'Zombieland' Gets a Little Horror in the Funniest American Comedy of the Year

Columbia Pictures

Salt Lake City Weekly | September 29, 2009
The flesh-eating undead are not, understandably, every movie-goer's cup of tea. There are plenty of folks who will peruse their local move listings, and -- whether due to assumptions about quality or a queasy stomach -- won't bother going past the first six letters of the title Zombieland. And that's a shame, because they're going to miss what may turn out to be the funniest American comedy of 2009.

It's sort of axiomatic at this point that theatrical audiences don't tend to like the genre-mixing equivalent of somebody sticking chocolate in their peanut butter. In 2004, the hilarious horror-comedy mashup Shaun of the Dead managed to scrape together only $13 million at the box office during its U.S. run -- or less than Soul Plane made that same year, if you want some really depressing perspective. We get the predictable, easily marketable nonsense we deserve. Heaven forbid smart filmmakers should be able to take gore and use it as seasoning for something where you're going to laugh yourself stupid.

Zombieland starts with a familiar apocalyptic premise: Some strange virus has swept through the population, turning 99 percent of humans into relentless, flesh-hungry beasts. But a few survivors try to make their way, including a neurotic college student known as Columbus (Adventureland's Jesse Eisenberg) because that's the hometown he's trying to make his way back to. That geographic-name notion comes from Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), the taciturn road warrior Columbus encounters, but who doesn't think it's wise to form attachments. And his philosophy makes sense when the next two people they encounter -- sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) -- promptly con them out of their car and their guns.

The opening minutes of Zombieland suggest that director Ruben Fleischer is going to crank up the high-energy nihilism, with the credits and onscreen captions becoming physical objects bumped and shattered by the characters as they chomp and/or get chomped. Columbus' narration focuses on the many, many survival rules he follows, with Eisenberg brilliantly capturing a Type-A personality whose anxieties have been granted legitimacy -- particularly when the hot girl he's been too insecure to talk to ultimately tries to eat him for breakfast.

But while the first act offers plenty of bile-drooling, fat-chewing, no-personal-hygiene-having antagonists, they disappear almost entirely for the middle third of the film. The zombies become little more than the set-up for why these four characters are traveling together, and the rest is turned over to the snappy line readings from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's razor-sharp script. And while plenty of the humor comes from hip dialogue, there's also great stuff in the way it's presented, like a montage capturing the mundane road-trip chatter with which our heroes get to know one another. By the time Columbus and company reach Los Angeles -- and an encounter with an A-list movie star whose name you'll have to look for elsewhere -- the humor is flying much faster than blood or bullets.

And then it all kicks into high gear again for the amusement-park set finale. Fleischer cross-cuts between locations in a way that dampens some of the tension, but he provides more than enough effective set-pieces -- including the two sisters trapped on a free-fall ride -- to make up for it. Unless a zombie falling like a melon to its splattering demise troubles you deeply, this isn't the kind of stuff that'll haunt your dreams.

Are there places to nitpick Zombieland's scenario? Oh, sure: There's no addressing whether the infection has spread worldwide, nor is there an explanation for why electricity and gas continue to be available, nor is there an answer for why the flesh-feasting menaces don't just eat one another. That, however, is the kind of stuff you worry about in a movie that's taking itself seriously. This one simply wants to have a laugh-out-loud blast with the end of the world, the kind that actually makes me hope that there could be a sequel in the future.

And that, of course, would require people to come out and see it -- even those who might ordinarily cringe at a little horror getting into their comedy.


***1/2 (three and a half out of four stars)

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone

Directed by Ruben Fleischer.

Rated R.

Salt Lake City Weekly

Having carved a large niche of young, affluent, and educated Utahns, Salt Lake City Weekly is regarded as a welcome, independent voice in an area that truly needs one. More than 1,600 outlets distribute Salt Lake City Weekly in the...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 248 South Main, Salt Lake City, UT 84101
  • Phone: (801) 575-7003