverse individuals making their way from Texas to California, heading for a "promised land" (in this case, an amusement park) that might be a myth. Along the way, they bond, learn things about each other, and come to understand what they hope to get out of this screwed-up life. Occasionally, of course, there are zombies to deal with but, until the end when they arrive en masse, they're more nuisances than serious obstacles.
The best scenes involve a cameo by Bill Murray as Bill Murray. He lives in a palatial mansion complete with a theater that plays Ghostbusters. It's refreshing to see Murray in this role, limited though it may be, because it reminds us he can still be very funny. Recently, he has been appearing in so many straight and/or offbeat parts that I was beginning to wonder. He has the best line in Zombieland - I won't reveal it here, since comments taken out of context often lose their humor, but it references Garfield.
One thing I appreciate about Zombieland is that it doesn't ignore the concept of character development. Don't misunderstand - these are by no means fully realized, three-dimensional entities; however, they are more than caricatures. Each has some nice moments and an investment is made in creating bonds and relationships. Fleischer and his screenwriters don't fumble the ball the way the filmmakers do in about 90% of comedies and horror movies by making the characters little more than animated props - punch-line targets or splatter-fodder. By the time Zombieland reached its climax, I actually cared about who lived and died, and that reaction honestly took me by surprise. So, while I will admit that Zombieland isn't an especially good horror movie, it succeeds in enough different ways that such a defect hardly matters.
Zombieland (United States, 2009)
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin
Screenplay: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Cinematography: Michael Bonvillain
Music: David Sardy
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures