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Zombieland

October 11, 2009
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Zombieland

For a certain niche of b-movie enthusiasts, Zombieland is a dream come true. The film’s premise is that the entire globe is overrun by zombies, and few lone survivors remain in the mostly destroyed wasteland to kick ass and take names with giant vehicles, shotguns and a nearly endless supply of ammo. Let’s face it guys, and I’m talking to you fellow zombie flick fans here, you’ve wanted to be in a situation like this for your entire lives, and you have all of the plans written out in your head already. You know which neighbors have guns, you know where you would run to, and you have the rules of zombie busting remembered by heart. The characters in this film mention these things in an almost obligatory way, but for you, it goes without saying.

Part of the fun of the flicks which Zombieland plays off of are their predictability. People can draw mental prototypes about them because they have seen the elements hundreds of times, and rules like “Check the back seat” and “Double tap” are the kinds of things you wish you could tell characters in most zombie flicks. But these characters know them and, unlike most other zombie flick characters, are actually relatively smart, although they make a couple decisions that even the casual movie-goer would easily recognize as a bad idea (Doesn’t fleeing from zombies by riding the Giant Drop sound like a terrible idea the second you read it?).

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How can you not love this shot?

But that’s just about the only thing that sets them apart. These characters are built up well but also build from other familiar character prototypes: The soul-seeking youth, the southern tough guy, the independent babe and her spunky little sister. They have surprises, but like zombies, they are reliable and seem doomed to their lonely existence. All named after towns and cities in the U.S., the characters spend an awful lot of their time traveling, but find time to enjoy the little things in life, like building couch forts, bashing ghouls’ heads in with banjos and a never ending quest for Twinkies.

Actually, all three of those activities are primarily enjoyed by the aforementioned tough guy Tallahassee played by Woody Harrelson, who just steals the show in this film. His acting here reminds us of why he is a great American actor; his cool composition carries through his characters so strongly that when he does irregular things like have a temper tantrum and break all the windows on a random car or break down crying when he remembers his lost son, we are shocked but accept the vulnerability unconditionally. However, it does help him that he is sorely out of place among the other amateur actors here, namely Jesse Eisenberg (who is essentially Michael Cerra with a shorter resume), Emma Stone (who is essentially Megan Fox with a longer resume) and Abigail Breslin (who just might be the most hyped child actor since the Olsen twins). The only really solid acting to accompany Harrelson comes with the film’s jaw dropping cameo appearance, which I won’t spoil.

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Harrelson, designated badass/goofball since White Men Can't Jump.

…But I’ll level, everyone here brings the giggles more than a dozen times. Did I mention this film is a comedy? And it’s hilarious? I know many of you are probably die-hard Sean of the Dead fans and might imagine if another successful zombie spoof is possible. While Sean of the Dead was hilarious, it also had some subtly observant things to say not just about zombie movies but about people. The zombies in Zombieland might have a meaningful existence, but they need not justify the film. By now, zombies are as much a legitimate part of culture as vampires are, and we all know how current vampire appeal is.

Yes, Zombieland is also a satire, and this is good, because we laughed about elements like these when they weren’t even supposed to be funny. But when Eisenberg’s character Columbus wakes in the morning to find the cute girl from down the hall that fell asleep on the couch with him has turned into a flesh-eating monster, we giggle, and then full out laugh when he narrates to us: “The first time I let a girl into my life, and she tries to eat me.” He says it with some tired acceptance, as if it isn’t even a surprise. That’s hard not to both laugh and nod at.

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One of many of this film's moments which leave the audience screaming, for whatever reason.

But director Ruben Fleischer takes the elements of zombie film and runs with them, shamelessly having fun. Which is another thing zombie fans love: a little bit of unaddultered violence. For this reason it is more than a comedy with some of the funniest material you have heard all year. It is also an action flick, and there are more heads rolling (as well as doing other gross, over the top things) than there were in Sean. Within five minutes, the film earns its stripes when Columbus begins a long list of zombie busting rules over small vignettes of innocent bystanders getting munched, as well as his own ridiculous attempt at escaping two zombies at a gas station.

What makes this film a success is that it manages to be both familiar as well as surprising, funny in addition to cathartic, without losing its momentum. Yeah, there’s the obligatory bunt to first base and other such calculated cheese, but isn’t that something we see road films for? Why can’t this film be both of those, too? It earns all these rights somehow, be it through its funny writing, shameless shock tactics and a biting self-awareness. You’ll come out of Zombieland having experienced one hell of a synthesis of contemporary film, and it’s likely that you’ll be willing to see it again and again until you can cheer and recite the lines by heart.

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32. Enjoy the little things.

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