Zombieland has everything you expect from a movie called Zombieland. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but one constructed with a certain sense of humor, a sly awareness of the inherent ridiculousness of its colorfully devastated landscape. And of course there is the battalion of zombies, goopy red smears adorning their muzzles as if they’d tried to eat strawberry preserves off of toast without harming the crunchy slices. On the surface, Zombieland has everything that should appeal to someone seeking out a rollicking dose of happy, gory mayhem. The really good news is that Zombieland has plenty going on beneath the surface, as well.
The film is about something beyond its effects wizardry and high concept hook. It gets at the appeal of family, specifically the sorts of ad hoc units we create in place of the relations that don’t necessarily fulfill that inner need. The living, sentient denizens of the film may be connecting with one another over a connection no stronger than the fact that they’ve survived up to the point the encounter one another, but that’s surely a less tenuous bond than the one keeping many people of opposing sensibilities braving densely populated interstates to come together for regular holiday reunions. The terrific screenplay credited to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick allows that there may be more purpose to the togetherness formed by the band of misfits who bond equally over roadtrip explanations of the intricacies of Hannah Montana and brutal action flick defenses against the flesh-eating creatures that chase them down at every opportunity.
The interest in digging deeper extends to the characters, all of them exceptionally well drawn and terrifically acted. Jesse Eisenberg gets great mileage from the brand of hesitant and anxious sincerity that he developed before Michael Cera took it to hip kid heights (Roger Dodger predates Arrested Development so Eisenberg wins). Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin have an easy rhythm as sisters who have developed their own survival mechanisms in a chaotic world. Then there’s Woody Harrelson, absolutely reveling in his portrayal of a wild card zombie killer who finds his last vestiges of freedom in dispatching the undead with every weapon (or gardening tool) he can get his hands on. There’s a lot that Harrelson brings to the role, but nothing more distinctively his own than his reaction to a mouthful of golden sponge cake and delicious creamy filling. There are a lot of actors that could make that moment funny, but Harrelson may be the only one who can make it poignant.
In his feature debut, director Ruben Fleischer demonstrates and amazingly deft touch and a perfectly calibrated sense of timing. He shifts nicely between different threads of the story at just the right times with just the right frequency. And he manages to employ some of the wittiest elements of the script in a way that maximizes their impact. Most notably, visualizations of the rules for survival concocted by Eisenberg’s character are an element that could have easily become tiresome in the hands of a clumsier director. Fleischer is not only careful enough to make sure they work each and every time, but sets them up for a beautiful payoff that marks one of the film’s high points. The detail and care that makes that moment work is fully characteristic of the entire film. There’s plenty of joyful craziness to go around, but Fleischer and his collaborator make it clear that basking in that sort of zippy fizziness doesn’t mean the integrity of bigger points and deeper ideas has to go by the wayside. They can coexist, and that only makes the trip to Zombieland all the better.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)