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The Very Strange Saga of How Bill Murray Landed a Cameo in 2009's Zombieland

Patrick Swayze, Mark Hamill, Kevin Bacon, and more were considered ahead of the Ghostbusters star.

By Josh Weiss
Bill Murray appears zombie-like in a sweater vest in Zombieland (2009).

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Bill Murray making a cameo appearance in 2009's Zombieland (now streaming on Peacock). His wry and aloof sense of humor, which seems impossibly effortless to us mere morals, was — and continues to be — a perfect fit for director Ruben Fleischer's light-hearted riff on the undead canon.

Despite the fact that he only gets around five minutes of screen-time, Murray absolutely commands the flow of comedy... right up until he dies from an accidental shotgun blast to the chest, courtesy of the jumpy Columbus (Jesse Einseberg). But the journey of landing the Ghostbusters legend was anything but smooth, as the film's co-writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, revealed on social media.

Besides Bill Murray, what other celebrities were considered for a cameo in Zombieland?

In March 2020, as our world seemed to be entering an apocalyptic epoch of its own, Reese and Wernick decided to keep fans entertained during the early days of quarantine by revealing the laundry list of celebrities they hoped to land before Murray signed on to the project. Patrick Swayze was their original choice, but the actor was tragically diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer before they had a chance to reach out with an offer.

RELATED: Remembering Bill Murray in The Dead Don’t Die: Jim Jarmusch’s Funny Fright Flick

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Mark Hamill, Sylvester Stallone, Matthew McConaughey, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Joe Pesci were also suggested, though none of them panned out for a multitude of reasons.

"We would not be denied," Wernick wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter) at the time. "Except, we kept getting f-cking denied." In a follow-up post, he credited the endless string of rejections to the fact that he and Reese were not established names in Hollywood yet. Even more frustrating was a blatant lack of studio interest in the zombie genre, which had yet to see a revival through AMC's The Walking Dead television series the following year. "Our best guess is we were getting flat no's from agents based on the title page alone."

Nevertheless, the creative duo went to the trouble of writing up different versions of the cameo segment for each celebrity mentioned above in the hopes of swaying them and their agents. The various iterations are pretty much identical, featuring a battle between the human characters and a zombified variant of the cultural icon in question. They didn't consider Murray because they never thought someone of his caliber would say yes. 

"He’s the toughest get in Hollywood,” Reese explained during a 2010 interview with MTV. “We were out on set, and now we were actually a couple days away from shooting the scene, and we’d written an alternate version where there was no celebrity. [The four main characters] were going to just run into some zombies in the house."

RELATED: Why We Never Got a Ghostbusters 3, According to Bill Murray

Out of desperation, the writers turned to cast member Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee). The Cheers alum used his industry influence to get a line out to his Kingpin co-star in New York, where Murray has all his scripts sent to and vetted by a local FedEx store. He liked the pitch, but requested a slightly larger role, prompting Reese and Wernick to change Murray from an actual zombie to a living person pretending to be a zombie. 

“We re-wrote the scene so that he was alive, so he could talk,” Reese continued. “And then, we decided we would kill him off.”

“We sent it back to the FedEx/Kinko’s,” Wernick concluded. “He reads the script, loves it, calls Woody, and Woody persuasively convinces him to do the project. Two days later, he was out on set with us.”

The 2019 sequel — Zombieland: Double Tap — built upon the Murray lore by revealing that the actor was in the middle of a press junket for the faux Garfield 3: Flabby Tabby when the zombie outbreak first began. In addition to Murray himself, the end credits stinger also features appearances from actual entertainment personalities like Al Roker and Josh Horowitz — all of whom turn into raging members of the undead. Using a number of everyday items, Murray easily dispatches the flesh-eating ghouls before proclaiming: "I hate Mondays."

Zombieland is now streaming on Peacock.