These Rules Are For Your Own Safety, People
USA // 2009 // Ruben Fleischer // October 8, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B - In the wake of Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, a film that managed to be both achingly funny and rather vicious, it was probably a safe bet that another genuinely imaginative zombie horror-comedy would be a long time coming. Happily, a scant five years later, Ruben Fleischer, in his assured feature film debut, delivers a zombie film that should make any aficionado of the genre stand up and whoop with delight. There's nothing particularly artful about Zombieland, which is exactly the creature it appears to be, no more, no less: the comical tale of a group of ragtag survivors at the end of world. Is it unambitious? Certainly. It's also damn funny and even occasionally exhilarating, if only as an example of film-makers uncovering fresh meat in a horror scenario nearly drained of its power by direct-to-DVD mediocrity. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who wet their beaks in television, don't go looking for a new wrinkle to add to the zombie film's now well-establish parameters. Instead, they change the angle of their approach, throwing their sympathy behind the misfits for whom life in undead America isn't an especially difficult adjustment.
Our narrator for this little jaunt through the post-Zombocalypse U.S. is known only by the name of his hometown, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg). A self-effacing dork who admits he spent his pre-zombie life playing World of Warcraft and guzzling Mountain Dew, Columbus is one of America's last breathing humans. He's not the most likely survivor, but his personality traits have kept him among the living: he's naturally wary, utterly lacking in sentimentality, comfortable with loneliness, and, most importantly, compulsive. Columbus has a list of rules for survival in the land of the dead, you see, and in what is easily the film's most enjoyable flourish, he explains them with voiceover narration, animated text, and concrete examples. Rule # 1: Cardio. (Develop your stamina, as the fatties were the first to get caught, bitten, and turned). Rule #2: Douple Tap. (Always finish a zombie off with a second shot.) And so on.
Columbus eventually joins up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), who is a tall drink of southern-fried orneriness most of the time, except when he's whacking zombies, and then he turns downright gleeful. The pair then quickly fall in with Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a pair of ruthless, sweet-as-sugar grifters who somehow manage flawless hair and makeup even in the aftermath of civilization. Fleischer and his performers maintain a sense of rumpled sympathy for each of these four principals, keeping both the characters' essential humanity as well as their frustrating flaws close to the surface. In contrast to most zombie films, no shifty traitor or natural victim emerges within the group. All four are dead serious about surviving, and while they are suspicious and hardened by life in Zombieland, none of them are Bad People. Fleischer primes us to share the elation of their victories, even when those victories are as simple as living to see another dawn or the sweet pleasure of an unspoiled Twinkie. (Rule #31: Enjoy the Little Things.)
On the horror-comedy spectrum, Zombieland is tilted decisively toward the comedy end of things. Fleischer doesn't strike the same exquisite balance of wit, pathos, and grisly terror that Shaun achieved, but that's perfectly acceptable, since he isn't aiming for it. Zombieland is most concerned with the funny, and on that score it acquits itself nicely. (The film's only significant moment of poignant, despairing horror proves to be a clever fake-out.) The writing is sharp and pleasurable without coming off as excessively droll given the ghastly circumstances, and the film gets plenty of mileage out of the essential absurdity of zombie film tropes. There may be a saturation point where zombies getting smacked with car doors stops being an inherently ticklish sight, but I don't believe we've reached it yet. The film-makers wisely keep the self-aware preciousness to a minimum, and while Zombieland assumes that you've seen your share of zombie films before, the characters don't speak openly of the genre's conventions. Columbus and his allies don't know they're in a zombie film. Rather, they seem to be wandering through the backlots of higher profile zombie films, codifying the rules of engagement that the characters of those other films should be following, if they were smart.
Eisenberg, who has often been unfavorably compared to Michael Cera, emerges as a smart casting choice. His awkwardness isn't particularly charming, but as a narrator his observations sound like the wisdom of a kid who's been kicked around the block more than once, and his criticisms of himself and his companions have real bite. Harrelson demonstrates that his best comedic niche is a gentle parody of a drawling tough guy, whom we don't mind cheering when he kicks ass and snickering at when he deserves it. While Stone and Breslin aren't as memorable, they adeptly sell the thick slathering of feminine swagger that Wichita and Little Rock sling around, whether of the lithe Bad Girl variety (Stone) or no-nonsense preteen pluck (Breslin).
Which leads me to the film's most aggravating problem: the complete abandonment of the reasonably equal footing it gives to its male and female leads in the third act, in favor of an old-fashioned damsel-in-distress rescue mission. It's not just the presence of this contrived twist that annoys. It's the fact that it's predicated on Wichita and Little Rock making an unbelievably stupid decision with virtually no thought to the consequences. In other words, it's a glaringly unrealistic and insulting plot development, given that these young women have been surviving by their wits for untold months in the zombie wastelands of America. It doesn't help that this coincides with Zombieland's stumble into that unfortunately common trap for all modern comedies: the lethal loss of narrative steam in the third act, which runs a little too long for its own good. Fleischer loses his way somewhat at this point, and his marvelously entertaining zombie comedy becomes a routine zombie actioner. The tone of the film has already established that nothing truly tragic is going to happen before the credits roll, so it's strictly a matter of waiting for the heroes to pull off their escape, however they manage it. Unfortunately, action without tension leads to tedium, and while Woody Harrelson mowing down zombies with pistols blazing is at least cursorily entertaining, it feels like a downshift from the engaging humor that predominates elsewhere in the film.
These complaints aside, however, Zombieland is an almost shamefully pleasurable ride, especially if, like me, you have an unreasonable affection for all things zombie-related, and perhaps even if you don't. Fleischer delivers the sort of slick entertainment that gives slick entertainment a good name, a gratifying and gleeful slice of adult storytime that is worth every penny of that multiplex ticket.