I like Zombieland a lot, but I feel guilty about it. When I step back and think about it logically, there are two reasons why I feel like I shouldn’t enjoy Zombieland as much as I do.
The first reason is the fast zombies. When it comes to horror, especially zombies, I’m a bit of a purist. My entire left arm is taken up by a tattoo of zombies swarming the flaming ruins of Seattle, which, if anything, is indicative of my love-hate relationship with my city. As for the zombies, as with comic book adaptations, I’m pretty good at setting my puritanical fanaticism aside for a couple of hours. I even like the 28 Days movies, and didn’t hate the Dawn of the Dead remake as much as I should have. Still, I don’t truly consider them zombies if they can sprint.
The new breed of horror fanatics toss around an argument about fast zombies that goes something like this, “There’s nothing scary about slow zombies, you can just walk away from them.” True. After the impending zombie apocalypse, in whatever form it takes, you probably won’t get run down by a single, slow zombie. That’s not the point, thorught. The point is that zombies are scary despite being slow.
The core argument of fast zombie proponents is inherently flawed. Proponents of fast zombies confuse zombie movies with action movies, while in reality zombie movies are more akin to suspense movies. Sure, a fast reanimated body is more likely to jump out of a shadowy bush, and a foot race across a parking lot will provide a quick burst of adrenaline, but a swarm of rotting zombies, gradually moving towards you over a field, creates tension and suspense. Every time you look at them they are closer, creeping towards you and your loved ones. The effect harkens back to Hitchcock’s maxim that you don’t just show the bomb go off, true tension lies in watching the timer tick down.
Zombies are inevitable, a force of nature, like a glacier. If you are a decent shot with a hunting rifle you can sit there and pick them off one at a time, but you are going to run out of ammunition, and they are not going to stop. You can out run them for now, but you get tired, you have to sleep, you have feelings and emotions, and get frightened and make rash decisions that will ultimately get you killed. They will never stop, and they will get you.
The real focus of zombie movies is rarely the zombies themselves. The best of the genre hold a mirror up to society, exposing the ugliness of humankind, and all of that fun stuff. That is why the 28 Days movies, and even the new Dawn of the Dead, manage to work, despite the fleet-footed zombies. These movies let you watch the breakdown of humanity, the dissolution of societal standards and morals in the face of extreme opposition. Take away the trappings and pretense of society, and what remains is as visceral and raw as the zombies themselves.
The issue of slow versus fast zombies is really one of protracted suspense and tension versus momentary jolt. This is my major criticism of modern horror in general. Too many movies go for that fleeting, jump-out-of-a-closet-and-yell-boo, kind of scare, and not enough actually focus on elements that create a lasting fright, a fright that sticks with you as you walk out of the theater across a dark, empty parking lot.
The second reason I feel like I shouldn’t like Zombieland is the accessibility. This is where my elitist, I-know-more-about-zombie-movies-than-you leaning rear its ugly head. It used to take effort to find zombie movies. You used to have to hunt down all of the obscure Italian zombie films. You had to scour every video store in town, hoping that one of them happened to have a copy of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. Finding a copy of Zombi in a second hand store on grainy VHS used to feel like a triumph.
When some theater had a midnight showing of Evil Dead, it was an event that you planned your weekend around. Watching it meant so much more when you had to work to get it.
Now zombies are everywhere. On one hand this means that your collection is much more extensive, and you’ve been able to find movies you couldn’t before, and you’re actually be able to see them, because, lets be honest here, some of those VHS copies you found were so degraded, copied so many times, that you couldn’t be sure what the hell was happening on screen. On the other hand, this means that movies like Zombieland have enormous opening weekends, and because the success of the genre, everyone with a video camera is going to try to make a zombie movie.
For fans of zombie flicks, this feels like when a band that has been around forever, a band that you’ve loved forever, suddenly hits it big and gets on MTV, and now everyone in the world is talking about this thing that you cherished and held close, and now that you have to share it with millions of people it doesn’t feel as special, anymore. Part of me liked it better when my obsession with the undead wasn’t cool, when it made me the weird kid.
Like I said, there are reasons why I feel like I shouldn’t like Zombieland, but I like Zombieland. I like Zombieland a lot. Zombieland is a good time, and a crazy amount of fun.
Michael Cera lookalike, Jesse Eisenberg, plays Columbus, a neurotic, fearful college student with irritable bowels. There has been an outbreak of a fast acting virus, a mutant strain of mad-cow disease that attacks humans. There is actually a human equivalent of mad-cow, called Kuru, that is transmitted through consumption of brain matter, and often associated with cannibalism. Both diseases are members of the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy clan.
In the wake of this epidemic, the infected turn into zombies. These are not your rising from the grave, shambling, undead zombies, these are humans that have become sick, and the primary symptom of their disease happens to be zombification.
Surviving the initial onslaught that destroys most of humanity, Columbus develops a series of rules for successful living in this new world, which he names Zombieland. They include working on your cardiovascular fitness routine, wearing your seatbelt, and avoiding public bathrooms, to name a few. With nothing better to do, because after the apocalypse there’s really not much going on, Columbus decides that he needs to know for sure what became of his parents, and he sets out on a cross country journey to his home town of, you guessed it, Columbus, Ohio.
At its core, Zombieland is essentially a road movie, sort of a blood-soaked Vanishing Point, or Cannonball Run with blood spewing monsters. Along the road Columbus gets a ride from Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a NASCAR loving, wiseacre redneck, who, in the days following the death of humanity, has found his true calling. His mama always told him he’d find something he was good at, who would’ve thought that would be killing zombies? Tallahassee enjoys the end of the world in a way that few others do.
This unlikely pair stumbles across Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), sisters who are scamming and swindling their way across the country on their way to an amusement park. Yeah, that makes sense.
Along the way, director Ruben Fleisher, and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, manage not only to provide ample zombie action, and a ton of fun, witty laughs, but also a lot of touching, very human moments. Really. This is why Zombieland works so well. If all that this film consisted of was zombies and jokes, then sure, it still be fun, but overall it would be pretty disposable. The people are what elevate the movie above simple camp.
These are complex individuals, well-rounded characters with motives and emotions. The actors don’t just ham it up for the camera, they have secrets and demons and conflicting feelings that lurk beneath the surface. They are all doing what they have to do to survive, trying to find a way to cope with the end of the world and the loss of everything they’ve ever known. What they ultimately find is that what they really need is each other, not only for simple physical survival, but for emotional survival, as well.
Aside from the movie, the DVD release is unspectacular. There’s an enjoyable commentary track, a couple of short production documentaries that hold little interest unless you want to watch artists apply make up and prosthetics to the actors, and five minutes of deleted scenes that were deleted for good reason. Here’s a suggestion: instead of watching any of the extras, just rewind the scene with Bill Murray in it. That alone is worth the price of the DVD.