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Movie Review: Zombieland (R)

Zombie Road Trip

Staying alive is a laughing matter in Zombieland

By Jared Peterson


Zombieland is a horror comedy that earns both ends of that label—equal parts meat grinder and laugh machine, both unsettling and laugh-out-loud funny.

For the uninitiated, a quick zombie primer. Zombies are essentially the walking dead, humans killed by an infected bite and reanimated with an insatiable hunger for other human beings. (In this way they’re sort of like vampires, minus the brooding introspection, courtly manner and keen fashion sense.) In this case, the zombifying virus—a mutant form of mad cow disease, we’re told—has within a matter of weeks turned the entire continent into either mindless cannibals or their raw meals on the run.

In the ravaged ruins of central Texas we find our narrator, a skittish college nerd (Jesse Eisenberg, direct from Adventureland), gassing up for a mad interstate dash to what’s left of Columbus, Ohio, his hometown. He has stayed alive, he tells us, because he follows “the rules,” a self-scripted, ever expanding list of dos and don’ts for dealing with life in Zombieland. On his way outta Dodge, he meets another survivor, a gun- and garden-tool-toting redneck (played perfectly by Woody Harrelson) on his way to Tallahassee. Columbus and Tallahassee—they prefer not to personalize each other with real names) make their way from town to abandoned town, wasting zombies and getting on one another’s nerves. They soon run afoul of Wichita (Superbad’s Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin), a pair of con artist sisters who fleece them a couple of times before forming an uneasy alliance to make the cross-country trek to a rumored zombie-free enclave in Los Angeles.

Those who can endure the blood and guts here will be rewarded with a smart, absurdist road picture. Zombieland is determined to use its well-crafted grotesquerie for both shock and guffaw, and you could easily argue that, since zombies aren’t actually alive, it is perfectly acceptable to really, really enjoy watching them die. The violence is at once grotesquely graphic and broadly cartoonish. If Tallahassee is like Yosemite Sam (Columbus thinks he is), then Columbus is an awful lot like Droopy—with a shotgun.

The film dispenses with stern everyman heroes and makes the “comic relief” characters the main focus. In the hands of some fresh talent from the world of television (the movie was reportedly first conceived as a television pilot), director Ruben Fleischer (from behind the scenes at “Jimmy Kimmel Live”) and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (co-creators of the meta-funny reality series “The Joe Schmo Show”), Zombieland shares some of the rhythm and dry wit of sitcoms like “30 Rock”, “The Office” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, and it pays winking, adoring tribute to the deadpan absurdity of the golden age of “Saturday Night Live”—look for a pitch-perfect cameo from a beloved star of that era. The witty tone is well served by the main players, especially Eisenberg, whose skittish charm and minimalist delivery makes his every line a little prize, and Stone, who in a handful of recent roles has shown herself to be a first-rate character actress.

A friend who saw the movie with me put it succinctly: “I’m glad there aren’t zombies.” I have to agree. Besides having terrible table manners—pulling at people’s insides and slurping up their guts, even while their meals are still kicking—they snarl and hiss and emit bone-chilling screeches, and vomit blood and other stuff. The anatomical travesties we witness in some detail—if you don’t want to know (or for your kids to know) what all this looks like, you might want to give this flick a pass. “Zombie kills” are plentiful, elaborate and lovingly crafted. In addition to the gunshots, zombies are thrown from and run over by vehicles, smashed and pulled apart by machinery, have their limbs broken or pulled off, their heads smashed with hammers and bats and banjos and car tires. There are, of course, a few “jumpers”—“Boo!” scenes where silence or complacency is suddenly interrupted by some menace from off frame. Another thing to know is that, with the help of very well done special effects, gross and graphic events that in another film might have been pieced together through clever editing are instead depicted in single, uninterrupted shots—all the better for shock value.

The language is rife with f-words and other curses. Each character carries a gun and uses it often. There is a lot of reckless driving (even the twelve-year-old Breslin gets behind the wheel) and some very realistic crashes and collisions. The of-age characters have some prematurely celebratory drinks and, at one point, smoke marijuana from a pipe. There is brief zombie nudity—an undead stripper chasing after a really unsatisfied customer. The humans stick to some euphemistic sexual banter, a bit of tame flirting and a single, sweet smooch.

There was a preview for Michael Jackson’s posthumously released concert documentary This Is It—it has the expected thrusting dance moves, plus hints of Jackson’s somewhat unsettling face. More unsettling, perhaps, is Did You Hear About the Morgans?, a we-just-don’t-get-along, fish-out-of-water romantic comedy with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker. This trailer featured a couple of uses of firearms, a growling bear and a moose’s rear end. (Did I mention it takes place in Wyoming?)


Jared Peterson most recently reviewed Gamer.



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