Monday, October 19, 2009

In Theaters: Zombieland

Zombieland poster
You’ll get no argument from me that zombie films are overdone. Over the past five or six years the subgenre had a nice revival, and the concept has been explored in just about every way it can be. These things come in cycles, and inevitably the end of the cycle is comedy. Sure, we’ve already had SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but ZOMBIELAND manages to find its own niche; it’s more raucous, but just about as good natured, which plays on the tropes of zombie films without undermining them. Developed from what was originally an idea for a TV series, ZOMBIELAND is slight but charming, blending its humor with some solid action and an interesting view on social isolation and its ups and downs in the face of the apocalypse.

Jesse Eisenberg is our protagonist, a mostly-nameless youth who was living an isolated, geeky life when a strain of mad cow disease managed to turn most of the population of the world into flesh-eating monsters. He’s got a list of rules for surviving “Zombieland”, which often pop up in the background as he engages in them, from “Cardio” to “the Double Tap” (always take an extra shot at a downed zombie) to “Travel Light.” Which means he doesn’t make attachments, at least not until he runs into a more seasoned ass-kicker played by Woody Harrelson. Not willing to give their names, they identify each other as Columbus (Eisenberg) and Tallahassee (Harrelson) after their respective destinations, but they’re heading in an Easternly direction for the moment, so Columbus hitches a ride in Tallahassee’s car. They meet up with, and are twice outfoxed by two grifters, the lovely Wichita (Emma Stone) and her little sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who are heading to a California amusement park on the hopeful theory that it’s the one area in the country that’s definitely zombie-free. Along the way, they stop over in Los Angeles, Columbus tries to put the unsmooth moves on Wichita, and various and sundry other things happen.

If one problem plagues this film, it’s that the characters lack an obvious goal. They’re in a position where they can survive the zombies indefinitely, and their destinations are more whims than anything else. Columbus finds out early on that his family probably isn’t still alive, what with Columbus, Ohio having burned to the ground and all, and after that he’s just along for the company.

But then, the real conflict here is with the personal hang-ups of the characters. They’ve all got baggage that prevents them from connecting with each other, but they find common ground in violence and cheap thrills, and suddenly you realize that this is one of those zombie films where the zombies are just there to highlight real-world business, in this case isolation and mistrust. All of which makes this sound much more serious and much less of a lark than it actually is; this is meant to be a fun movie, despite the horrific collapse of civilization in its earliest scenes. If the underlying character issues sometimes get overlooked because of this, well, sometimes you have to do that.

On the fundamentals, the picture works surprisingly well. The action is more clear and coherent than in a lot of serious action/horror movies, and despite the jokey tone there’s a genuine sense of danger at times. There’s some too-obvious CGI, but then, it’s a low-budget movie. (Lower than it looks, actually.)

Of course it all stands or falls on the cast, and I gotta say they hit a homer with this. The chemistry that the leads establish is superb, and a good thing too, since they’re virtually the only people who talk in the movie. (There’s a famous cameo that likely has been ruined by now, but if not, stop whatever you’re doing and see the film before someone else can spoil it for you. Suffice it to say it is brilliant both in conception and execution.) In particular, this looks like a breakout film for Eisenberg and Stone, who have up until now managed not to attract much attention. Both of them take roles that are, in theory, very flat, and manage to give them life.

The film has to struggle to set up a climax (albeit one that works pretty well.) There are times when the mechanics of the plot are contrived, but it’s easy to brush off these objections when the core of this film is so perversely sweet. At heart it’s about people learning to open up and rely on each other, a theme that the film pretty much spells out at the end. There are so many horrible zombie movies that it’s easy to forget the appeal of a good one, but ZOMBIELAND feels fresh and inspired. The walking dead may yet have a few more strolls in them.

Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Grade: B+

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