In the wake of a global zombie pandemic, a motley crew of survivors—- over time—- bands together. We're in the latest spin on George A. Romero and, if the film lacks originality, it succeeds at being frightening, funny, and (at times, needlessly) gory, in the manner of an amusement park dark ride. Indeed, it runs exactly like a thrill ride. It lacks the social relevance and originality of Night of the Living Dead, and it's nowhere near as satiric and clever as Shaun of the Dead. Zombieland works if one approaches it on its own tongue-in-cheek terms.
Originally scripted as a tv series pilot, this zombie-apocalypse version of the cozy catastrophe could have been an exploitative disaster. Even with the frequently witty script, Zombieland might have remained a minor hit, enjoyed by a niche audience. The film owes a good deal of its success to the overall direction and the stellar performances. Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg bring depth to their goofy, mismatched buddy shtick. Eisenberg is a gaming veteran who didn't much get on with people before they became zombies. His natural cautiousness and virtual shooting experience allow him to survive. Harrelson plays a rowdy redneck who relishes re-killing the living dead in creative ways. His bravado, however, hides private pain.
Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) receive less screen time, but both put in strong performances. I predict that Breslin will rise above child star status and I hope that, when she does, she continues to do comedy. Even her throwaway reference to Hannah Montana gets a laugh. Some genuinely human moments make us root for the characters, but Zombieland generally maintains its crazed, cartoony tone, which allows us to accept its essentially nihilistic premise. Unfortunately, the balance of that tone and premise with the almost-deep characterization does not always hold.
Take the conclusion to the instantly-famous mansion sequence. Comic tone has been maintained at the expense of established characterization. It's a pity, because that sequence otherwise demonstrates why cameo-star Bill Murray has fared better than most other Saturday Night Live alumni.
I also wonder about the motivation of certain characters to continue alone to the park and behave in such a way that they knew would make them targets. They seemed to be serving the needs of the writer rather than their own. I know the filmmakers wanted a splattery finale in an amusement park, but they could have written it so that their conclusion made sense.
Overall, the final act risks stretching too thin this film's videogame premise. The humour, in the end, wins out. Reservations aside, Zombieland may stand as the best bloody horror comedy of 2009, a near-perfect motion-picture equivalent of that funland dark ride, an October walk through a haunted house.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Jesse Eisenberg1 as Columbus
Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee
Emma Stone as Wichita
Abigail Breslin as Little Rock
Amber Heard as 406
Bill Murray as celebrity guest
1. If Eisenberg and Michael Cera made a film together, would it violate some fundamental principle of physics?