There’s a scene in Zombieland where Woody Harrelson’s character -- a scenery-chewing hillbilly named “Tallahassee” – stumbles upon an abandoned Hummer stocked with heavy-duty assault rifles, and gleefully chuckles, “I love rednecks!” At that moment, the film winkingly points out something about the rapidly-developing “zombie apocalypse” genre: once upon a time, in the old George Romero days, it may have reflected our worst fears of societal disintegration coming true. Now, it’s more like wish fulfillment. Imagine a countryside denuded of government, in which we are free to pursue our destiny, aided by self-reliance, fierce independence, and lots of guns to blow away the unwashed masses trying to take our stuff. The Zombie apocalypse is a libertarian paradise.
Like its British predecessor, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland riffs playfully off of tropes that have been quietly collecting, movie by movie, year after year, since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead first arrived four decades ago. Comedy is generated by tension between opposites – the juxtaposition of the gross, over-the-top gore with the self-deprecating, introspective voiceover of Jesse Eisenberg’s nebbish hero; or the off-kilter buddy-movie patter between Eisenberg and Harrelson, who have nothing in common but an ability to survive in a world gone mad. Though the main building-blocks of the plot will seem familiar to devotees of Danny Boyle’s zombie opus 28 Days Later (the abandoned urban landscapes, the road-trip structure, the formation of a tight family unit from a group of rag-tag heroes banding together for survival), everything is tweaked a little further for comic effect. Where a “straight” zombie movie (if such a thing there be) might show the heroes raiding a well-stocked grocery store for essential supplies, Zombieland spins an amusing subplot out of Tallahassee’s endlessly-frustrated obsession with finding a Twinkie to eat. “Enjoy the little things,” is his philosophy – and it becomes one of Eisenberg’s “rules to live by” (one of the film’s smartest running gags, initiated in a virtuoso opening-credits sequence).
The chemistry between Harrelson and Eisenberg is pretty much worth the price of admission, and Eisenberg’s monologues are touchingly callow – we can’t help being a little bit moved by the fact that, in between eviscerating flesh-eating beasties, he really just wants to find a nice girl and get to second base. Less successful than the buddy relationship is the romance between Eisenberg and Emma Stone, who plays the obligatory Female Lead. Stone does serviceable work playing a role whose function shifts from Tough Survivor to Gorgeous Love Interest to Damsel In Distress, but finds few interesting notes along the way. Her character, Wichita, never emerges as a coherent and memorable personality – notably unlike her counterpart in Boyle’s film, played by Naomie Harris.
The stylistically swaggering first half-hour of Zombieland is loads of fun, and the languid second act – the plot finds itself rapidly running out of steam once the characters reach Los Angeles and have no particular motivation to do anything further – is buoyed by a pleasant cameo star turn. By the final act, which culminates in a climactic battle in an amusement park, a sense of obligation rather than inspiration has set in, and film gives off a sense of trying too hard. Still, Harrelson’s presence always keeps the proceedings watchable. As a summation of “the zombie genre till now,” Zombieland does yeoman service – consider it an enjoyable lesson in a pop-culture phenomenon whose growing popularity must bespeak some deeper resonance with current preoccupations. Whether your personal bête noir is economic meltdown, socialist takeover, or global warming, these days you can pick your apocalypse. When the splatter hits the fan, may we all have as much fun as Eisenberg and Harrelson.