There are rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse. And our hero, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), fills us in on some of the most important in the opening minutes of the comedy Zombieland. Cardio is important, we are told, due to the need to outrun the hordes of living dead. It brings to mind the old joke about only needing to run faster than the person next to you if you want to survive the charge of a hungry lion. As soon as he explains to us some of the more important rules, Columbus does us the courtesy of showing exactly why it is important that they be followed.
And with that, we’re on a tour of the United States after a zombie plague has decimated the country. Columbus is one of the few survivors, a loner whose years of video game playing has managed to equip him for staying alive. While trying to make his way back home to Ohio to see if any of his family has survived, he meets up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), another survivor on his way to Florida and who takes peculiar delight in dispatching the undead. While the two make uneasy travelling companions, they both find themselves united when they meet a pair of scam artists sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who steal Tallahassee’s truck. The four eventually join forces to head towards California and an abandoned amusement park.
The first half of Zombieland is fairly episodic, a series of comedy sketches that serve the triple function of slowly bringing our characters together, exploring the post-zombie apocalypse world they are travelling through and turning the conventions of zombie movies on their ear. Once the quartet starts heading west towards the amusement park the narrative solidifies a bit, think National Lampoon’s Vacation Of The Living Dead or Hope and Crosby on the Road To 28 Days Later. The laughs range from slapstick, and in some cases splatstick, to the way that mundane details still survive in the new, zombie overrun world, as exemplified by a zombie bursting out of a gas station men’s room with a ribbon of toilet paper stuck to its shoe. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There’s one sequence that comes at the mid-point of the movie that is so funny, I don’t want to even hint at it, lest I spoil its surprises.
If the script stutters anywhere, it is in the theme park-set finale. While Columbus definitely needs his heroic moment to complete his character arc, it comes at the slight expense of Little Rock and Wichita’s characters, who are relegated down to damsel-in-distress status to facilitate it. This is distressing, as up until that point, both girls are written as being smarter than either Columbus or Tallahasee, and it seems unlikely that the would have made the tactical mistake of backing themselves into a figurative corner the way they do.
Although a horror comedy, the film definitely leans more towards the laughs than the scares. That’s not to say that Zombieland still doesn’t contain a few genuine scares. And gore hounds will be pleased to know that many of the zombie kills are both hilarious and messy, especially once the story arrives at the amusement park. Director Rueben Fleischer keeps things moving along nicely, bringing some visual flair when needed, in sequences involving Colombus’s rules for survival for example, and rightfully keeping it out of the way of the story at other times.