“Zombieland” features decapitations, mutilations, lacerations, disembowelments, exploding heads, dead children and about 400 on-screen deaths. It is also laugh-out-loud funny.
Bloodletting and belly laughs don’t usually come hand-in-hand, but “Zombieland” manages a skilled tightrope walk between the two genres. In truth, it is more of an ultra-violent comedy than it is a horror film. Though the gore is plentiful and grotesque, the film never lingers on it, and it never bogs things down. Instead, the film functions as a sort of road trip coming-of-age comedy. It has more in common with “The Royal Tenenbaums” than it does with films by Lucio Fulci.
When a new strain of mad cow disease — spread by gas station hamburgers — unleashes zombies upon the world, things go downhill fast. Pretty much everyone is dead within a week, and the survivors cope by refusing to learn each other’s names. Instead, everyone is referred to by the name of the town they grew up in. Apparently, there are no towns with more than one survivor.
In the middle of all this, a neurotic and obsessive young man named Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) forms an odd sort of paternal relationship with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a cowboy who wants nothing more from life than to kill zombies and find the world’s last remaining Twinkie. Things go well for the two as they make their way across country with the aid of Columbus’ elaborate set of zombie-survivor rules. In this world, cardio training and a strong bladder are just as important as a shotgun for survival.
Things become more complicated when a pair of drifters enters the men’s lives. At first, this sister team of Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) appears to be just another threat, but as the quartet begin a journey toward a theme park that allegedly holds sanctuary from the hellish world, they slowly form a post-apocalyptic family.
The key to the success of “Zombieland” is that it is not actually a horror film. Instead, it’s a slickly directed and shrewdly written comedy that just happens to feature cannibalism. Unlike “Shaun of the Dead,” there is no undercurrent of darkness, nor any real sense of loss. Realistically speaking, this film isn’t even a dark comedy; it’s as inviting and friendly as your average Adam Sandler vehicle. And it is probably less gross, too. For a movie about the end of the world, it is shockingly effervescent.
Though the film offers refreshing characters and witty banter, it is hardly exploring new territory. The screenwriters owe a heavy debt to Max Brooks’ hysterical and strangely thought-provoking book, Zombie Survival Guide, and its more-serious sequel, World War Z. Also, it borrows several beats from “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” The film even features the very same Breslin who previously co-starred in “Little Miss Sunshine,” a film that was ostensibly a (subpar) remake of the aforementioned Chevy Chase film.
The feature runs a slim 80 minutes, and it definitely feels short. Many scenes end rather abruptly, with characters left in impossible situations that they magically escape from while we catch up with other cast members. The film takes on the feel of a skit movie, a collection of interconnected vignettes that is not totally divorced from the style of Monty Python’s early theatrical efforts. Because of this, the zombies are never really a threat, in spite of the fact that they are probably the smartest undead to grace the silver screen since Vincent Price fought ghouls in “The Last Man on Earth.” All the same, perhaps it is better not to fear for these characters. Unlike most horror films, I didn’t want to see any of them die.
I don’t know that this film will ever attain the cult status that many are already anointing it with. It is far too “of this moment,” with gimmicky text-on-screen visuals and all sorts of digitally manipulated footage. It is neither mind-bendingly awesome, nor jaw-droppingly awful to warrant much obsession. Consequently, those expecting “Repo Man” with flesh eaters will be sorely disappointed. The fact that the film looks to be an honest-to-god hit doesn’t help the film’s chances.
“Zombieland” is full of gags and exciting, trendy visuals. It features one of the all-time-great cameos (in a role too good to spoil by naming the actor) and never loses its sense of humor, even in the increasingly gory third act. It is fun, adventurous and unconventional in all the best ways. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the picture show.