When SYFY WIRE stepped back into the walking dead-infested world of Zombieland (in reality, the edit bay of the upcoming sequel, Zombieland: Double Tap), there was reason to be concerned. Not because of the zombies, but because the track record for comedy sequels isn't the best, let alone ones where a decent amount of time has passed since the original's release. Would Zombieland 2 suffer the fate of films like Anchorman 2 or Zoolander 2, or would if find new life in the comedy of the undead?
That's a question that can't be answered for sure until the whole thing is seen, but based on the 15-20 minutes SYFY WIRE saw, it feels like they have a good shot at avoiding the fate of other comedy sequels.
The edit bay was located on the Sony Lot, one of the oldest and most historied lots in L.A., and editor and director Ruben Fleischer was there in front of a big TV surrounded by even bigger speakers to tell a small group of reporters about the film and show some pre-selected clips that gave us a sense of the film from beginning to end.
In case you've forgotten who everyone in Zombieland is in the past decade, here's a quick rundown of our protagonists, who are named after their home towns: Jesse Eisenberg is Columbus, Woody Harrelson is Tallahassee, Emma Stone is Wichita, and Abigail Breslin is Little Rock.
In Double Tap, we learn that our group has holed up in the White House and we return to them at Christmastime and see a gift exchange. Wichita gives Columbus a first-edition of Fellowship of the Ring, Tallahassee gifts the now late-teen Little Rock the Colt .45 Elvis gifted to Richard Nixon. It's a happy scene, but underneath the celebration, there's a bit of unrest.
They're safe, they're used to this zombie world now, but both Little Rock and Wichita are restless. We find out that Eisenberg's character proposed to Stone's character (with the Hope Diamond, naturally) and that didn't go very well. Breslin's Little Rock is also at the age where she doesn't want to live with "the family" anymore, and they take off for parts unknown.
Enter Madison (Zoey Deutch), the optimistic ditz who has been living in the freezer of a Pinkberry in a nearby mall. Thinking Wichita is never returning Columbus starts up a relationship with Madison. Naturally, that's when Wichita shows back up one night to grab some supplies. Little Rock ran off with a guitar-playing hippie boy named Berkeley (Avan Jogia) and the group reassembles to find her.
They may have become confident in their zombie-killing skills, but we learn at the top of the movie that the undead are starting to evolve.
So off they go to find Little Rock, the only hint they have of her location was that she said she wanted to go see Graceland, undoubtedly something she picked up from Tallahassee.
"The movie was kind of structured like The Searchers, where the daughter gets taken, and then they have to go get her," Fleischer said, noting that the script by Wonder Woman 1984's Dave Callaham and original Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who have since become the creative force behind the Deadpool films) benefitted from the long break between films.
"It wasn't by design, but what I like about it is it gave a slight purpose to the film," the director said. "It felt like there was enough time for some of the relationships to have changed. I mean, the fact that Abigail's not a little girl anymore is a big plot point. I think allowing them to evolve on their own a little bit was good."
It's also interesting that for these characters time stopped in 2009, since that's when the zombie apocalypse happened and all. Fleischer said that's why Madison is stuck in a Paris Hilton mold. Her reference point for "cool" was Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. Also, none of the music in the movie is past 2009, keeping the reality of the world depicted intact.
The next few scenes take place after they arrive at Graceland only to find that it has been burned to the ground. Most of the group is sad because they thought Little Rock was going to be there. Tallahassee is inconsolable because his Valhalla is no more.
The silver lining is that they come across the Hound Dog Hotel, a kitschy Elvis themed tourist trap. Even better: Little Rock's car is parked outside. They venture inside, thinking she may be there and find a shrine to Elvis, filled with real memorabilia. Tallahassee is over the moon and leaves him to fawn over The King's clothes and whatnot while she goes in search of her little sister.
They quickly come to find that the Hound Dog Hotel is the home of an aggressive woman named Nevada (Rosario Dawson) who just might give Tallahassee a run for his money in the Elvis obsession department… as well as the ass-kicking and guns and ammo departments as well. Their first meeting is a tad… confrontational, but once cooler heads prevail we find out that Little Rock and the wannabe hippie Berkeley were there a few days ago, but left for a place Nevada doesn't believe is real, a millennial sanctuary called Babylon.
One of the funniest parts about this chunk of the film is an interesting callback to the first film. Nevada admonishes them for sneaking around her place. "You know how close I got to Murraying you?" Murdering? "No, Murraying. You know, when you shoot someone because you think they're a zombie? Apparently that's how Bill Murray died."
Our group's shocked faces are funny in and of itself. Eisenberg does his fumbling Eisenberg thing, trying to brush it aside.
But Nevada is convinced it actually happened and is so upset about it that she says if she ever finds out who did it she's going to kill them herself.
Fleischer said that he loves the Bill Murray nod because he's pretty sure no one would argue that the Bill Murray stuff was the best thing in the first movie and that it's really funny to him that the legend of what happened to him has spread amongst the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.
Harrelson apparently loves Elvis as much in real life as his character, Tallahassee, does in the movie. In fact, there's a story he has in real life that he gave to his character for a bonding scene between him and Rosario Dawson's Nevada. Fleischer asked the editor to pull up that moment to show us.
They're at a bar in the Hound Dog Hotel, just the two of them, and Dawson starts it off by saying "Everyone who loves The King has a story. What's yours?"
He said his mama took him to see Elvis when he was 10 and there was something about him that rang his bell. Then in high school, he was in the library when his friend egged him on to do his Elvis impersonation and he buckled, eventually belting out Hound Dog in the quiet space. It drew a crowd and when he finished with a flourish, he got thunderous applause. Then up came Robin Rogers, the cutest girl in school who never once gave him the time of day before, and she planted a kiss on his cheek. He said for a moment he felt just like The King.
That's the real-life story of how Woody Harrelson got into acting, and when he told the writers they loved it so much they put it in the script. The whole story of him dancing and singing in the library was true, but in real life Robin Rogers was the head of the school's drama club. Harrelson was a football player at the time and ended up switching over to the drama club and that's how he became an actor.
Fleischer said that while the whole cast was game to come back, Harrelson was the hardest to convince. He was eager to reprise the role, but Tallahassee has proven to be a popular character with his fans and he didn't want to do it until the script was right.
Originally, though, it was Fleischer himself who was the holdout.
"After the first one, there was a push to do a sequel," he said. "I was like, 'No, I want to spread my wings and fly and do other stuff.' And then I went and made a couple of movies and they didn't have the same critical or commercial response that the Zombieland did. And so I was like, 'You know what? The Zombieland thing was pretty great.' I think I didn't realize just how lucky I was, after that first movie, to have something so special and to have a cast that special. I mean, I've since worked with a variety of actors and I definitely appreciate how amazing and generous and cool and low key this cast is."
Based on the early footage, it sure seems like everybody slipped right back into their groove. The world felt the same, the characters felt right and all the little flourishes that made the first one so fun were back, like Columbus' rules and the Zombie Kill of the Week stuff. In fact, we saw one that was a contender for Zombie Kill of the Year.
The contender is Mateo Bianci from Pisa, Italy. Yes, that Pisa. You can imagine how the famous Leaning Tower might play a part in the zombie kill of the year. The VFX work was still rough but the scene was very, very funny.
Finally, Fleischer showed a glimpse of the evolved zombies swarming our heroes in the finale, which is the stuff Fleischer said was inspired by World War Z. You definitely get that impression. A monster truck flies in, horn blaring Dixie, and starts mowing everything down.
Fleischer says they had to make every single T-800 in this scene CG because of safety reasons. They'd rather have a real monster truck tearing ass than real zombies and they had to choose between the two because of how unpredictable some of the huge auto's moves were.
Fleischer finished the presentation by talking once more about tone. The first movie was such a flash of magical lightning in the bottle experience that trying to come close to that tone was the trickiest part of the sequel. He said you can't tell how people are going to respond, but in his mind, he thinks Double Tap is the funnier of the two movies. We won't know whether or not the audience agrees with him until the film hits theaters on October 18.