Zombieland: Rules to Live By in a Zombie Apocalypse
Zombieland, which will almost certainly fill the last slot of my alphabetically organized DVD shelf, delivers laughs with more pinpoint accuracy than nearly any comedy this year. It’s not particularly deep, and it’s not particularly outlandish, but it is satisfying as can be, with a funny premise, terrific banter, convincing gore, and a swinging attitude that keeps things breezy even as the outlook for the main characters appears grim. It also boasts the funniest cameo appearance of the year by a country mile.
Unlike most zombie film protagonists, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a massive neurotic who has managed to survive the post-apocalyptic zombie-infested America by strictly following his list of rules. Rule #1: Cardio– if you’re going to be able to outrun zombies, you have to be in shape. Ruke #2: Double Tap– don’t just shoot a zombie once and believe it’s dead… your saved ammo won’t help when that sucker pops back up and gnaws at your leg. Rule #4: Beware of Bathrooms– see, zombies are smart in this future, and they know that humans will have to vulnerably stand at a urinal or sit in a stall at some point, so they wait for food there. As our narrator, Columbus continually shares bon mots from his survival list as the film progresses.
Eventually, he meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a badass in an SUV with the number 3 painted on the side who has a craving for Twinkies. They also meet Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin)– they all agree to not use real names, instead choosing their destinations as their nicknames so that no true attachments are formed (Columbus’ Rule #5). Wichita and Little Rock are headed to Pacific Playland, a theme park where they had some great moments together when they were younger, and they hold out hope that it’s zombie-free, a place where innocence survives. I’m sure I won’t surprise you when I say the trip is more difficult than they imagine, and the park itself is the location of a giant showdown with an army of zombies.
This film was originally conceived by its director, Ruben Fleischer, as the pilot episode for a TV series. If there is a God in heaven, and he considers (as I do) zombie films one of his greatest creations, he will let HBO pick this up for at bare minimum a six-episode miniseries. The visuals are gorgeous, as Fleischer has turned highways and cities into believable wastelands. The action is fast-paced and witty– Harrelson making noise to alert the zombies of his presence, effectively beckoning them into battle, is a particularly welcome touch to the genre. The film might lack some of the dramatic oomph that several other zomcoms have, but its breezy delivery is part of its charm. Eisenberg doesn’t push the neuroses– he’s also an athletic enough hero that despite his Michael Cera-esque mannerisms, I buy him as someone who can outrun zombies and beat some down if push came to shove. Woody Harrelson is simply priceless in roles like these; when he can let his ham flag fly, he’s one of their best there is that does it (between this and 2012, Thanksgiving came early for Woody fans). Finally, Emma Stone shows that she has effectively captured all roles for the foreseeable future for the smart teenager with girl-next-door good looks. She has this way about her that makes her seem like she’s hiding something, so when she starts emoting, it always seems like a special private moment… that’s not really something an acting coach can teach you, you either have it or you don’t. She has it. And as for the cameo… skip the final paragraph if you don’t want it spoiled.
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Bill Murray absolutely delivers the funniest scene so far this year, rivaling the end credits in The Hangover for hardest sustained laughter over the course of several minutes. The gang finds a Hollywood map, and decides to sleep in style, finding Bill Murray’s mansion. His walls are covered with portraits of himself, from Renaissance-style to Andy Warhol homages. Of course, Murray appears as a zombie… but when Wichita whacks him with a golf club, he screams. He reveals that he had a makeup artist turn him into a zombie, and he’s been living his regular life, unbothered by other zombies, since they don’t eat their own kind. “I just shot 18 at Riverdale,” he utters, in that style that is so distinctive that it borders on national treasure. Funny without trying too hard, gory without being excessively so, Zombieland strikes the happiest of mediums, never delving into drama or politics or satire, instead content being exactly what it is. I was equally content.