Posted on October 5, 2009 by Jason Thorson
Director Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland is not a horror movie. It’s not even a horror-comedy. It’s really a fairly straight forward comedy-comedy, the back drop of which involves zombies. And as such it works pretty well, just not as well as its components suggest it should.
The world has been overrun by zombies and a most unlikely survivor nicknamed Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is heading east across the country toward home hoping to find others, his family in particular. As fate would have it, he crosses paths with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), another survivor heading east and Columbus’ polar opposite in just about every way. Soon the two of them run into a bad girl nicknamed Wichita (Emma Stone) and her twelve year old sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). These girls were conning men out of their money before zombies became an issue and have since parlayed their game into a post apocalyptic art of survival as they head west. After conning and strong arming our gentleman out of their vehicle and weapons twice, everyone agrees to head west together where they learn how to survive life with or without zombies.
Zombieland is a mash up of several familiar movie archetypes including the buddy movie, the road movie, the disaster movie, and of course the zombie movie. It’s unapologetically rowdy and outrageous, but still finds room for a sweet spot, which may be its biggest strength. It also benefits from being a very lean film. There are only four principal characters and most of time they’re all together. It’s a streamlined narrative represented clearly and concisely, clocking in at a fast-paced hour and twenty-seven minutes.
Zombieland is wonderfully cast. Tallahassee is role that Woody Harrelson was born to play. He’s as redneck as one can be, from his snakeskin coat to the Dale Earnhardt-inspired 3’s he spray paints on the doors of the salvageable vehicles he finds along the way. But he’s also a grieving father and a good guy at his core and Harrelson hits all the right notes whether they are loud and silly or nuanced and melancholy. Playing Columbus, Jesse Eisenberg seems to be doing Michael Cera’s (Super Bad, Juno) shtick, but even so, he does it very well. He embodies the anxiety-ridden everyman whose first time outside the nest happens to occur during a zombie apocalypse. Emma Stone plays pretty-but-approachable in everything I’ve seen her in and here she does as well, only this time she gets to play a dynamic bad girl thereby countering her sweetness with a bad outer shell. This outer shell is predictably a defense mechanism, but Stone’s portrayal makes it believable. Abigail Breslin’s Little Rock is a role in stark departure from her prior work in movies such as Little Miss Sunshine by way of Little Rock’s maturity and tone. Breslin plays dark and cynical as well as she does innocent and vulnerable, giving this character multiple layers.
Zombieland utilizes a well-stocked arsenal of fun movie conventions. There are ridiculous action sequences involving speeding vehicles, and automatic weapons. There are a few creative and gory kills, always requisite in stories in which there are zombies. Hell, there are sequences during which the movie literally becomes a rollercoaster ride. From the opening credits to the ending credits it’s clear that Ruben Fleischer is pulling out all the stops to send Zombieland over the top. It’s for this very reason why it’s so difficult to explain how this movie never quite gets there. All the parts are place: killer cast, high action, zombies – yet the sum of these parts doesn’t have the impact one would expect.
Fleischer’s film borrows the set up from Max Brooks’ book World War Z and then heads immediately into Shawn of the Dead territory – a remarkably similar film and a better one by almost every measure. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s zombie comedy, or zomedy if you will, from 2004 was one of the year’s best films, and it set an extremely high benchmark for all horror-comedies to follow. Zombieland’s biggest problem is its inability to live up to that standard established by its lone predecessor. Fleischer’s zomedy is funny and it has enough heart to elevate it above the superficial. However, it merely hovers on the periphery of “Great”. It’s only good which is a pretty innocuous criticism, but the film doesn’t feel like it’s going to leave a lasting impression.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Review by Jason Thorson