Zombieland (Rule #31: Always Check the Back Seat)

It’s been over two years since I reviewed a movie (Hairspray) and I feel it’s time to make a return. Due solely to the brilliance of Shaun of the Dead I stepped out of my comfort zone and saw Zombieland. I don’t go see scary movies, I’m not a big fan of gratuitous gore, and I usually find the humor of people in my generation to be far too sophomoric to be funny, but the prospect of zombie comedy combined with the always entertaining Woody Harrelson was too much to pass up.

Zombies are an interesting subset of the horror genre. In the days of interchangeable, monstrous creatures and over-the-top, ridiculous slashers, zombies are almost a breath of fresh air. Zombies have come a long way from the Voodoo-reanimated corpses of the early stories, doing the bidding of an evil magician. Zombies of today are almost entirely virus-created, a sign of our pandemic paranoien. But the modern zombie story represents an important commentary on our society. In a time when we look upon the masses as brainless parasites, following only their base instincts, easily manipulated but barely functional on their own, the zombie creates a great image of what we fear becoming. The heroes in zombie movies are always colorful characters, individuals who stand out and refuse to be absorbed. While most other monster movies prey on our subconscious desires to see the monster wreak havoc on an unsuspecting population, zombie films are unique in that we actually root for the heroes. They’re how we see ourselves, unique and free thinking in a world where we’re surrounded by mindless… well, zombies. (It also doesn’t hurt that a zombie attack is something the average person feels like they can actually survive. Heck there are zombie survival guides out there.)

With all that in mind, zombie movies are ripe for satire and commentary. Zombieland is somewhat disappointing on that front, but when your movie has the unfortunate pleasure of being compared to Shaun of the Dead, you’re not ever going to be considered a masterpiece. What Zombieland lacks in deep (or at least interesting) storytelling, it makes up for in humor. Our ragtag foursome of survivors, known not by their names but their destinations, form quite the dysfunctional family in a world overrun by the living dead. There’s geeky Columbus, with his hilariously practical list of rules for survival (Rule #1: Cardio). He’s a loner who survived by the good graces of his detachment from society prior to the zombie outbreak. Psychotic Tallahassee has a sadistic flair for dispatching the undead, and seems to take profound joy in it. He also has an obsession with finding some Twinkies before they all pass their expiration date. This unlikely duo are joined by sisters Wichita and Little Rock, a pair of con artists on their way to the Pacific Playland amusement park based on the rumor that it’s a zombie-free area. With the exception of an hilarious and unexpected celebrity cameo, which I won’t reveal here, that’s the entire cast. Having only 4 characters to worry with allows us to have the screen time to get to know them, and allows their requisite bonding over the course of the movie to play out much more realistically. The casting is pretty brilliant. Harrelson is obviously enjoying himself, Jesse Eisenberg hits all the right notes as the overly-phobic center of the story, and Abigail Breslin is an inspired choice to play Little Rock. Only Emma Stone as Wichita is generally forgettable, not because of any fault of hers, but she doesn’t get much to work with.

The climax of the film takes place at Pacific Playland, and the amusement park at night setting is absolutely brilliant. It provides all the characters with their heroic moments while being much more visually appealing than your typical horror movie fair. The entire movie is filmed as though the world has become a giant theme park. Every stop feels like a ride or attraction. Adding to the whole effect is Columbus’s list of survival rules that keep popping up on the screen at the opportune moments. He narrates the film as needed, which could have easily been distracting or overly silly, but it works wonders here. Slip in some hilarious/gruesome slow motion opening credits and you’ve got a zombie-comedy (zomcom?) worth seeing. It may not be as deep or painfully funny as Shaun of the Dead, and is definitely lacking some biting social commentary, as Columbus might say with his Rule #32: Enjoy the little things in life. Good advice, zombie attack or no.

B+

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