In the midst of a horrific zombie apocalypse that has put paid to much of civilization, an action survivor anti-hero attempts to make an escape from a parking lot with a small crowd of diseased flesh devourers in hot pursuit. He reaches his car, but in his haste drops his keys to the ground, losing vital time. The monsters are almost upon him. So, narrating on the finer points of cardio as he goes, he quickly comes up with a plan; run a lap of the lot, in the knowledge that the zombies won’t be able to keep up with his pace because…well, they’re zombies. He gets back to the car with a more comfortable margin of error and grabs his keys…only to discover that the car was unlocked anyway. With little more than an irritated sigh, he gets in a drives off.
It’s a minor footnote of an action sequence early on, but this scene perhaps sums up the irreverent tone of Ruben Fleischer’s sleeper hit Zombieland. The fact that civilization has collapsed into life-or-death anarchy doesn’t mean there aren’t a few laughs to be had at the expense of human silliness.
And there are, in fact, more than just a few. Originally conceived as a black comedy TV series (one that didn’t take off when eventually put together by Amazon.com of all people), Zombieland takes the archetypal post-apocalyptic survival scenario and plays it not just as comedy ala its main inspiration Shaun of the Dead, but also mounts an acerbic and witty deconstruction of one of cinema’s most celebrated sub-genres: That anti-hero in the parking lot eschewing crucial and informal rules of survival as he dodges danger? He’s your typical online gamer, the very stereotype who invests time in fantasizing over this very scenario, and is played by Jesse Eisenberg. The opening credits sequence, ordinarily an opportunity to recreate the start of the outbreak and capture the seismic horrors, instead takes the chance to show some of the stranger scenes that play out because of the set up, including scriptwriter Paul Wernick dressed in a white tuxedo and gunning down zombies with a military issue assault rifle. In a type of story normally stuffed with melancholy, hopelessness and existential dread, one of the main themes is the importance of just having some fun.
That experience, rather gloriously, is very much mutual. For all that the mood of the piece is ironically comical, sanguine and even feel-good, we still get the benefit of seeing some creative and grisly methods of disposing of the legions of un-dead (emphasis on ‘un’, as the film follows the more modernistic trend of employing faster moving infected humans rather than reanimated corpses). In one sequence, Woody Harrelson’s Twinkie hunting, Tallahassee bound redneck zombie hunter disposes of some supermarket inhabiting monsters with a banjo. Eisenberg’s first close call culminates in him finishing off Amber Heard’s hot neighbor and potential love interest turned zeezee with a toilet cistern cover. A celebrated fellow survivor saves herself from a horrific fate by dropping a grand piano on her would be eaters. In a leftover from its days as a pilot, the film introduces ‘Zombie Kill of the Week’, bringing a sporting element to the bloodshed. This mood and manic enthusiasm is very much consistent.
But what separates the film from similar fare is that the mobile shooting gallery is not its only trick when it comes to entertainment. The genuine thrills and storytelling immersion to be found in the scenario, basically a haven for ‘every-man pragmatic survival’ orientated tactics and plot points, also means that there is a very strong human element that goes beyond simple giggling gore. Fully aware of its hubris of portraying the end of the world, the film uses a very sparse cast that means plenty of time and love for its four main characters, fellow survivors who are brought together by necessity and stay together not just because of ‘safety in numbers’, but due to some genuine affection and humor. Eisenberg’s Colombus (only one of the four characters actually reveal their name, and are called by their intended destinations throughout) is naturally the protagonist, and is a believable and well formed character; nerdy, socially stunted, previously bossed by his long list of phobias, but capable in erstwhile manner and constantly dreaming of more. The apocalypse is actually probably a boon since it gives him a chance to shine, flourish and, via necessity, meet some new people. He’s endearing in his kinks and quirks, and is perfect material for the engaging and sharp tongued Eisenberg.
But beyond the main man, the other core characters are surprisingly well fleshed out in a manner that shows a genuine attention to dramatic detail usually lost on comedy writers. Woody Harrelson is in his element playing eccentric, crazed badass redneck, but there is a soft and gooey element of vulnerability and childlike denial to his performance as Tallahassee, particularly in regards to a far from comic revelation about his past and the resultant light this shines on his motivations. A couple of years before she really burst on to the scene in a big way, Emma Stone was already an attention magnet, as displayed here by her mature and finessed performance as ‘Wichita’, the older half of a double act with sister Abigail Breslin (plucky and naturalistic) that consists mostly of cons and tricks that evoke immoral dark humor. While the role may have simply been a cardboard cutout archetype (especially if Megan Fox had accepted a role first offered to her), Stone makes sure that she is suitably complicated in her actions but also vitally likeable in the charm stakes, something which prevents her from simply being a pretty face to plaster on the posters. Crucially, both she and Breslin more than hold their own in the comic stakes.
This is essential, because a surprisingly large contingent of Zombieland’s humor is the polar opposite of the expected slapstick and relies more of irony, witticism and almost entirely dialogue based jokiness. Conversations regarding things the characters don’t miss from the pre-zombie days and snippets of ad-libbed exchanges in their road trips are funnier and more memorable than simple splatter humor. Affectionate parody and sly in-jokes are also rife, especially the latter, which include Tallahassee’s unspoken fondness for NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt and a brilliant and subtle gag revolving around the film’s inability to use the name ‘Disneyland’. All good for at least a chuckle, but of course the greatest source of belly laughs comes in the second act and with it probably one of the greatest ‘as himself’ film cameos of all time, as the one and only Bill Murray rocks up, wearing monster make up so he can sneak out to play nine holes at L.A.’s finest golf clubs. His appearance, and the reverence held towards him by Harrelson and Stone, makes for some wonderful gags (especially given that Harrelson co-starred with him in Kingpin), while his unfortunate demise can be easily be described as the most hilarious death rattle ever put on film.
All this talk of hilarity and genuine thrills rather miss the point however, because the main reason that Zombieland flourishes into a more timeless niche is due to the intelligence shown not just in its premise but its execution. Though a comedy, it uses dramatic strains for its plot and reaps the benefits of having a strong arc and set of themes. Though a zombie movie, it always sticks to the tact of parody or satire, treating the subject with respect and making its observational barbs well thought out rather than simple pastiche. It’s the difference between parody and spoof that perhaps best defines Zombieland’s success.
This, mixed with that tone, makes for a brief, tight and hugely loveable viewing experience with plenty of rewatch value. Co-starring Bill Murray. What more could you want from a zom-com?