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ZOMBIELAND
(***)

Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR:" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Ruben Fleischer
Written by:
Rhett Reese,Paul Wernick
Starring:
Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone
Running time:
82 minutes
Released:
10/02/09
Rated R for zombie horror violence/gore and language.
" ...not only does “Zombieland” not stumble at any point, it actually grows and thrives along its splat-sticky way”
“Zombieland” is a film that comes to theaters with a couple of strikes already against it. For starters, it is a movie that tries to combine the comedy and horror genres and as we learned a couple of weeks ago from the disastrous “Jennifer’s Body,” maintaining the proper balance between the two tones is a difficult proposition for even the most skilled filmmakers. Then there is the fact that it focuses on zombies and while those creatures may not be as ubiquitous as vampires these days, there has been enough of a glut of films involving the flesh-eating undead over the last few years to cause even the most devoted fans of such things to question the need for yet another one. Finally, the film’s basic comedic premise--people trying to cope with a world suddenly overrun with zombies--is one that has already been explored at such considerable length in the likes of “Shaun of the Dead” and the Max Brooks guidebook “The Zombie Survival Guide” that most people would be hard-pressed to think of a joke on the subject that hadn’t already been deployed at some point. These are the kinds of daunting problems that might have caused most ordinary films to stumble right out of the gate but miraculously, not only does “Zombieland” not stumble at any point, it actually grows and thrives along its splat-sticky way in such a way that it earns itself a place on the same shelf as “Evil Dead 2” and, yes, “Shaun of the Dead.”

Set in the wake of a disaster that has transformed most of the population of America (and presumably elsewhere) into zombies with great speed, impressive numbers and an insatiable taste for human flesh--there is some talk of it being caused by a form of mad-cow diseased inspired by tainted hamburgers--the film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus, a young man who fear of social situations and an obsessive-compulsive disorder that drives him to create rules for everything have allowed him to so far survive the onslaught without losing his mind to loneliness or his body parts to his formerly human neighbors. On the road to Ohio to see if his parents are still alive, he comes across another human survivor in the form of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a good ol’ boy who is simultaneously obsessed with killing zombies in the most creative ways imaginable and with rounding up as many of mankind’s final Twinkies as possible. (His biggest nightmare is stumbling upon an abandoned Hostess truck and finding it filled with nothing but Sno-Balls.) Eventually, the two come across a pair of sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who are heading west for an amusement park in California that is supposedly zombie-free. Columbus and Tallahassee decide to go along for the ride and along the way, the four kill a lot of zombies, make one wholly unexpected detour and arrive at the park only to discover that it doesn’t come quite as advertised.

In essence, “Zombieland” is pretty much a one-joke movie for the most part, one of the delightful things about it is how director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick take that single joke and spin it off in hilarious and sometimes unexpected directions, most of which I cannot even hint at so as not to spoil any of the gags (in both senses of the word).. Many people will no doubt compare this film to “Shaun of the Dead” and while it does have some inevitable similarities, it actually plays more like a weirdo version of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” with more corpses on display than Imogene Coca than anything else--a literal road trip through Hell with an amusement park serving as a symbol of peace and deliverance (if only they could have figured out a way to get a zombie John Candy in there as a security guard.)--and while it may seem weird to praise a film for more closely resembling one older movie instead of another one, this approach does make the material seem a little fresher than it might have otherwise seemed. The four stars do a good job of bouncing off of each other while somehow figuring out how to ground the increasingly surreal comedy in real emotions--Harrelson is exceptionally good as a borderline psycho with a foul-mouthed quip and a gory method of dispatch for every occasion and an understandable reason for why he is the way he is. On the genre-straddling front, it is refreshing to note that while it does lean more towards the humorous, it does have a couple of actual scares here and there (the early scene in which Columbus is attacked in his apartment by newly zombified neighbor Amber Heard is both funny and tense) and it certainly doesn’t skimp on the red stuff. Finally, and most importantly, it knows when enough is enough--the film clocks in at a lean and mean 90 minutes and wisely comes to a conclusion at just the point when it might have begun to finally run out of gas.

However, the funniest segment of “Zombieland”--the one that would make the whole thing worth seeing even if the rest of it had misfired--is the one that only a complete monster would dream of revealing in total to someone who hasn’t had a chance to see it. Without going into detail, I will only mention that during the aforementioned unexpected detour, they come across perhaps the last person that you would expect to see in these circumstances and in perhaps the last condition that you might expect to see them in. (However, do not under any circumstances click on to the “Zombieland” page at IMDB because the monsters in charge over there have listed the person in the credits and who they play.) What transpires from this point, I leave for you to discover except to note only a couple of things. First, the scene allows the film to pay explicit tribute to another notable scare comedy whose bent sense of humor was clearly and influence here. Second--if the final on-screen words uttered by this person do not cause you to actually laugh, you may want to check your pulse because there is a very good chance that you may be a zombie as well. The finale of “Zombieland” takes the action to a theme park setting, and Fleischer isn’t afraid to abuse the neon-lit carnival iconography to backdrop the mounting, snarling body count. It’s a terrific closer on an unexpectedly inspired film. Perhaps losing the box office clout to all things vampire these days, zombies retain a distinctive screen presence, and “Zombieland” knows just how to treat the plague: roughly and uproariously.

ZOMBIELAND © Sony Pictures Releasing
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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