Friday, October 2, 2009

Review: Zombieland

Today Zombieland opens, and if you're like me, you were probably just thinking to yourself wow, you know what I haven't seen in ages? A zombie movie. I could really go for a zombie movie right now. Sarcasm aside, Zombieland is at least a mild winner for being light, quirky, and self-aware enough to have some fun at its own expense.

Zombieland stars Jesse Eisenberg, whom we might as well call the "poor man's Michael Cera" right here and now. He's fresh from starring in Adventureland, and I can't help but think that missing out on Land of the Lost might have nearly killed his career. The film also stars Woody Harrelson, but don't be fooled, he's there to put a name on the marquis. It's Eisenberg's film.

When making a zombie apocalypse film, you have to ask yourself a few questions: What kind of zombies are we dealing with, i.e., how did it start? How do the survivors survive? What are the survivors trying to accomplish? How will it all end in a memorable bloodbath?

The zombies in Zombieland are the fast-moving variety. The outbreak started with an infected hamburger that carried a mutant strain of Mad Cow Disease, which turns humans into raging, bloodthirsty, mindless... well, zombies, along with anyone they bite. Eisenberg plays Columbus. And here I will break for a moment. The movie subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) points out the similarities between our nameless, stoic, insane heroes and the nameless, stoic, insane hordes. For most of the film, we don't know anyone's real name. Columbus is called "Columbus" because he's from Columbus, Ohio. His neighbor, back when the outbreak started, was "406". Anywho.

Columbus is going back home to try and find his parents when he meets up with "Tallahassee" (Harrelson), who is basically playing a funnier Bruce Willis. He starts out pretty one-dimensional, killing things because he enjoys killing and trying to find the sacred snack cake... a Twinkie. He and Cera--whoops, I mean Columbus--team up if only briefly because they're going more or less the same way and have found their union convenient, if not necessarily pleasant. En route they meet "Witchita" (Emma Stone) and "Little Rock" (Abigail Breslin, in the only role I've ever liked her in so far) who are sisters heading West to Los Angeles so they can visit Pacific Playland, which they hear is zombie-free.

The flow the story (and the tone) revolve around Columbus' rules, a list of mandates for himself that he writes on a little pad and constantly updates and adds to. Columbus was kind of a bookish, WOW-ish, shut-in before the apocalypse. He spent most of his life avoiding people, a tendency that turned out to serve him well once people became deadly. And he has found some very practical axioms that he chooses to share. There's "Limber up" and "Beware of bathrooms" and "Don't be a hero", but the first and ostensibly most important is "Cardio". Exercise. You can't outrun the horde if you're overweight and/or out of breath. These rules are represented visually and often show up as scene punctuation and transitional material (not unlike the rules from Fight Club).

The one thing I'll bring up is that the film knows what it is. It knows that zombies are a bit played-out at this point, so it has some fun with the topic. Oh, we get our fair share of gore, but it's generally fun gore. I particularly remember a shot of businessmen being chased by a blood-covered zombie in a G-string and pasties. The movie doesn't expect to be taken too seriously, but it offers wild surprises and meta-humor where a more serious film would have been stoic and tormented. Which is not to say that there isn't some melancholy under the mirth. Our four survivors are all heading someplace that they've heard is free of zombies, but deep down, they all know it isn't true. They just want to keep moving, because it's kept them alive so far.

As for the ending, I won't give it away, but it's called Zombieland and two of our characters are on their way to a theme park, so feel free to start drawing conclusions. All told, it was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend an evening. Kinda fun, kinda jaunty, kinda cool, and fairly fast-paced. It got a little cheesy in places, and there was an extended cameo in the middle that dragged on for a bit too long and then ended in a fairly obvious plot twist (albeit a pleasantly absurd one).

Oh, and the music was rock-solid. So that's a plus.

So if you get a chance, see it. Take the kids.


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