Zombieland (2009): Ruben Fleischer’s Horror Comedy

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Slight, short, fast and entertaining, “Zombieland,” the simply titled feature debut of Ruben Fleischer, delivers the basic goods, while adding another panel to the rapidly growing genre of horror comedy, or comedy horrors.

While “Zombieland” is not on the same league as the cult item “Shaun of the Dead,” or “An American Werewolf In London” (which is being remade this year), to mention two good samplers, the picture generates enough surprises, scares, and laughs to merit a favorable response from most critics and a more enthusiastic support from the genre’s young fans.
World-premiering last week at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, a proper venue for such fare, “Zombieland” will be released theatrically nationwide by Sony this Friday, October 2, two weeks before Liongate bows its latest Saw installment. (In the course of October, way before Halloween, there will be other horror-zombie-vampire flicks, indicating that the genre with all of its subdivisions is blossoming, often offering young, inexperienced directors a calling card)
It may sound strange, but the best and most pleasing element of this “Zombieland” is not the story-plot, or technical execution and visual style, which are accomplished, but the acting, an element usually not discussed when analyzing zombie or horror pictures. Indeed, in selecting two gifted actors, Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson, who could not have been more different in look, approach and method, not to mention the age difference between them, director Fleischer has made a shrewd choice. While each thespian delivers his lines in a distinctive manner, there’s also strong chemistry between them and some of their joint actions are a blast to behold.
The gifted Eisenberg (known for playing sincere misfits in the recent comedy “Adventureland,” and in the superb Baumbach’s drama “The Squid and the Whale”) plays here another loner-outsider who’s left pretty much on his own. Early on, he has to devise a list of tactics of how to survive in a strange world, populated by zombies, or the undead. 
Scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick offer sort of routine explanation for the tale’s post-apocalyptic world, the usual lethal virus.  In general, with the exception of a few witty lines, the text is uninspired and uneventful, and the picture’s cumulative effect and overall fun are achieved almost entirely by the actors, who immerse themselves in their roles while not forgetting the campy ingredients, rather than the writers or helmer.
The whole narrative unfolds as a list of things to do–and not to do—and they must be done efficiently and gruesomely at a breakneck pace, or else…. From the opening sequence to the end credits, “Zombieland” is a fast-paced, relentlessly comic illustration of over-the-top cartoonish violence and gory effects.  In his first outing, neophyte Fleischer already shows good instincts for a rapid, kinetic, and occasionally slick, direction, and I am curious to see what kind of project he’ll choose for his next feature. 
Through flashbacks, we get to know the boy’s initial experience with zombies, when his sexy neighbor 406 (Amber Heard) entered into his protective space and took care of his virginal status, only to prove herself a ravenous monster the day after, thus destroying the poor lad’s romantic ideals of sex and love.
However, things get really moving after the first reel, when the boy, who’s left without wheels, meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), sort of contempo cowboy (with boots and hat to match) who gives him the name of Columbus. The rationale: it’s the final destination of a journey in which he hopes to meet his surviving parents in Columbus, Ohio.
A wild, liberated man, acting on instincts (and superstitions), Tallahassee is at first the opposite of Columbus, a more restrained, careful and educated white boy. You’ve got to have a smile on your face, when the road warrior Tallahassee says, “My mother always told me that someday I would be good at something, but I bet she could not guess I’d be good at that,” showing extra relish in stomping zombies.
In this respect, “Zombieland” draws on a long tradition of the horror-monster films, in which there are usually two types of male protags, the untested hero, often young and innocent (here Eisenberg) and the learned and experienced older man (Harrelson), who assists and instructs him. (This narrative logic also defines most of John Wayne’s Westerns in the second half of his career)
Midway, the men meet two young sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and her 12-year-old Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). At first, at gunpoint, the tough girls surprise the boys when they take hold of their SUV and arms. But spending time together, the quartet begins to show attraction for each other and couples and subgroups are formed. Columbus gravitates toward Wichita, where Tallahassee begins to feel paternal and responsible for Little Rock.
The journey originates in Texas and ends in L.A., rumored to be a frontier with no zombie (a good inside joke), but it’s hard to describe the yarn as a road movie, because so little happens between the two points, and there are really no significant encounters along the way. 
Which brings me back to the performances. Though both Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are more than decent, their roles are not as juicy. Thus, clearly, the movie belongs to the men. It’s been a while since Harrelson has shown so much energy and gusto on the big screen. Equally good is Eisenberg as the bright nerd, the ever-adjustable boy who adapts quickly to changing conditions.
Spoiler Alert
There’s a smart scene at the end, and since Bill Murray gets official credit, I am not sure it’s spoiling the fun to suggest that. In Hollywood, our tired heroes, just like other tourists, acquire stars maps and in their tour land at a luxurious mansion, which belongs to Bill Murray (getting a kick out of playing himself in a funny cameo).
Tallahassee – Woody Harrelson
Columbus – Jesse Eisenberg
Wichita – Emma Stone
Little Rock – Abigail Breslin
406 – Amber Heard
Bill Murray – Bill Murray
Clown Zombie – Derek Graf
A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media of a Pariah production.
Produced by Gavin Polone.
Executive producers, Ezra Swerdlow, Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese, Ryan Kavanaugh.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer.
Screenplay, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Camera, Michael Bonvillain.
Editors, Peter Amundson, Alan Baumgarten.
Music, David Sardy.
Production designer, Maher Ahmad.
Art director, Austin Gorg.
Set designer, Timothy D. O’Brien; set decorator, Gene Serdena.
Costume designer, Magali Guidasci.
Sound, Mary H. Ellis; supervising sound editor, Kami Asgar; re-recording mixers, Tateum Kohut, Greg Orloff.
Visual effects supervisor, Paul Linden; visual effects, Zoic Studios, CIS Vancouver, Logan, Encore Hollywood.
Makeup effects prosthetic designer, Tony Gardner.
Stunt coordinators, G.A. Aguilar, Jeffrey Lee Gibson.
Assistant director, Kim Winther.
Second unit director, George Aguilar.
Casting, John Papsidera.
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 86 Minutes.