This 2009 horror/comedy from director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick is light years beyond most zombie films. The undead hordes it contains are hardcore and tenacious, scaling amusement park rides to reach their intended victims and sprinting mindlessly into gunfire. Zombieland not only earns its bones as a horror film, it's also a damn sight funnier than most comedies. One of the best things about it is that it could just as easily have been called The Hunt For Tallahassee's Twinkie, so important does that golden Hostess delicacy become to one of our heroes.
I probably don't have to explain to most Horrorbid regulars that this unhealthy Twinkie fixation belongs to Woody Harrleson's character, a man who uses the place he hails from as a name, just like all his companions. Not divulging any names is meant to keep them all from getting too attached to one another in a world overrun by ravenous flesh-eaters. Thus, Harrelson's trigger-happy, hyperactive cowboy is known simply as Tallahassee. As usual, his performance is electric and unpredictable, and Tallahassee turns out to be a character who is not just a one-note "badass", but a quirky, tortured soul who just happens to be quite proficient at killing zombies. And if he enjoys killing them more than he should, well, maybe that's because he's lost more to them than it would at first appear.
Zombieland pulled off quite a coup when it came to casting, as Harrelson is joined by a top-notch group of then up-and-coming actors. Emma Stone (quickly becoming one of my favorite actors) plays Wichita, a young con artist who has been using her looks in the service of some pretty clever scams since long before the start of the zombie apocalypse. Abigail Breslin is her sister and nimble accomplice, Little Rock, who dreams of reaching an amusement park called Pacific Playland, rumored to be zombie-free. Jesse Eisenberg doesn't always wow me with his performances, but he works well here as Columbus, who managed to survive the initial outbreak mostly because he is so antisocial and nerdy that he had no close family or friends to become zombies and eat him. Of course, the biggest coup of them all was getting none other than Mr. Bill Murray to play a small, but thoroughly hilarious part as himself. A good chunk of Zombieland actually takes place in Murray's mansion. It's not his real life mansion, obviously, but still...BILL MURRAY!!! The man is a national treasure and his brief performance in this film is as brilliant as anything he's ever done.
Beyond a strong cast with an A-list cameo, Zombieland also boasts thematic substance and impressive character work. I found every member of the ensemble to be memorable and well-drawn. Wichita's extreme reluctance to trust anyone long enough to stop scamming them might have grown annoying under the care of a lesser talent, but in Emma Stone's capable hands, it is as endearing as the script means for it to be. Little Rock is believable as a more or less everyday child even though she doesn't bat an eye before pulling a gun on someone. She has never heard of any of Tallahassee's cultural heroes and in one of the films funniest scenes, she vigorously tries to explain to him that Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana are supposed to be two different people. Columbus would be lost without his lengthy list of rules for survival, including an embarrassing warm up routine he likes to go through before entering any situation where he might be facing zombies. He's also the very portrait of the modern, disaffected youth, never really wanting much to do with people until there were only a few left.
All these characters start out with each other in openly hostile fashion, with suspicion, or under false pretenses. Watching the tension between them slowly give way to a gush of frenzied human interaction is quite moving. They seem to feel more joy in each other's company than any of them have felt in a long while. When they take a break from the road in an abandoned gift shop and end up destroying its trinkets and breakables just for shits and giggles, it becomes a scene that is damn near perfect. Not only is it highly cathartic for both the characters and the viewer, it symbolizes the breakdown of society, and how utterly irrelevant shiny baubles have become. The best thing about it in my view, though, is that it's a scene that changes our characters more than it seems on the surface. Every time I watch Zombieland I become more convinced that this is the scene where they become something of a family.
Liking the characters and feeling that they all liked one another helped me get more invested in Zombieland. I was consistently riveted anytime they were in peril from the film's titular monsters, which are consistently fearsome in their every attack. Zombieland employed make-up and effects work that are somewhat understated on its zombies. Since they can turn from human to zombie very quickly, many of them had not decomposed too much yet or been unduly beaten up. Though they are still intimidating enough to behold, their ferocity comes mainly from the performance of each individual zombie in the horde. There seem to be no weak links in the bunch. Whereas actors who portray the undead in many zombie films often seem like little better than extras, every zombie who gets a close up in this movie seems like they might even be a real actor. Director Fleischer gets his share of the credit for this element, too. I often feel that directors for these kinds of films take what they can get when it comes to the zombie action in certain scenes, not giving every single attack the attention it's due. Whether by skill, serendipity, or both, Fleischer fit enough stunning zombie action into his film for it to earn its title.
The ending is an important element of any movie and Zombieland doesn't disappoint, bringing events to an action-packed and emotionally satisfying conclusion. The newly forged family cements its bonds even further by coming to the rescue of its errant members, who are under full scale zombie assault at the aforementioned Pacific Playland. Its a wonderfully obstacle ridden setting for a grand finale, the rides at the amusement park working both for and against the zombies in unpredictable and highly entertaining ways. Most importantly, we find out whether or not Tallahassee will ever again taste of the glory that is the Hostess Twinkie.
Zombieland may be one of the most well-rounded movies I've ever seen. It's not just a good horror film or a good comedy, it's a good film , period. It appeals to a wide audience, but does so without watering down the scarier aspects of its premise the way similar horror/comedies do. When you add all that to the strength of its ensemble cast, you get a virtually flawless movie that blends genres in all the best ways, and none of the worst.
Stay tuned for my next installment!