Killer laughs bring ‘Zombieland’ alive
Sometime in the last 20 years zombie slapstick became a primary genre of the movies, right up there with action, teen musicals, and bad Jennifer Aniston romances. It carries expectations, it observes rules, and, as with Oscar-bait period dramas, the Brits have a tendency to do it better. At least they did with “Shaun of the Dead’’ in 2004.
With the smart, gross, extremely funny “Zombieland,’’ the Americans successfully fire back. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and directed by first-timer Ruben Fleischer, the movie makes no claims to greatness and may even enrage zombie-movie purists, since the undead dispense with the classic Romero stagger here and sprint at top speed toward their victims. What “Zombieland’’ has instead - in spades - is deliciously weary end-of-the-world banter.
And rules. Lots of rules. Our narrator is Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), an obsessive-compulsive adolescent geekboy and one of the few survivors of a plague that has turned humanity into a mass of flesh-eating cannibals within a matter of months. Columbus - all the characters are named for the cities they’ve come from or are going to, as if the plague had wiped identity clean, too - lives by simple rules that pop helpfully onto the screen as required: #2 - Double tap: Two shots to the head will make sure they’re dead; #4 - Always wear seat belts.
“Zombieland’’ reintroduces Columbus to the company of men and runs alongside as he decides whether to break rule #17 - Don’t be a hero. His first companion is Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus’s opposite in swagger and style. Where the kid’s first impulse is to run, Tallahassee prefers aggro-confrontation (although he does confess to having cried at “Titanic’’). They’re a nicely matched pair: Id and Superego with double-barrelled shotguns.
Along the way toward no place in particular, the two pick up a hard-nosed sister act. Wichita is played by Emma Stone, the husky-voiced love object of “Superbad,’’ and Little Rock is none other than Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin. At 13, Breslin has been trying to broaden her resume with clanky weepers like the recent “My Sister’s Keeper.’’ I hate to break it to her mom, but the young actress seems much happier fighting off monsters intent on eating her liver.
The script cooks up a destination - supposedly there’s a zombie-free area in Los Angeles, although that sounds like an oxymoron to me - but “Zombieland’’ is more interested in playing its four characters off each other. The tart performances and explosively funny dialogue are what make the movie; that, and the matter-of-factness with which the heroes deal with apocalypse now. Faced with a devastated America from which civilization has been violently wrenched (although it’s implied it didn’t take too much wrenching), Tallahassee searches high and low for a Hostess Twinkie, a pristine reminder of prepackaged consumer Eden before the fall.
“Zombieland’’ doesn’t break out in a chorus of “Where Have All the Twinkies Gone?,’’ but it finds other outlets for its sardonic playfulness. The movie’s high point comes when the heroes get to Los Angeles and encounter a Beloved Hollywood Star, playing himself. I beg you, do all you can to avoid knowing the identity of this man beforehand - that includes steering clear of the film’s IMDb page and putting your fingers in your ears and saying “la la la la’’ when friends talk about the movie. The joke, and it’s perfect, is in the rightness of this star in this setting, and how his long-established attitude dovetails so precisely with the film’s.
Shortly thereafter “Zombieland’’ starts to lose steam when it should be roaring to a climax; the dialogue thins out and the action rolls amiably to a stop in time for the end credits. Surprisingly, the movie just isn’t very scary. Icky, yes: Fleischer and his effects crew earn their R rating with some exquisitely disgusting close-ups of zombies dining al fresco and/or meeting their maker. But we hardly ever feel the four main characters are in serious jeopardy, and if you don’t have that, you don’t have suspense.
As they say in “Buckaroo Banzai,’’ though: “So vhat? Beeg deal.’’ “Zombieland’’ makes up in laughter what it lacks in screams, and the arch weariness with which it looks out at undead America hides a frisky yet disturbing message: We’re closer than we think.