Beginning with a renaissance of zombie popularity thanks to the Gen-Y retooled, “jacked up” zombies of 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, the zombie has never been more popular—or in Hollywood terms—more profitable.
Because of this we are now seeing a string of genre mash-ups in an attempt to broaden the living dead’s appeal.
Films as early as Sam Raimi‘s Evil Dead series and, more recently, Shaun of the Dead pushed the underlying slapstick comedic elements of Romero’s zombies to the surface. On the other end of the spectrum, the genre has begun to move further into high concept territory with recent hits such as the Norwegian Nazi-zombie slasher Dead Snow.
Ruben Fleischer’s directorial debut Zombieland – the latest experiment to test the cinematic limits of the living dead – manages to push in both directions with rampaging success, being as jaw-achingly funny as it is fresh with new ideas.
From its opening credits montage, which consists of mesmerizing super slow-motion zombie attacks set to Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, all the way to its enthralling action-packed finale, Zombieland is a rollercoaster ride of laughs, thrills and gore that pushes all the right buttons.
Set in the ‘United States of Zombieland’ after a mad cow disease-infected hamburger mutates into a zombie virus – the best explanation for a zombie outbreak ever – it is up to loner Columbus, played by up-and-comer Jesse Eisenberg, to break with his antisocial nature in order to stay alive.
Developing a set of obsessive-compulsive survival rules; including wearing seatbelts, checking the backseat and ‘double-tapping’ zombies with bullets, Columbus hits the sparsely human-populated road in search of his family.
While on the road, Columbus runs into the zombie-killing-machine Tallahassee, played by Woody Harrelson, whose sole quest in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse is to find the last remaining Twinkie before its expiration date.
On the road, the odd couple are constantly ambushed by con-artist sisters Wichita and Little Rock, before finally banding together in search of a reported safe-haven amusement park.
The pairing of Jesse Eisenberg’s awkward teenager Columbus with Woody Harrelson’s gun-toting badass Tallahassee works surprisingly well. While Columbus adheres to his strict rules to keep him alive, Tallahassee shoots first without bothering to ask questions.
Woody Harrelson (left) and Jesse Eisenberg (center) star in Columbia Pictures’ ‘Zombieland’. Source: Sony Pictures.
The odd couple situation is no strange concept to the buddy comedy, but its use in the lonely and desolate zombie-infested world Fleischer creates is immediately endearing.
While the pair’s on screen chemistry is undeniable, it’s Harrelson’s performance that propels the relationship out of the familiar. The film embraces the idiocy, masculinity and undeniable charisma of Tallahassee with such gusto that Hollywood suits are sure to be kicking themselves for not seeing his action-hero potential earlier.
As Columbus explains to the audience in voiceover: Tallahassee is “in the ass kicking business, and business is good.”
Tallahassee is intent to live up to his creed, dispatching zombie after zombie with an enthusiasm usually reserved for the mentally unhinged.
As Tallahassee’s rough exterior layers begin to peel away during their moment of undead respite at Bill Murray’s mansion, Harrelson’s experience as a dramatic actor comes into play, making the scene far more believable than it has any right to be.
Jesse Eisenberg on the other hand solidifies his reputation as a Michael Cera clone in the role of Columbus, working through the familiar ‘awkward-nerdy-teen-with-a-heart-of-gold’ shtick that has since earned Cera a typecast glass ceiling.
Jesse Eisenberg stars in Columbia Pictures’ ‘Zombieland’. Source: Sony Pictures.
However Columbus’ quirky traits and social ineptitude do bring something new to a zombie genre overpopulated with tough-guy Ving Rhames characters, successfully bridging the genre’s old-school conventions with a new generation audience.
Battle hardened and valuing survival above all, the sisters also play on a reversal of zombie genre conventions. Their ambiguous motivations remain until the closing frames of the film, keeping the characters as unpredictable as possible.
The real star of Zombieland however is director Ruben Fleischer. His enthusiasm and impressive visual flair is a joy to watch on screen as he hacks and slashes his way into the hearts of zombie fanboys everywhere.
Fleischer’s impressively original zombie kills, explosive action set pieces, pitch-perfect comedic timing, and focus on character in equal proportion to action make Zombieland one of the more enjoyable modern zombie films, in a genre now muddied by mediocrity and direct-to-DVD releases.
Fleischer toes the line between comedy and horror perfectly by never making the zombies a part of the joke, instead depicting them true to form as ferocious and deadly.
While Shaun of the Dead – Zombieland’s obvious point of reference – embraced the absurdity of a zombie apocalypse with equally absurd situations (the record throwing scene comes to mind) Zombieland instead plays it straight, adding an unexpected emotional weight to the film’s third act.
Taking place in a zombie-infested amusement park, the third act especially highlights the visual flair Fleischer brings to Zombieland.
Amid the flashing lights and carnival music, Tallahassee lets loose his zombie-killing rage, using the amusement park rides as his own personal shooting range in a lengthy scene that is a joy to behold.
Fleischer’s coverage and composition of the scene is expertly executed, relatively free of mistake hiding shaky-cam and most of all easy to follow through roller coasters and carnival booths.
The cheese does get a bit thick late in the film, with its overwrought themes of family and love. However, after the zombie killing spree just witnessed at the hands of Tallahassee, Fleischer could have rounded out the film with a twenty minute monologue about the importance of the family unit and I’d still walk out of the theatre with a smile from ear-to-ear.
With Zombieland, Ruben Fleischer hasn’t crafted a great zombie film or a great comedy film, but a great film period.
He has established himself as a director to watch, in the meantime breathing new life into Woody Harrelson’s already illustrious and varied career.