Zombieland Double Tap
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Credit: Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures

The many lives (and abandoned plots) of the Zombieland sequel

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Oct 18, 2019, 10:00 AM EDT

How do you survive (and then thrive) in a zombie apocalypse? Make your own rules, and then stick to them, no matter what.

Early in 2009, there wasn't any obvious reason for Sony to suspect that the wry horror spoof it was putting in theaters that October would be a hit. It was a short movie, directed by a first-time feature filmmaker, starring a guy pushing 50 whose heyday seemed to be behind him and two young actors who hadn't yet become stars. But Zombieland, from director Ruben Fleischer and starring Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Jesse Eisenberg, beat out two big releases to open number one at the box office — a surprise that suddenly gave the studio a potential franchise. So Sony did what any studio does when a big open-ended hit lands in its lap: It ordered a sequel.

A full decade later, that sequel, now called Zombieland: Double Tap, is finally in theaters.

**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Zombieland: Double Tap below**

The public narrative has been that the long gestation and smash success of the Deadpool movies, which were written by Zombieland co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, were largely responsible for the decade-long delay. But it's a bit more complicated than that: Reese and Wernick had gotten to work on a Zombieland sequel long before test footage of the mouthy mutated merc "leaked" and convinced Fox to greenlight the R-rated Marvel movie; the problem that initially delayed the Zombieland sequel was that not everyone involved felt fully comfortable with moving forward on the film.

"I think it was a combination of factors. One, having made just one movie, I was excited to just try something different, so I think that definitely informed it," Fleischer tells SYFY WIRE. "We actually developed a script that was really funny, but it just wasn't quite exactly what we all felt the sequel should be … So we put that script on the shelf, and we all went our separate ways and did other stuff."

According to Reese and Wernick, the first sequel script picked up right where the original left off, with the four heroes (named after their hometowns, with Harrelson as "Tallahassee," Eisenberg as "Columbus," Stone as "Wichita," and Abigail Breslin as "Little Rock") having survived a nightmarish encounter with hordes of ravenous and idiotic zombies at an L.A. theme park. They were now a found family, traveling together and more or less trusting one another, with Wichita and Columbus in a relationship, as much as dating was possible in a zombie-ravaged wasteland.

Reese says that the sequel would have seen the group take refuge in the city's iconic Capitol Records building, then eventually fighting enemies who didn't just want to eat their faces.

"The mistake I think we made is that there were bad guys who were humans," Fleischer says. "And so we had our heroes fighting humans, and it just didn't feel tonally right for Zombieland."

According to Reese, the villain "was sort of this lunatic who was terrorizing the countryside and it was fun," but ultimately the screenwriters agreed that the focus should be on the four main characters, not any sentient baddie.

Credit: Sony Pictures 

With the script not fitting their world's rules, they dispersed. Stone and Eisenberg catapulted to fame with Easy A and The Social Network, respectively, while Harrelson's career was revived in a big way; since 2009, the trio have been nominated for five Oscars and won one, Stone's 2017 trophy for La La Land. Breslin, meanwhile, grew up on screen, working steadily and starring in the TV show Scream Queens, also a horror-comedy.

Fleischer, meanwhile, went on to make 30 Minutes or Less, another comedy with Eisenberg, and Gangster Squad, a period drama with Stone. Neither was particularly successful, and around 2014 the director started reminiscing about his breakout smash.

"I was thinking about how amazing the experience of making Zombieland was, and that I was very lucky to work with that cast and to be able to make a movie with such a unique tone," he recalls. "And so I called up the studio and said, 'Let's see if we can't figure out how to make Zombieland 2 work.'"

That's where Reese and Wernick's work on Deadpool came into play, though even at that point their time on the Ryan Reynolds blockbuster didn't exactly put a halt to the Zombieland sequel's development. With the two writers on board as executive producers, the studio hired David Callaham (The Expendables and the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 and Shang-Chi movies) and Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street, The Cloverfield Paradox) to rewrite the sequel script.

"Essentially what happened was the passage of time made our original story impossible," Reese says. "We originally set Zombieland 2 right after Zombieland 1, so Abigail was only 12 years old, and then the passage of time suddenly turned her into a young woman. We couldn't use those early drafts. And so consequently Dave and Oren came in, they re-envisioned what the plot was: Little Rock leaving the nest and our group having to go save her."

Reese and Wernick were brought back into the nest as writers later on, they say, because Sony and the talent involved "decided they wanted to have us back to give all the Zombieland voice back into it." They worked on the script while Fleischer went and made the 2018 blockbuster Venom, and eventually the two writers shared screenplay credit with Callaham on a movie that positively drips with Zombieland DNA. It's stuffed with scores of jokes and gags from the original, which re-emerge as both callbacks and main plot points.

The title, Double Tap, refers to one of the neurotic Columbus' many rules for survival, while the movie also returns running story elements like the Zombie Kill of the Week, Tallahassee's hatred of minivans, and Wichita's tendency to ghost her friends. It was crucial that they were woven into the story instead of used as fourth-wall-breaking dips into nostalgia, the writers say. "It's always hard to call back after a movie that played 10 years ago," Wernick admits, laughing. "So we had to be delicate with that."

Instead of the Capitol Records building in L.A., the foursome begin in the White House, where they've lived for years in ruined decadence, holed up with all the supplies they could ever need and no need to ever venture far into the outside world. Tallahassee has raised Little Rock like a daughter, but at 18 she's eager to stake out on her own, in part because she wants to find a boyfriend. Her disappearance spurs the rest of the squad out of their capital fortress and back on the road, where they face more evolved zombies and collide with new characters.

Without Little Rock, they're joined by a ditzy girl named Madison (Zoey Deutch) who has been living in a mall frozen yogurt shop freezer for most of the last decade (with the reduced brain cell count to prove it). In Zombieland there haven't been any new developments in pop culture since 2009 — communication systems are defunct — so she's frozen in time, clad in velvety Juicy Couture and Ugg boots (also helpful for life in a freezer) and acting as if she'd carefully studied MTV reality shows during the mid-aughts.

Fleischer points out that none of the songs featured in the movie were released after 2009, a subtle way of reminding the audience how long it's been since the original film, even if so many of the sequel's elements feel so familiar.

In some ways, the filmmakers did have to respond to real-world advancements in popular culture, even if the characters had a very hard cutoff. Zombie-related media has exploded in the years since the original Zombieland, spawning blockbuster movies such as World War Z and several TV franchises, including The Walking Dead, one of the most sprawling transmedia properties in the world. Double Tap touches briefly on our new reality, with a gag about a Walking Dead comic, and evolutions its own zombie species.

Source: Sony Pictures

The passage of time necessitated other changes as well. One the first Zombieland's biggest and most beloved gags involved a cameo by Bill Murray as himself, living isolated in his Hollywood mansion after the outbreak. When Wernick and Reese originally wrote the script for the sequel, they slotted in another cameo for Murray, a flashback that had him on the golf course with some old friends.

"It was the cast of Ghostbusters, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd and Bill all on a golf course, and they're trying to convince bill to do Ghostbusters 3," Wernick says. "Then the zombie apocalypse broke out and he had to kill his friends."

The intervening years made that scene impossible; Ramis died in 2014, while a third Ghostbusters movie was released in 2016, with Murray indeed making a cameo. So they pivoted, instead placing a very bored, somewhat resentful Murray at the junket of the (fictional, thankfully) third Garfield movie, "Flabby Tabby." It was yet another nod to a joke in the original Zombieland.

Zombieland: Double Tap is now in theaters.