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Fun, with Zombies

By (November 1, 2009) No Comment


Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Columbia Pictures, 2009

Zombieland is a great comedy and a film about the meaning of family. Sure, there are plenty of flesh eating zombies, and even a pair of stripper’s nipple-tassels in the opening sequence, but when it comes down to it, this is a film about the importance of family and friends.

While I really enjoyed Zombieland, I must first caution that it is not a horror movie. Yes, it does have zombies (and plenty of them), but the undead alone do not a horror film make. If all you needed was an undead monster, Twilight would be horror (instead of horrible) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre would not be a horror film because everyone in the film is technically human.

Film critic Robin Wood famously categorized horror movies by saying that they require just three things: the monster, the normal, and more crucially, their relationship. Zombieland has monsters, but they’re not monstrous. They’re framed more as nuisances, or good marks for target practice, but they are never a terrifying threat in the film. Though there are a few close calls, all of our main characters make it out of the film alive. Also, Zombieland does not really explore the relationship between zombies and humans. The zombies are great comic relief, but they are more like scenery (and obstacle courses) than anything else. Zombieland has enough living-dead fun to satisfy the biggest genre fan’s bloodlust, but don’t expect to be terrified.

Zombieland focuses on the life of a college undergraduate (Jesse Eisenberg) as he tries to navigate the post-zombie world. It’s been about two months since the zombie plague hit the United States, which has left very few people around. In fact, this film only has four living characters in it – well, five if you count a brief but wonderful cameo (which I won’t spoil) – all identified by their hometowns rather than any actual names. Columbus (Eisenberg) lives in the new version of America, called Zombieland. He follows his own set of rules (“always wear your seatbelt,” for instance, or “limber up” before zombie-killing – stuff like that) and he’s a bit uptight. It’s his organization and general anxiousness that helps him survive in the zombie infested world. Columbus narrates most of the film through a “Wonder Years” like voice over. He gets us caught up to speed on the beginning of the zombie outbreak, and even thought he’s a generally quiet guy we can still understand how he is feeling throughout the film through his voiceovers. We learn that Columbus did not go through a lot of change, or personal growth to survive in the apocalypse. He was an isolated, World of Warcraft playing nerd, who had not seen his family in quite some time and had no friends. This was all fine by him, because Columbus actually preferred his isolation. Being alone was not complicated, whereas the first time he ever got some affection from the opposite sex, she turned into a zombie while in his arms and tried to eat him. So much for branching out.

As Columbus is making his way down the highway one day he encounters Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), and they decide to team up for as long as Tallahassee can stand Columbus’s irritating ways. Tallahassee has survived in Zombieland by sheer violence; he’s nearly the exact opposite of Columbus. Crude and uneducated, he doesn’t like Columbus’ Zombieland survival rules – especially since he’s on a quest of his own: he’s looking for Twinkies. He is so dedicated to his pursuit that he even endangers their lives to find them. Tallahassee gets in a few good kills (he prefers baseball bats, banjos and garden sheers to guns for his zombie eliminations) but in this situation, the zombies are the least of their worries. In the grocery store they encounter a pair of con artist sisters (living sisters, obviously; zombies make poor grifters) who take Tallahassee’s truck, both of the guy’s guns, and ride off on their own. Thankfully, they are in the south, where big cars and guns are fairly easy to come by. After the robbery, Tallahassee is bent on revenge and Columbus has developed a crush on the older sister, Wichita (Emma Stone, the sober hot chick in Superbad). Now we have a plot for the film!

The rest of the film focuses on the changing relationships between these four characters. A fair amount of blame and revenge get tossed from the guys, to the sisters, and back again. Somehow they actually get to the point where they can trust one another and even have fun together. The group is making their way from Texas to southern California to visit Pacific Playland (a non-copyrighted stand-in for Disneyland, one unkillable evil apparently being all the movie’s budget could sustain). At first Wichita says they’re headed there because it is known to be completely zombie free, but later she confesses to Columbus that she just wants to take her sister Little Rock (Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin) someplace where she can be a kid again. So Tallahassee and Columbus go along for the ride because they don’t have much else to do, and we can tell that they’re both a little relieved to find two other living people to be around. As they drive to the West Coast, the three adults take turns giving driving (and life) lessons to Little Rock, chatting as if the end of the world had not yet happened. In one great montage sequence we get to see all of their various conversations. Columbus nervously asking Wichita about her seatbelt preferences. Little Rock explaining to Tallahassee the difference between Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana. It’s nice to see all of them getting along and just enjoying each other’s company.

One of the most satisfying scenes in the film is the brief stop at a tourist trap that sold Native American themed tchotchkes. Zombie films have a long tradition of consumerism, so it makes sense that this group would do a little shopping at one point. The scene starts out with the girls trying on hats, and the guys spraying each other jokingly with perfume, but after one dropped glass bottle it quickly devolves into a joyous demolition sequence. Stuffed animals are thrown up into the air and shot like clay targets. Entire glass displays are knocked over, sending the rest of the shelving units in the store into a cascade of rubble. Little Rock running (in slow motion of course) through a downpour of feathers while wearing a headdress and carrying a knockoff tomahawk. This is needed catharsis for the whole group; they haven’t been able to let their guard down and have a good time in quite a while.

It’s interesting to contrast the harmless fun of Zombieland’s shop scene to the often heavey-handed moralizing of similar scenes in other zombie films. Both Dawn of the Dead and Land of the Dead show the greed and indulgence in post-apocalyptic shopping as reaping negative consequences. A good amount of time in Dawn of the Dead is devoted to what happens when a group of Americans lock themselves into a shopping mall to weather the zombie apocalypse. The group indulges in all that the mall has to offer, and they even rob the mall’s bank for good measure. Their eyes are filled with dollar signs, even though money has no value anymore. When your friend comes back from the dead and tries to eat your face, you should not be concerned with currency. In Land of the Dead one character essentially sacrifices another character’s life because he wants to grab some cigars before he heads back into town.

Things are more innocent in Zombieland; the characters aren’t interested in the goods at all – at most they half-heartedly covet, in the offhand way of window-shoppers. And I could make a case for their destruction pointing to Americans not putting the same value in goods now as they have in the past (i.e. no longer dreaming about it to the point where it becomes a payoff of living in a zombie-infested dystopia), but the fact remains that nothing in that shop has any real value – and our characters realize that. The shop is filled with junk, and by destroying the junk our characters are helping get back to what matters in life, which is friends and family.

You may have noticed that I haven’t much mentioned zombies – you might even find that odd in a review of a zombie movie. Fear not: zombies might not be the sole or even main focus of this film, but as noted, there are plenty of them around. Columbus explains that the zombie outbreak started through a virus. He fills us in: “You know mad cow? Well mad cow became mad person, became mad zombie.” During the west-bound road trip, they are often swerving around zombies that are eating people right in the middle of the road, or in Tallahassee’s case aiming for them to make new road, er, un-kill. Zombieland also has one of the greatest opening title sequences in any zombie film to date. It features shot after shot of zombies chasing people, in slow motion, all to the sounds of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. The song itself is both dark and high energy, as if the devil himself is somehow chasing you with guitar riffs. That paired with shot after shot of blood-covered zombies, spewing black bile and chasing terrified humans, makes for one entirely satisfying introduction. These creatures range from a stripper zombie, clad in little more than tassled pasties, to a zombie that is on fire chasing a firefighting human. The entire sequence is delightful and sets up a fun film. And fun is what we get; Zombieland wants you to smile and laugh. Not smile and laugh and then get the frijoles scared out of you. Just smile and laugh.

In the end, the sisters have learned to trust the men, Columbus gets to first base with Wichita, Tallahassee gets his Twinkies, and this oddly matched foursome has made their own version of a family in Zombieland. Columbus closes the film saying, “Without other people, you might as well be a zombie.” A little sentimental, but a good reminder nonetheless.

Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston, wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero, and works too much.

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