It’s easy to have fun with Zombieland, a comedy set in a post-apocalyptic, zombie infested United States; the film is plenty funny, even if horror and drama elements don’t exactly work out as intended. Taking its inspiration from Shaun of the Dead, this low-key affair successfully manages to blend Dawn of the Dead with National Lampoon’s Vacation, skewing more to the Vacation side of things.
Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a neurotic, virginal shut-in who has survived the zombie apocalypse thanks to his checklist of rules, like “cardio”, which dictates the fit will survive while outrunning zombies, and “double tap”, which echoes the gangland mantra from Miller’s Crossing: “two in the head, you know they’re dead.”
He’s on his way to Columbus, Ohio, which he’s heard has been unaffected by the zombie virus, here compared to mad cow disease. Along the way, he runs into Twinkie-hunting tough-guy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), who’s heading towards, yup – that’s one of his rules; don’t get too attached to each other by using first names.
Since they’re both heading east, they decide to stick together for as long as they can stand each other. They’re not exactly matching character types. Eisenberg and Harrelson play off each other wonderfully here, each displaying a knack for comic timing.
There aren’t too many live humans in Zombieland, but Columbus and Tallahassee eventually run into Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two con-artist sisters who scam the guys out of their ride before deciding they may as well team up with them up with them on their journey to Las Angeles.
Why Columbus and Tallahassee agree to head to L.A. – which isn’t exactly on the way to their desired destinations – I’m not so sure. That’s about it for Zombieland, and if it sounds light on plot, that’s because it is. Even by road movie standards, this thing is weak on actual goings-on.
Director Ruben Fleischer makes up for that with a lot of non sequiturs (including “zombie kill of the week”) and other flashy devices, though the twentieth time one of Columbus’ rules pops up on the screen, it begins to wear thin.
But halfway through, there’s an uproarious extended cameo that saves the film. It’s really quite perfectly executed – not often would a cameo add such value (though Tropic Thunder certainly got some mileage) – and the one real memorable element here.
It’s tough to dislike Zombieland, though I frequently didn’t care for the plotting. There’s an errant streak of stupidity here that causes one character to dress up like a zombie and try to scare another, who always keeps a loaded shotgun by his side (guess what happens), or allows the characters to turn on all the lights and music and rides at an amusement park while the surrounding city is covered with zombies looking for signs of life.
It’s not just that the characters do these things – in a comedy, we expect a certain level of dumb to provide for the gags – but that the filmmakers expect to elicit an emotional response when the inevitable occurs. What, are we supposed to be terrified now that the amusement park is overrun with zombies? Now there’s suspense? I’m not buying it.
The characters on the drama side of the film shouldn’t have to deal with the situations these same characters on the comedy side create. Zombieland immediately invites comparison with Shaun of the Dead (and the director acknowledges Shaun as an inspiration); the comparison isn’t too friendly.
Edgar Wright’s film was a perfect example of how to blend comedy and horror, while Fleischer’s film comes off as a loving attempt at the same – but a bit of a mess by the end.
For a film with such potentially exciting elements, I found my reaction strangely muted. Short runtime – 80 minutes minus credits, though it never feels that short – points to story problems. Stick around after the credits for an extra laugh.