Shouldn’t we all be feeling zombied out by now? Forty-one years since George A. Romero messily birthed the modern shuffling zombie spectacle with the creep-classic, Night Of The Living Dead, and we’re still watching drooling stiffs mindlessly meandering from Day to Dawn. This has inspired cheeky British parodies, sub-moronic Milla Jovovich vehicles, and weirdo Jane Austen literary crossovers. I mean, after the refined Mr. Darcy has started stomping undead ass, where else is there left to go?
The answer, of course, is the devastated, corpsepacked playground Zombieland, home to a truly memorable mixed bag of misfits and director Ruben Fleischer’s colourful send-up of all things flesh-eating and decayed. In the spirit of the film’s survival-rule-obsessed lead character nicknamed Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg — starring in his second great amusement park comedy of the year following April’s Adventureland), it seems fitting that Zombieland be evaluated by the same six crucial criteria that all of its reanimated ilk should be:
Rule #1: The lead characters need not be zombies, too!
Perhaps due to the syrupy-slow saunter of your average human-hungry assailant, it often seems like filmmakers are trying to even the odds by stockpiling entire casts of personality-deficient lobotomy victims. After the infuriatingly hysterical mass media critics of Diary of the Dead and the hordes of generic carcass fodder in the Resident Evil debacles, what a joy to encounter the lovable quartet of weapon wielding eccentrics of Zombieland. We genuinely like Eisenberg’s stammering, fretful teen; Woody Harrelson’s redneck dynamo Tallahassee; and cute con-artist sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). It’s their playful interactions and bickering, not the voracious villains, which drives the film and provides it with its unexpectedly big heart. Their chemistry is so palpable that we laugh just as much at the big gags as the smaller beats, such as when Breslin patiently educates an intrigued Harrelson on the finer points of Hannah Montana.
Rule #2: With zombies, it’s all about location, location, location!
Look, there’s nothing more boring than watching the living-impaired stumble around underground bunkers and caverns. It’s been done to . . . er . . . death. The same goes for stuffy, darkened buildings and subterranean tunnels: when it comes to cannibalistic cadavers, the more recognizable and imaginative the environment, the better. Remember Dawn of the Dead’s mall complex or 28 Weeks Later’s English countryside? They were bright and wide open, making the possibility of capture all the more horrifying and frustrating. Zombieland plays around with some fun cramped settings, such as a restroom toilet, a college student’s apartment, and a tacky souvenir store, before graduating onto a superlative after dark amusement park shoot-‘em-up finale which, in crowd-stirring style, takes full advantage of every possible prop, obstacle, and attraction in sight.
Rule #3: Zombies like brains! So do we!
Given the proliferation of dimly assembled cheapie efforts, it’s often forgotten that zombie-fests are usually the most intelligent horror sub-genre, allowing a safe venue for incisive political and social commentaries exploring controversial subjects such as race, capitalism, post-9/11 anxiety, and the injustices of the Bush era. Although Zombieland is more interested in drawing laughs, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick work overtime to ensure that every pop-culture reference, witty jibe, and sincere moment says something about the character spouting it. Even Eisenberg’s goofy narration, which occasionally feels a little too on-the-nose in regards to the film’s emotional messages, shrewdly comments not only on the grisly events in progress, but also the aspects of zombielore being referenced and subverted.
Rule #4: The only good zombie is a gloriously demolished one!
Ever since Romero used a helicopter blade to chop the top off of a decomposing aggressor, directors have made it their goal to discover new blackly tongue-in-cheek methods of destroying their monsters and to make said methods as splatteringly bizarre as possible. Zombieland, despite lacking the usual volcanoes of viscera, more than compensates with an escalating series of over-the-top-and-downthe- other-side zombie slaughters: the poor, lurching saps are pulverized with pianos, funhouse hammers, car-doors, pruning shears, and even with a banjo which has just finished playing Deliverance’s “Duelling Banjos” tune.
Rule #5: Zombies like famous people! . . . to eat!
A masterful cameo performance can be the difference between a good film and a great one. While the sidesplitting Shaun of the Dead played it subtle with blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em turns by Cate Blanchett and Peter Jackson, Zombieland goes the Planet Terror, Quentin Tarantino route, with a destined-for-classic-status extended guest spot (which shall remain unspoiled here) that is so unforgettably wry — and strangely plausible — that it provides the film with a blazing jolt of comic oomph.
Rule #6: Zombies always live to munch another day.
Even though this movie ends optimistically, eschewing a conventional bleak conclusion, it still leaves us hanging on the perfect note: satisfied and beaming, yet curious to know where our heroes will journey next. Despite being overrun with rotten, ravaging man-eaters, you can’t help but want to revisit Zombieland. Dead or alive.
3.5 out of 5
*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Oct. 12th, 2009.