The best way to approach Zombieland (2009) is as a comic book movie with fibrous gore and dollops of filmic references rather than a straight derivation of the Shaun of the Dead (2004) template. Ruben Fleischer’s direction initially involves fast edits inherent to Edgar Wrights’ Shaun, but the script is far more loose, with the film’s four characters – two men and a devious pair of swindler-sisters - being the stars of what’s ostensibly an oddball road film that happens to be set in a post-apocalyptic time with fast-moving zombies.
Few survivors are left after entire cities were ravaged by a mysterious bug that turned masses of people into flesh chompers. Where safe areas may lie is hypothetical, and in the case of sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), their own determination to reach a California amusement park is downright delusional, but initially tolerable, given their whole world has been turned upside down.
Zombie hunter Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) just wants to stay on the move, whereas his unintentional road companion Columbus (Jess Eisenberg) hopes somewhere out there is a hot chick who might see past his nerdiness and grant him the kiss and hair-parting-over-the-ear moment he was denied when his last attempt, girl next-door 406 (All the Girls Love Mandy Lane’s Amber Heard) morphed into a flesh-eater overnight, and almost took Columbus for a midnight snack.
Actually, Tallahassee has two main goals: kill the vampires who murdered the only love of his life, and find Twinkies, because the latter do expire, and a stale Twinkie would truly signal the end of everything human, and probably kill Tallahassee’s will to live.
Once the swindler sisters carjack the men’s Cadillac SUV in the film’s first act, the guys find another mode of transport (a Hummer, with a backseat packed with prime redneck ammo), and meet up with the girls. After the quartet have made nice and head together for California, the film switches to full road movie, and zombies assaults are set aside until the prolonged and contrived final act. That intermission may have been designed for character development, but it also shifts the film’s energy level down to first gear.
Right from the opening scene, director Fleischer adds a bit of Hughesian humour by reminding audiences of Columbus’ 31 rules to stay alive in Zombieland; each rule is displayed onscreen much in the way John Hughes had onscreen hooky rules in Ferris Bueller’s Day’s Off (1986).
Like Shaun and Ferris, the film’s first section also relies on Columbus’ narration, since all of the scenes are his recollections after he’s gotten the girl, and everything has ended well for all. There’s little doubt anything dour will happen to the quartet, because the character banter and wisecracks keep the film’s tone pretty light.
That’s actually a good thing, and it helps distinguishes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s script as American sitcom pop from Shaun’s clean marriage of Britcom, horror satire, and Wrightian lunacy. The Zombieland filmmakers are a bit more embracing of gore, a zest that’s evident in a spectacularly witty opening credit scene that borrows the multi-dimensional main credit design from David Fincher’s fussy and shallow Panic Room (2002), and has victims and zombies disrupting the flow of animated letters with blood, bilious vomitus, and things that smash other things.
Unfortunately, the largely bloodless mansion scenes that precede the finale are indicative of the filmmakers’ trouble in deciding what to do with their characters, now that they’ve found a safe and luxurious hideaway. The answer? Wichita's completely ludicrous decision to follow through with Plan A, and take Little Rock to an amusement part during the middle of the night.
Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) also concluded with a zombie assault in a large park, but the reasons the sisters travel to the park under the cover of darkness is idiotic. Up until that witless decision, several loopy conceits are acceptable to audiences: the quartet have an unlimited supply of gasoline for their beastly gas guzzlers, they have lots of bullets (while on the road, and at the mansion), and little need for food consumption beyond Twinkies and Snowballs.
While clearly content in having found a tony sanctuary in which to live (apparently zombies can’t break into Beverly Hills estates, big windows and all) Wichita still wants Little Rock to experience some post-traumatic fun, so the two sneak off to a waterside amusement park and manage to enjoy several large-scale rides (which they operate all by themselves using some mystical, auto-pilot feature) until they realize all those big neon lights and big sounds are attracting the zombies they drove past in downtown Los Angeles upon their arrival into La-La Land.
The lack of a tight feature-length plot and a contrived finale may be attributed to the director (whose credits include Jimmy Kimmel Live!) and writers’ roots in TV comedies (namely The Joe Schmo Show), but that’s somewhat counterbalanced by several funny lines, fast moving visual gags, Harrelson’s Method performance as a goofball, and some good shocks (particularly the grocery store assault, the bathroom attacks, and the funhouse where the sound design mimics an amusement ride’s directional sound effects).
Fleischer and the writers also pay homage to George Romero’s stab at consumerism in Dawn of the Dead (1978) by having the quartet destroy a tacky Indian souvenir shop (the Kemo Sabi), and hide out in the mansion of a beloved Hollywood comedian to enjoy his material possessions until a sudden event changes the group’s membership makeup.
Visually, the HD cinematography by Michael Bonvillain (Cloverfield, Lost, Alias) is exquisite, and the set décor is spot-on in capturing a world where everyone's been eaten. (It’s also funny and frustrating when it takes a low-budget horror comedy like Zombieland to get a frozen, clogged highway right – a mess of abandoned and wrecked cars, trucks, bikes, and a severed plane – when a big budget production like Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds designs highway sets so a car can still navigate through frozen congestion because when people abandoned their vehicles, they apparently did so with special attention to leaving room for emergency vehicles and post-disaster escapees. There’s also Brendan Gleeson’s ludicrous cabby ride over other vehicles in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, but enough said.)
Some tightly choreographed comedic absurdities and Harrelson’s performance ease some of the conceits we’re asked to accept, but as with most stories set in a post-apocalyptic era, the easy part is setting up the ravaged environment; the hard part is creating conflicts that aren’t half-baked or downright inane purely to justify a movie title, poster art, and a battle sequence that probably looked really good on paper, but completely fails the logic test.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan