A film review by Craig J. Koban October 15, 2009,


2009, R, 88 mins.

Columbus: Jesse Eisenberg / Tallahassee: Woody Harrelson / Wichita: Emma Stone / Little Rock: Abigail Breslin / Neighbor: Amber Heard / OK guy: Mike White

Directed by Ruben Fleischer / Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

If you exclude George A Romero’s landmark 1968 horror classic, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I have never found zombies to be very frightening at all.  When Romeo all but invented the zombie film genre that has been duplicated countless times over the last 40 years, they were a new kind of malicious movie monster.  Maybe history has not been kind to them, because endless permutations of these nocturnal flesh eaters have become monumentally perfunctory over the years.  If anything, zombies have now become caricatures of themselves; they really are not scary, but quite funny, when you think about it. 

No.  Seriously.  Just ponder this: Zombies are mindless and unfeeling (although they do have a passion for eating people); they are also slow and lumbering (if you exclude a few recent zombie films, like the very decent Zack Snyder-helmd DAWN OF THE DEAD) which makes them humorous to look at; and they have a hilariously overzealous appetite for just human blood and organs (which begs the question: should they not moderate their diets a bit?  What will they munch on once all the humans on earth have been eaten?).  What’s perhaps most guffaw inducing is that they are – in most examples – insidiously non-defensive.  They hobble towards their prey with the pace of a geriatric in a wheelchair only to be easily blow to bits because of their alarming lack of self-preservation.  Even funnier?  Their zombie brothers and sisters continue on forward after one zombie has been whipped out only to also befall the same fate.  I mean, they are the most uproariously easy targets in the history of the cinema.   

Alas, perhaps the finest way to make zombie movies these days is to make them ripe for comedy, seeing as they have become progressively less menacing with each new film.  Hamming it up with these hysterical creatures seems like the only sure-fire method of success, and that’s precisely what Ruben Fleischer (making his directorial debut) and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the screenwriters, who previously penned shows for Spike and MTV) have done with the affectionately entitled ZOMBIELAND, a slick, fast paced, and gut-wrenchingly hysterical homage and satire of the undead creatures.  Although not reaching the high laugh quotient and smart subversive edge of the film that inspired them, SHAUN OF THE DEAD (arguably the freshest and funniest zombie film ever), Wernick et al do a bravura job of mixing gory, splatter-house action sequences with acerbic, Three Stooges inspired high jinks.  Of course, the zombies in the film are predictably…well…zombie-like and the story they operate in is one that has endless regurgitated elements from pervious genre films, but there is no mistaking ZOMBIELAND as a fresh, clever, and insidiously goofy 88-minute fun house freak show. 

Okay, so the zombies are not strictly of the Romero variety (much like many recent movie zombies, they are the by-product of a vicious global plague).   The biological illness has rotted peoples’ brains, leaving them as nothing more than cannibalistic killing machines.  However, they still remain the highly obligatory human survivors that have not been “turned” into flesh eaters…yet.  The narrator (and one of only a small handful of survivors) is named Columbus (the terrifically understated comic-character actor Jesse Eisenberg, who harnesses a Woody Allen-esque ability to be self-deprecatingly neurotic to score huge laughs) who is named after the city he fled from (he was once, in an inspired flashback, nearly killed by one of his door neighbors at college).   

Considering that Columbus does not fit the profile of a rough and rugged post apocalyptic survivor (he’s a yuppie, skinny nerd decked out in Gap Khakis and packing a shotgun), he still has nonetheless survived his trip across the country in an effort to get home to his parents.  How has he kept alive?  Well, by having a list of 31 very specific rules to staying alive (which are amusingly shown as video game style graphics on screen).  Some of his rules seem like a dissertation that attacks the conventions of nearly every bad horror film of the last several decades (like, always look in the back seat of parked car before entering) whereas other seem comically inspired (like, maintain good cardio so you can outrun zombies, always be weary of bathroom stalls, and – most importantly – always, always use the double tap your prey with your gun to make sure the ghouls are good and dead).  By the way, if you accidentally break the rule about checking the back seat, don’t worry, as long as you follow another rule (wearing a seatbelt) you can make incredibly sharp brakes to send the zombie passengers right through the front windshield). 

At one point on his trek Columbus encounters another lone human survivor, a red necked, Twinkie loving, and shotgun wielding zombie killer named Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, whom has not cheekily cut loose in a liberating comic performance like this since THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLINT) who is on his way to Florida for two things: to kill as many zombies as he can in the most deplorable manner possible and to find Twinkies (which are very rare).  As Columbus’ voice over informs us, Tallahassee has “set the standard for ‘Not to be fucked with’” and it soon becomes apparent that this country bumpkin totally lives up to his moniker.  Tallahassee is no normal zombie ass-kicker.  Nope.  Rather, he uses a sickeningly innovative arsenal of weapons beyond guns to kill his monstrous victims, with everything from hedge clippers, to tire irons, to cars, to – my personal favourite – a ukulele.  Gotta admit, that latter item has never been used before.

Columbus eventually becomes Robin to Tallahassee’s Batman, and some of their misadventures are interesting (I especially loved a moment when they find a fully functioning Hummer loaded with firearms, to which the trailer trashy Tallahassee screams into the air, “Thank God for rednecks!").  Eventually, the pair hook up with the only other survivors, two sisters named Little Rock (a feisty Abigail Breslin) and her older sibling Wichita (an alluring and sexier-than-normal Emma Stone). After a series of setbacks, the entire posse decides to head to Southern California, a rumored safe-zone free from zombie hordes.  This, of course, brings them to Beverley Hills where – through the assistance of a star map – they seek shelter at the mansion of a real life actor (playing himself, and showing what a resoundingly good sport he is at mocking his image).  I would not dare, as far too many other shameful critics have, to reveal which actor appears to spiritedly lampoon himself, but let’s just say that it is the most hysterical cameo in a long time.  His appearance culminates in one moment that had me laughing longer and harder than any other from 2009.  It involves a shotgun, the actor himself, a very startled Columbus, and the actor dissing one of his more notorious paycheck films. 

Again, perhaps the smartest element to ZOMBIELAND is that it goes straight for laughs first and for scares a very distant second.  Fans of gross out horror films should not worry, though, because the film is still wall-to-wall with gratuitously sadistic – but ham-infestedly over-the-top – zombie killings (in particular I liked how one elderly woman uses a suspended piano as a weapon).  I enjoyed how much sick enjoyment and invention the director and screenwriters are clearly displaying here with the various methods to murder the ghouls, but the real pleasure of the film is to see how well they balance all of the visceral mayhem with a finely tuned comic sensibility.  Many of the largest laughs come from the dialogue exchanges (ripe with pop culture references, snide remarks, and perfectly timed dead panned insults).  One freakishly funny sequence involves Columbus indirectly insults Tallahassee’s intelligence, to which he responds, “Wanna see how hard I can punch?”  There is also a scathing scene where Columbus pathetically tries to chat it up with Wichita:  “Let’s play the quiet game,” she tells Columbus, to which he sheepishly replies, “I’ve actually been meaning to ask you a question.”  She rightfully then snaps back, “You’ve obviously have never played the quiet game!”  Perhaps the funniest line comes from Tallahassee; after he recounts a painful moment from his pre-apocalyptic past he blubbers and states, “I have not cried like that since TITANIC.” 

As ravenously funny and smart as ZOMBIELAND is, the film is still beset with problems.  For starters, for a film that wittily satirizes the zombie and horror genre, ZOMBIELAND’S script still falls victim for some of the lame clichés and conventions of the films it’s trying to mock.  For example, if you’re in a hummer, why jump out and crass it into zombies when it’s the only thing between you and the zombies?  Also, why would anyone risk their lives after being at a well-fortified celebrity mansion, safe from zombies, by going to an elaborate amusement theme park?  Wouldn’t the noise and bright lights attract the zombies?  Also, how in the world could ascending to the top of the highest elevated ride in the park  (which bobs up into the air and down to the ground) secure yourself from a zombie horde?  I guess the point is that there is no logical reason for the survivors to go to a carnival, other than the logical movie reason of using the rides as devilish props to kill even more zombies. 

ZOMBIELAND is a generously short film: at 88 minutes, it’s perhaps just the right length, especially when one sees that there is very little in the way of a substantial plot here.  Then again, there is really no need for a story, just a series of vignettes that are designed to connect all of the film’s sinful comedy and gruesome and gooey mayhem.  The best accolade that one could bestow upon ZOMBIELAND is that it knows exactly what it is: a very tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that places more stock in making us chuckle than terrifying us (which is another minor quip – the film is rarely scary at all).  If you’re looking for an entertaining road comedy involving a college doofus, a vengeful red neck with a sweet tooth, a hot young girl-empowered hustler and her sister/partner in crime all blowing zombies to smithereens, then ZOMBIELAND will go down most assuredly well.  After all, zombies are best reserved for sidesplitting laughs now anyways.  

Wouldn't you agree?

  H O M E