For whatever reason, we live in zombified times. From movies (Dead Snow) to video games (Left 4 Dead) to novels (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), the living dead are running rampant through 2009’s pop-cultural landscape. Fortunately, there’s still life in the old genre, as evidenced by the hit new horror comedy Zombieland.
The film, directed by newbie Ruben Fleischer and written by up-and-comers-to-watch Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, lays out a simple story: A quartet of loners meet up in postapocalyptic, zombie-filled America and go on a road trip to a fabled amusement park. Basically, it’s National Lampoon’s Vacation with gore. Under that bare-bones premise, however, lurks some of the most gut-bustingly funny dialogue to come off a movie screen in many a moon.
The film is narrated by Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg from Adventureland), a nerdy, video-game-playing introvert whose lack of social contact comes in handy when a zombie virus starts ravaging America. (A hilarious slo-mo montage of zombie attacks runs under the film’s opening credits.) Eventually, Columbus decides to leave his apartment and head from his depopulated college town in Texas to his parents’ home in Ohio. Our unlikely protagonist survives due largely to his strict adherence to a set of rules he obsessively updates. These rules (like “Limber Up” and “Always Wear Your Seatbelt”) are illustrated in memorably graphic fashion as the film gets underway.
Columbus’ rules start to go out the window, however, when he crosses paths with surly tough guy Tallahassee (played by the increasingly welcome Woody Harrelson, who appears to have stolen Nic Cage’s jacket from Wild at Heart). Things get even more entangled when the mismatched duo meets up with a pair of con artist sisters named Wichita and Little Rock (fetching Emma Stone and cute Abigail Breslin). In case you hadn’t noticed, the major characters in this film are referred to only by their hometowns. This “rule” is designed to lessen emotional attachments among people who are most likely to end up as zombie chow. It’s clever little concepts like this that give Zombieland its distinctive flair.
Together, these four squabbling, distrustful traveling companions strike out for California and an amusement park that’s rumored to be 100 percent zombie-free. That’s about it for plot. Along the way, however, we get inspired dialogue, priceless sight gags and what has to count as the greatest celebrity cameo in film history. Despite a heaping helping of flying gore and a dark gray sense of humor, Zombieland doesn’t go for the sort of “splatstick” comedy we’re used to in this genre (Evil Dead 2 being the prime progenitor). Although you could find some kinship in the British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland probably comes closest to the inventive, winkingly irreverent tone of Fight Club.
Zombieland isn’t exactly a watershed film. It’s not going to change the landscape of horror comedies or put a radical new spin on the American zombie film. It is, however, exactly what the filmmakers intended—an uproariously funny, highly entertaining, oddly optimistic end-of-the-world flick filled with fine gags, likable characters and just enough spewing blood to keep horror fans satiated.