If I got together with a bunch of my buddies and came up with the idea for a funny, self-referential movie about the last survivors of a zombie holocaust, Zombieland might be the end result—except ours would probably be a lot less funny. Director Ruben Fleischer, working from a gloriously lean and mean script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, has made not only one of the funniest movies of the year, but one of the best all-around zombie movies in the last decade.
Most surprisingly, while its wannabe-hipster quotient might seem like a turnoff to those in search of more straightforward thrills, the film manages to effortlessly merge real character development and compelling storytelling with even its biggest gags, much less gag-inducing moments.
The film stars Jesse Eisenberg as a nerdy recluse who inadvertently becomes one of the last living souls on earth after the world's populations turn into flesh-eating zombies. Nicknamed Columbus after his hometown, he pairs up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), another loner in desperate search of the world's last Twinkie, and the two of them make their way across the country. En route to parts unknown, the duo cross paths with Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two sisters who refuse to let anything—including two guys eager to help them—get to their destination, a theme park that is supposedly abandoned.
While Columbus sees Wichita as his best opportunity for an end-of-the-world makeout session, she is more interested in making off with her sister, not to mention the guys' supplies. But soon, they all have to decide whether sticking together isn't merely the best option for survival, but also for some semblance of happiness in an otherwise hellish landscape of death and destruction.
After catching the San Diego Comic-Con panel for Zombieland in July, I was intrigued but skeptical (at best) about the film, due in no small part to the exceedingly self-aware voice-over that seemed to send up every genuine sentiment in the scenes that were screened. Thankfully, not only is the rest of the film not as referential and neurotic as those particular clips, but when seen in the context of the entire movie, even these sequences manage not to offend or annoy. Further, Zombieland is really, really funny: Reese and Wernick wring comedic gold out of virtually every scary scenario, and director Fleischer has an inventive visual style that gives everything a naturalistic but heightened patina, making the highs and lows of the film's payoffs feel especially powerful.
At the same time, zombies really aren't scary in any conventional sense any longer; even when George Romero tried to reinvent the genre as a series of YouTube episodes with Diary of the Dead, the most suspense he could muster was when he would use forced perspective or plain illogic in order to surprise the audience. Fleischer and company create some genuine intensity by conveying the appetites, and moreover, the blind aggression of these flesh-eaters (which means yeah, they run), but they don't resort to hackneyed jump scares or other tropes of previous horror films. Rather, they create an atmosphere that certainly doesn't match the dread or inevitability of stuff like Romero's Dawn of the Dead, much less any of the supremely effective Italian zombie films of the late 1970s and '80s, but chronicle the kind of macabre absurdity of a world where soccer moms flee in terror from their carpooling honor students, or strip club patrons become prey for lap dancers.
Further, the characters employ a hilarious kind of practicality that effectively reduces any possibility for real terror anyway. Columbus narrates the film not only by offering his own neurotic asides, but also by providing a series of rules literally to live by, including such obvious and thankfully genre-bending ideas as making sure that bodies are dead, and not going into bathrooms or other places that offer the living a no-win situation. Eisenberg, whose post-Woody Allen nebbish persona can sometimes be tiresome, makes Columbus both entertainingly annoying and suitably heroic, setting the stage for an ensemble who take themselves just seriously enough to collectively be sympathetic without heaping empty exposition or maudlin backstory upon their current behavior.
Finally, there's an amazing cameo that I won't spoil, but it's the key to the film's inexplicable but undeniable connection to the sensibilities of audience members like myself. The best way to describe it is to say it feels like a hypothetical scene you might make up during a drunken conversation with your friends that someone actually produced and put into a movie; it counts as one of the few times in recent memory that I was literally sort of incapable of processing whether it was real or imagined, but giggling uncontrollably the whole time.
But then again, almost all of Zombieland is like that—it takes all of those casual what-ifs, speculations and suggestions exchanged between fans and finds a way to work them into a real story. All of which is why, as a zombie-movie fan, I'm proud to say that someone at long last has really breathed new life into a decaying genre, especially since the way they did it was a whole lot better than anything I could have come up with.