This year marks the 45th anniversary of Night Of The Living Dead, the very first zombie movie. Through the decades, it has spawned sequels and remakes and numerous imitators not just on the big screen but on the small one, as well. Now I haven’t seen the original black and white 1968 film as of this writing, but I have screened a number of titles that were clearly inspired by it. Unfortunately, none of them are any good.
Then I watched Zombieland. Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, here’s a clever, funny and surprisingly sweet zombie movie I can actually rally behind. It’s how the overrated Shaun Of The Dead should’ve turned out.
The charmingly nebbish Jesse Eisenberg plays “Columbus” (we never do learn his real name), a video game-obsessed loner unwittingly thrusted into a scary dilemma: a nation-wide zombie apocalypse. In the mostly sharp opening sequence, he narrates to the audience some of his personal rules he’s developed for outwitting, outplaying and outlasting the walking and running dead. (The frequent reminder of these rules, and the subsequent introduction of new ones, becomes a reliable running gag.) Not only are these tips quite sensible, they’re funny, as well. The Cardio one, in particular, is hilarious.
Alone to fend for himself in Garland, Texas (the college student is hoping to reconnect with his elusive parents in Ohio, hence his nickname), he encounters “Tallahassee” (Woody Harrelson in one of his funniest performances), an easily irritated, tough-talking, gun-toting Southerner. He’s got a pick-up truck with a number 3 on the side (an obvious NASCAR reference), a broken heart, a deep loathing for zombies, a chronic need to break shit and an understandable craving for Twinkies. (I used to love them as a kid, myself, but haven’t had them in decades. I’m not sure I can tolerate them any more, actually.) He’s so determined to satisfy this particular craving he’s willing to risk his own life just to get his hands on one. And no, Sno-Balls are not an acceptable substitute. He just can’t get past the “inconsistency” of the coconut.
While en route to Texarkana with Columbus, Tallahassee spots an abandoned grocery store. It is here we meet “Wichita” (the very sexy Emma Stone) and her little sister, “Little Rock” (Little Miss Sunshine’s humourously sassy and adorable Abigail Breslin). The predicament they find themselves in seems pretty straightforward. Little Rock got bit by a zombie and has to be put down. Otherwise, the others will be in grave danger.
But of course, when the moment of truth arrives, no one gets killed. And the men are suddenly left without transportation and all their weaponry. (Sneaky gals.) Inevitably, once Columbus and Tallahassee find a replacement vehicle with a whole slew of automatic weapons, they catch up to the sister con artists on an abandoned highway. Tallahassee’s stolen pick-up breaks down so they’re all back together again. (By the way, every one is named after a city they’re either from or heading to because knowing every one’s real names will intensify bonding which could make things difficult if any of them get infected or separated.)
All through the film, Columbus yearns to make human connections he’s been too afraid to pursue all his life. His numerous phobias and insecurities once kept him permanently isolated. Now the zombie invasion has forced him to be brave. Despite her initial lack of warmth towards him, he develops a major crush on Wichita who, unfortunately for him, prefers bad boys. Quite frankly, her first impression of him doesn’t help his overall chances with her. She thinks he’s quite wimpy. It’s a good thing there aren’t any courageously hunky survivors out there to compete with. He’s having enough trouble winning her heart on his own.
Near the halfway point of Zombieland, I was concerned about whether this not-terribly-original premise (which does have its predictable elements) would be able to remain consistently funny as we reach its expected conclusion. Those worries were immediately cast aside when our heroes arrive in California, pick up one of those Map Of The Stars and locate the mansion of Tallahassee’s favourite actor. This sequence alone is the funniest in the entire picture.
After that hilarious pit stop, the ladies ditch the guys to check out a local theme park. Wichita wants 12-year-old Little Rock to re-live a cherished childhood memory as an escape from all this chaos. However, this turns out to be an incredibly stupid idea because turning on all the rides and lights attracts unwanted attention. It’s up to Tallahassee and Columbus to rescue them in time since the ladies don’t have endless ammo and they are greatly outnumbered.
Before Zombieland, I never liked zombie movies. As characters, they’re very limited in their appeal. So, why do I like this particular zombie movie? Because of the humans.
Harrelson, Eisenberg, Stone and Breslin are all well cast in their roles and each given smart, funny things to say. Honestly, I never expected to laugh as much as I did. But more importantly, we really like them. Despite following the first-they-don’t-get-along-then-they-get-along-just-fine routine, even if they weren’t all trying to survive an increasingly tenuous situation you still believe they would want to spend time together in more peaceful circumstances. In time, they learn an important lesson: it’s not knowing first names that leads to bonding, it’s having shared experiences.
In between the surprisingly effective comedy and action sequences (Harrelson is clearly having the most fun battling the zombies) are a few sweet moments. At the aforementioned comedy legend’s mansion, Wichita encourages Columbus to share a nighttime drink with her. The year a selected bottle of French wine was made leads to a brief discussion about important personal milestones in 1997. Wichita saw her first R-rated movie and got her first fake tattoo (a porpoise) that year. Poor Columbus had a bad dental experience and was rejected by every girl who attended his school’s Grade 8 Sadie Hawkins’ dance.
This revelation so appalls Wichita, she immediately wants to dance with him. At first, they rest their hands on each other’s shoulders at a safe distance (very Grade 8), but then they move closer and closer until they’re in a full embrace. Wichita whispers a compliment in Columbus’ ear and it is so incredibly sexy I wanted to jump through the screen and cut in, with the hope that she would repeat it to me.
Stone and Eisenberg have such a nice, natural chemistry in this moment as well as the one near the end of the movie that I wouldn’t mind seeing them paired up in another romantic comedy down the road. You see this coupling a mile away but it is unexpectedly heartfelt and touching. It’s very difficult not to smile when they interact like this.
Just before the amusement park conclusion, Tallahassee decides to move to Mexico to start a new life while Columbus becomes deeply concerned for the ladies. Sadly, he’s not very smooth on a motorcycle (a very funny moment). Realizing how much he cares for the kid (and the girls), Tallahassee instantly changes his mind and they’re off to Pacific Palisades, the aforementioned fun zone. In an even earlier scene, the Tennessee native teaches Little Rock how to shoot a target: take a deep breath, exhale and fire. The tip comes in handy in the third act.
Usually, when you see a trailer for a film, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect when you see the actual movie. You might even have an early sense about whether you’ll like it or hate it. More often than not, these initial impressions will solidify into final opinions after complete screenings. In other words, your instincts will turn out to be correct. The promotional campaign for Zombieland was so underwhelming four years ago, one could be forgiven for having such low expectations. Now having finally screened it, I understand why it has garnered so much praise. It is the best romantic action zombie comedy I’ve ever seen.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, September 20, 2013