Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Movie Review: "Zombieland"

I love zombies.

George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" is still one of the scariest films I've ever seen, followed closely by his original "Dawn of the Dead." The British "Rom-Zom-Com" "Shaun of the Dead" is a perennial fixture at my place around Halloween. Max Brooks' "World War Z" is one of my absolute favorite works of fiction over the past few years.

But, as I stepped into the new comedy "Zombieland," I began to wonder if the undead genre was on its last rotting legs.

After all, what else could be added? While Zack Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" remake is some good, scary fun, it lacked the social commentary of Romero's original; it's only contribution to the genre was the creation of fast-moving corpses. We all know the rules of the genre--shoot them in the head, don't get bitten, board up the windows. Even zombie comedies have gone from being a novelty to being a legitimate subgenre. "Shaun" is, of course, the gold standard. But we've also seen "Fido," starring Billy Connolly as a domesticated zombie-pet.

Yet, "Zombieland" has a few surprises up its sleeves, even as it follows in the tradition of much better zombie epics. A fast-paced mix of road trip shenanigans and gut-munching carnage, director Ruben Fleischer's comedy is a bloody, fun guilty pleasure.

Unlike most zombie films, which deal with the initial outbreak and downfall of society, "Zombieland" opens on a world already devastated by the undead menace. We're well beyond the days where one man ate a tainted cheeseburger and most humans have become the American variety of zombie--that is to say, fast and angry, as opposed to the traditional lurchers.

Columbus (Jesse Eisenburg, "Adventureland") has managed to survive due to his complete lack of a social life (he admits that he treated everyone like zombies before the outbreak) and a strict adherence to his growing list of rules, which are helpfully illustrated for our benefit--these rules emphasize the importance of cardio, a wariness of restrooms and a reminder that even in a world plagued by the undead, seat belts are still a must.

While attempting to find his way home to Ohio and to parents who may be alive, Columbus crosses paths with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a one-liner spouting zombie killer who seems to have found his life's calling when the dead started walking. Tallahassee wields an arsenal of zombie killing garden tools and fire arms and is scouring the world's supermarkets and gas stations in search of one last Twinkie--he quickly adds a new rule to Columbus's list: "Enjoy the Little Things," which is kind of cute to hear in such a blood-drenched flick.

Columbus and Tallahassee quickly meet the acquaintance of Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two con-artists who soon let the boys team up on a road trip to a California amusement park, believed to be the last place on Earth untouched by the undead. It's "National Lampoon's Vacation" by way of "Resident Evil."

Fleischer doesn't skimp on the gore, which should delight horror fans. There's a ghoulishly funny credits sequence--told in slow motion and reminiscent of "Watchmen's" opening--where we watch the undead menace overtake the world and the zombies here are fast, furious and hungry for blood. Gorehounds may be upset that Fleischer steers clear of Romero-esque zombie carnage (very little over-the-top killing here), instead filming the zombie films more like a traditional action film, but they'll still giggle when Columbus runs from the hot chick next door who's turned into a zombie or when Tallahassee grabs his tools for a little zombie slaying action. There's a nice balance of traditional scares and laughs, sometimes within the same scene.

But the humor is not all jet-black and morbid. At its core, "Zombieland" is a simple story of a young man encountering a makeshift family. As such, there's a lot of sweet character based humor, such as when Little Rock learns to drive or Columbus's bumblings trying to woo Wichita. Eisenberg seems at first to be aping the social awkwardness that Michael Cera does so well but he has an intelligence and self-awareness that he makes his own; he's less George Michael Bluth and more Woody Allen.

Harrelson, a fine actor in search of a superstar role, has a glint in his eye throughout the whole movie, the smirk on his face showing just how much he loves playing the one-liner spouting, uzi-toting zombie slayer. He's funny in the role, even if Tallahassee's search for a Twinkie grows a tad too precious. Having a serious actor in the role gives the film a credibility it wouldn't have with, say, Bruce Campbell in the lead and there's a revelation about Tallahassee halfway through that a weaker actor may not be able to make work in an otherwise frivolous movie.

The movie will be compared over and again to "Shaun of the Dead," and "Zombieland" does lack the skill and wit with which Edgar Wright mixed up genres in that classic. Columbus and Tallahasee are fun characters, but they lack the believability of Shaun and Ed and, to be honest, the scary moments are much scarier in the British film. "Zombieland" goes for every available joke, making sure to skewer everything from Facebook to Dale Earnhart as it darts across country and not every gag works. Where "Shaun" is a bona fide great movie--a perfect mix of horror and comedy--"Zombieland" flirts with guilty pleasure territory, saved by the exuberance of its cast and Fleischer's desire to simply give audiences a good time.

And for the majority of its brief 82-minute run time, the film delivers on that promise. It's fast, funny and original and manages to successfully blend horror and comedy--something that is harder to do than most people realize. Also...don't let anyone spoil the film's big surprise...you'll know it when you see it, and it's easily the best use of a cameo I've seen in ages.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.