How do filmmakers today keep the decaying body of the zombie invasion genre fresh and– so to speak– alive? Decades of offerings focused on the shambling hordes of the undead, many of which exist solely to ape their oft-superior predecessors, have rendered this cornerstone of low-budget indie horror filmmaking inert, arid, and utterly boring. But that hasn’t stopped new filmmakers from tackling the zombie picture with the same unrelenting zeal displayed by the unliving in their efforts to pilfer brains and warm flesh from the bodies of their human victims; in fact, 2004’s Shaun of the Dead seems to have bolstered directors hoping to make their name through depicting their own interpretation of zombie apocalypses by adding something “new” to their own films. (“It’s a zombie invasion…in a high school/strip club!”) Most of them fail in embarrassing fashion, and yet some of them manage to shine by doing what the very best zombie movies tend to do– keep character drama in the forefront, and leave the zombies in the background as window dressing.
Ruben Fleischer appears intimately familiar with the success of this approach to one of our most beloved monsters. His 2009 effort, Zombieland, does much to honor the horror aspects inherent to worldwide zombie takeover without leaving the stuff that makes all of the guts and gore matter to the sidelines. All of it comes down to Fleischer’s cast, a shrewdly matched group of actors with excellent chemistry who together give us something to latch onto besides undead mayhem– though that our rookie director knows how to make said mayhem look great.
Zombieland follows Jesse Eisenberg’s nerdy, twitchy shut-in teen Columbus through the aftermath of rage-zombie (the variety of zombie that results from the mass-spreading of a worldwide contagion and runs incredibly fast) Armageddon; he quickly meets and teams up with Woody Harrelson’s gun-toting, zombie-killing artiste/good-ol’-boy Tallahassee (the characters take their pseudonyms from their places of origin) to continue surviving. Columbus hopes to make it to his namesake in order to find his parents; Tallahassee just wants to find himself a Twinkie in between returning the undead to their rightful and expected state, often through creative and delightfully bloody ways and with an enthusiasm and relish that almost makes us pity the zombies. Almost. The pair eventually add Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) to their number after being duped twice by them; it turns out that the girls are heading for a theme park in California to remind themselves of better days.
Zombieland clocks in at 88 minutes, and a large quantity of that time is spent among the living rather than wading through the dead. In fact, after the film’s amusing and bloody opening– in which we’re treated to snapshots of the end of the world while Columbus rails off a number of rules that he’s come to swear by for survival’s sake– zombie killing immediately takes a backseat to character development. Sure, there are residual zombie kills that are often pretty funny on top of being respectably gory, and the climax is nothing but a zombie-bashing good time, but Zombieland concerns itself much more with how people go on living in a world where their friends and loved ones probably want to eat them alive. Columbus fuels himself with the vain hope that his parents are still alive. Tallahassee takes joy in “the little things”, which can be anything from smashing up an abandoned trading post or eating a Twinkie. (Or killing a zombie with car doors, banjos, gardening shears, chainsaws, and an impressive variety of guns.) Wichita and Little Rock, of course, have the faint dream of Pacific Playland.
And they all have each other, even if their relationships get off to a rocky start.
When Zombieland does get knee-deep in zombie carnage– the promise of which I wager drove the film’s ticket sales– it does so in style. The effect work done on the zombies is pretty top-notch; the monsters are denoted through the judicious application of blood streaks and dirtied clothing, and they look effectively unsettling and grotesque without losing any of the remnants of their former humanity. I imagine that Fleischer and writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese spent a fairly extensive amount of time coming up with the wide variety of zombies that our heroes encounter (Stripper zombie! Bride zombie! Swarm of little girl zombies!) as well as the much, much more numerous and exotic ways in which they’re dispatched. There’s a sense of enthusiasm in every frame of action in Zombieland, and a definite and genuine love for the genre from the writers and the director; these are guys who care enough to find an excuse to drop a piano on a zombie’s head, or use carnival rides as a tool for knocking them off. Like Tallahassee, they find joy in the simple pleasure of obliterating the undead, and it’s that palatable, infectious sort of glee that makes the movie so much fun.
Of course, what enhances all of that ecstatic feeling is the excellent cast. In particular, Harrelson– who allegedly imposed a few rigid requirements on production as terms of his contract; the set had to be environmentally conscious, for one, and Fleischer reportedly had to sustain himself on a vegan diet through all of shooting– shines as the film’s muscle. Frequently hilarious in expression and in his proclamations, he handles the action and comedy ably while never forgetting to let Tallahassee’s humanity come through when called for. (And yes, you will believe that a man will risk death at the hands of zombies just for a single Twinkie.) But Harrelson never overshadows his fellow cast members; Eisenberg proves again that as much as he comes from the same awkward mold as Cera, the two (eerily similar) young men bring very different things to their performances, bringing his staple sense of blissfully unaware social awkwardness to Columbus. Emma Stone meanwhile imbues Wichita with tough chick sensibilities without feeling self conscious enough to keep herself from being vulnerable. Stone brings a wry humor to her performance which meshes well with the personalities of the more didactic Columbus and the reactionary and observational Tallahassee. And last but not least is Abigail Breslin, Little Ms. Sunshine herself. Seeing the child actress spring from Olive Hoover to Little Rock is somewhat remarkable; she handles a shotgun as well as a comedy beat and manages to play off of her childish naivety in a very real way as opposed to making Little Rock too adorable and precious.
Come to Zombieland for the horror genre tropes, stay for the characters. That’s maybe the highest praise I can give Fleischer’s picture. What matters most to you may vary depending on what you go for in your horror films, but the strong through-line examining how people behave in an uncivilized and ruined world should be compelling to anyone. Fleischer, the writers, and the cast together give Zombieland a huge heart (the emotional, not physical, kind)– an element that many genre films today tend to lack. If this is what Fleischer is capable of bringing in his debut, I think we can only look forward to what he might bring in the future.