Unlike your average slow-building living dead flick, there will be no gradual realisations, no questions about how to kill the bastards, no wondering what the hell these dead people are doing still walking around – this is Zombieland, and the world has already gone to shit.
Harrelson loves this role, you can tell from the moment he pulls up on screen in his modified ride and pulls out his gun.
Ever since ‘Patient Zero’ ate a dodgy burger and came back from the dead (sort of like Marty in Disney’s Teen Angel, as made by George A Romero), the world just hasn’t been the same.
On this impersonal planet, Jesse Eisenburg is Columbus (because that’s where he’s heading), a neurotic loner with IBS. How has he survived when everyone else is dead meat walking? He obeys the rules, which his voiceover guide helpfully shares with the viewers to give them a chance of Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse, should it ever arise.
After the girl of his dreams tries to eat him, Columbus heads off in search of a familiar, less bloody face. Then he meets Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee, a liquor swilling, zombie killing, redneck stereotype whose only weaknesses are Twinkies and rage. Harrelson loves this role, you can tell from the moment he pulls up on screen in his modified ride and pulls out his gun. And so he should, it’s one of his best yet, second only to Kingpin.
This odd couple have strangely good chemistry, with Columbus’ social awkwardness up against Tallahassee’s give-a-shit mentality (“Careful, you almost knocked over your liquor with your… knife.”). Tallahassee’s reasoning is that if you’ve got to kill something, you might as well have fun while you’re at it. Banjos, car doors and trusty double barrels, this old redneck is in the ass-kicking business, “and business is good”.
They soon add two sisters, Little Rock (the budding Abigail Breslin) and the sultry Wichita (Emma Stone) to their little family and, after a few minor disputes involving weaponry and car thievery, head off together across the treacherous Zombieland.
With the world completely overrun by zombies already, there isn’t much to drive the plot forward other than a basic need to survive. Tallahassee wants Twinkies, Columbus wants a family and the two sisters are focussed on getting to the one place that big sis Wichita has said isn’t overrun by zombies. No, it isn’t some mythical utopia, it’s Pacific Playland, an amusement park from their childhood.
This is where the film sets itself apart – there’s no I Am Legend get out clause, no secret government escape pod, there’s just a sweet lie, told by one sister to another. A lie that comes back to haunt, stalk and chow down, naturally.
Zombieland makes a conscious effort to be an individual in this often reanimated genre. The cheeky appearances of Columbus’ rules that recurrently pop up on screen see to this. When you can’t run away (Rule #1 Cardio), don’t be shy about shooting your zombie twice in the head (Rule #2 Double Tap) before jumping into your getaway vehicle (Rule #31 Check the Backseat) and hotfooting it out of there (Rule #4 Seatbelts). Simple. It’s Eisenberg’s charming ineptitude that makes this device work so well.
Horror fans be warned – the opening slow-mo zombie montage is about as leisurely as these corpses get. These are sprinting zombies. OK, traditionalists, so there isn’t that claustrophobic, trapped sensation you’re likely to get with a classic Romero, but make no mistake, what this film lacks in suspense it makes up for in humour and gore.
Thanks to the excellent script, the humour is constant, clever and usually macabre. A car owner’s hands are all that’s left on a steering wheel, the gang have a quick squirt of the sanitary gel after disposing of a body and Columbus’ reaction to seeing, against the odds, a “marriageable woman” who is actually alive, is genuinely priceless.
Despite the film being on a grander scale than a certain comedy horror Brit-flick, much like Zombieland’s motto – it’s the little things that count. Whether it’s Abigail Breslin’s Little Rock trying to explain Hannah Montana to Harrelson’s addled cowboy or the surreal trip to a celebrity’s mansion, Zombieland might play dead but it knows where its heart is. Maybe it’s because this is a horror film that goes for the funny bone, but these are four characters that you will genuinely care about.
There will always be negatives. To say that the whole world is a zombie, they’re relatively sparse on the ground (a possible throwback from the relatively small budget). Most of the dead are grossly obese – the fat ones are the first to go, Columbus explains sadly – so presumably that means that they ate everyone else.
Following up the excellent Eighties nostalgia-drenched Adventureland with this zombie fest and its theme park finale might actually render Jesse Eisenberg with the most specific typecasting possible. But luckily for Eisenberg (you know, the theme park kid), it was a wise move. Ultimately, this is a defiantly self-aware, sharp comedy horror with superb dialogue. It follows its own set of rules but never strays too far from what it’s all about – killin’ zombies. Rule #32 – enjoy the little things.
Zombieland (15) is on general release now.