'Zombieland': Drop Dead Funny?
Mary Pols, Special to MSN Movies
On the way out of an advance screening of director Ruben Fleischer's "Zombieland," one young man said to another young man, "that makes me want to go out to the shooting range." His friend helpfully suggested they visit the one in Oakland, where assault rifles can apparently be sampled. They were very satisfied customers. I scuttled to the bathroom and contemplated my own shortcomings as a critic: a lack of enthusiasm for exploding heads and meals of entrails.
"Zombieland" is ostensibly a dark comedy of the road trip variety, but at heart it is splatter porn, designed to show us the various ways in which a zombie or a human can be put to bloody rest. I've never seen such loving attention on-screen to the ways a body hitting the ground from various great distances might look: butt first, back first and the final frontier, a mom flying out of a minivan to land face first. Fleischer leaves no method of bloody re-execution unexplored. If you can get past that, and if you weren't foolish enough to have, say, a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs in advance of seeing it, you, like those young shooting range fans, will have a lot of fun.
For starters, "Zombieland" features Woody Harrelson in the kind of role he is uniquely qualified to play: sadistic yet kind of sweet. He is Tallahassee, a well-armed, enthusiastic road warrior who has accepted the limitations of a new America, one ravaged by a strain of mad cow disease that adapted into a mad person plague. Cities have been destroyed. The highways are littered with abandoned cars (and even an occasional downed jet). Almost everyone is dead. And yet Tallahassee carries on in his quest to enjoy the little things, namely guns, cars and Twinkies.
Tallahassee isn't particularly interested in company, but in a postapocalyptic America, you take what you can get. That's how he ends up sharing an Escalade with Jesse Eisenberg, who plays the film's nerdy, nervous narrator Columbus (the humans are named for the cities they hail from, or long for, or which sound good). A friendless loner who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome and an overdeveloped sense of caution, Columbus has stayed alive by following a set of rules that include always putting a second bullet in a seemingly vanquished zombie (do they die? Or just get broken into bits?) and exercising great caution while entering restrooms.
Eisenberg may be doomed to be typecast as a virgin until he's 40, but so far it's been entirely a pleasure to watch him do exactly that. He was great in "Adventureland" (such a good movie) "The Squid and the Whale" and "Roger Dodger." He's like a less bashful Michael Cera, one you can imagine growing up someday.
As appealing as Eisenberg and Harrelson are as comic foils, more humans are needed, and to that end a pair of sisters are introduced: Wichita (Emma Stone), a hot grifter, and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a tough little pre-adolescent cookie. They, more goal oriented than the men, are making for the West Coast, where they hope to find an amusement park called Pacific Playland open for zombie-free business. It sounds like a place to search for Twinkies -- I wish I found Tallahassee's longing for one funnier -- and the end of virginity, so Tallahassee and Columbus join up with them. The combination of Harrelson, Eisenberg and Breslin in a car, discussing the finer points of Hannah Montana's celebrity, is a pretty sweet one, and Fleischer makes the best of it. There's also an inspired sequence in Los Angeles involving a classic celebrity spoofing himself that is best left unspoiled.
The popular wisdom is that it's always been hard to go wrong with zombies. In recent years we've had the pleasure of being terrified by them in "28 Days Later" and laughing at them in the blissfully absurd British comedy "Shaun of the Dead" (which may have made them harder to take seriously in 2004's "other" zombie movie, the remake of George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead"). Yet I'll confess to some blasphemous, anti-walking-dead thoughts during the zombie sequences in "Zombieland." Things like this: As villains go, aren't they kind of boring? It's not like they do anything except foam at the mouth and eat people.
The blame, however, doesn't rest on the zombies. It's with the calculated use of them in "Zombieland." Not particularly scary, and not particularly funny, they're just props for special effects, excuses to squish some heads and get an appealingly ironic combination of actors together. As the movie arrives at its dramatic climax at Pacific Playland (as beautifully shot as anything involving buckets of tomato sauce can be), you realize that the screenwriters had no real conclusion in mind. The whole thing is a setup for the next installment of "Zombieland." Anything to get the audience back to the cinematic shooting range.www.maryfpols.com.