When approaching a film titled Zombieland, a certain expectation arises: a bevy of corpses meeting a bloody demise, salient references to a world dominated by the undead, contemporary slick production, and a few laughs thrown in for good measure. Though this reviewer is tempered by an enormous history of zombie fandom, it was hard not to think of Zombieland as a mildly entertaining waste of time.
The story opens, as many do, several months after the zombie apocalypse, this time in the form of a prion variant generally known as mad cow disease. Our protagonist has survived abiding by a series of rules that, in part, explain the fact that he is alone. In short order, however, he is joined by a gung-ho corpse killer and runs afoul of two scheming young ladies, all of whom will help shape his survival in the undead landscape.
Where to begin? The rules, as presented by the protagonist Columbus, played by Jesse Eisenberg, are an uneasy mix of obvious and questionable. If one were to make a list of rules to survive an apocalypse, surely securing food and water would rest at the top, followed by other basic needs before delving into the particulars of evading zombies. As if this weren’t enough, the stylized use of non-diagetic inserts to punctuate each rule seem calculated to generate a lighthearted execution that never truly comes to fruition. As a result, seeing the rules pop up superimposed is more of an annoying distraction than anything else.
Considering that the survivors seek out an amusement park for their final refuge, it would be logical to assume that a light tone would carry with it at least a few gags to temper the obvious liberal application of gore. Instead, Zombieland has barely a belly laugh to be found, and indeed most of the smaller jokes barely elicit a smile. An obvious exception must be had when Woody Harrelson, playing the hard-core Tallahassee, opens his mouth, particularly his throwaway retort “Wanna feel how hard I can punch?” and what must surely be one of the greatest cameos in film history. Sadly, most of the moments predicated on the desire for a laugh fall by the wayside due to an uneven tone and a bevy of generally uninteresting one-liners. Thus, Zombieland feels like a less-appealing riff on the wildly successful Shaun of the Dead.
One would figure Zombieland, not being funnier than Shaun of the Dead, might cover the distance between the two by coming through with a few delectable shocks and enough gore to soak a Lucio Fulci movie. Sadly, there’s hardly a memorable kill to be had; even the ballyhooed piano drop is a disappointing distraction. The light tone, and an obvious desire for a continuing franchise, betrays the protagonists to the point that they can be expected to come away from the proceedings unscathed. As such, there isn’t a lot of tension when any of them are imperiled.
Instead, the focus appears to be on Columbus finding reasons to reintegrate into a more social world; at several points, the zombie apocalypse presents him with opportunities for real relationships that he’d managed to avoid in everyday life. The goal of the story, then, is for him to cultivate those relationships in pursuit of romance and friendship, even if it involves breaking some of his most cherished rules. Unfortunately, once again, the story draws to a close with those relationships blossoming because they need to service some semblance of a plot, not as an organic progression of character arcs. This may seem harsh, but imagine Zombieland removed from the zombies; as an apocalyptic romance, it is severely lacking.
On a more basic level, it’s hard to truly empathize with any of the characters. Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, and especially Woody Harrelson cannot be faulted for playing their parts to the best of their abilities, but when their characters continually make arbitrary decisions to with no basis in logic, a certain lack of identification with them is to be expected.
Why does Tallahassee waste entire clips of ammunition when discovering a weapons cache? Similarly, is it wise to hold a twenty-one gun salute when the result can only be a further diminished bullet supply and the attraction of the undead? Is it believable that an amusement park, with all its lights and sounds, could really be a zombie sanctuary? What’s the point of destroying a knick-knack shop? Wouldn’t the first priority upon entering a supermarket be the allocation of viable foodstuffs? One could say these don’t serve the needs of comedy, but when the jokes are this lacking, it’s hard not to focus on the little things.
Though I tend to avoid spoilers, I feel it’s safe to announce that Zombieland ends with no real resolution, a fact alluded to in the makers lobbying for a sequel with the principal cast and a failed pilot for a series via Netflix. The zombie explosion that began with 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, and Shaun of the Dead has produced much offspring of varying quality, and of those I’ve seen, Zombieland appears to be the slickest effort that is merely going through the motions. Its appeal to the uninitiated appears to be widespread, but by the time the trend has died down, it’s hard to imagine Zombieland remaining the undead touchstone it so clearly wants to be.