LOS ANGELES – You’d be justified in thinking you’ve visited “Zombieland” before.
After all, there has been no shortage of zombies at the movies in recent years, just as there has been no shortage of vampires. And within that genre, a crop of zombie comedies has arisen, from “Shaun of the Dead” to “Zombie Strippers” to “Dead Snow.”
Like “Shaun” before it, though, “Zombieland” mostly finds that tricky balance of the laugh-out-loud funny and the make-you-jump scary, of deadpan laughs and intense energy. It’s a total blast even if the story is a bit thin, and it does run out of steam toward the end, but thankfully our trip to “Zombieland” is appropriately quick.
First-time director Ruben Fleischer grabs you from the get-go with stylized visuals – the super slo-mo carnage over the opening titles is gnarly and inspired in its detail – and the script from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick is hilariously bizarre while still remaining rooted in contemporary reality.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as an uber-nerdy college student who’s managed to survive a viral zombie outbreak by adhering to a strict series of rules, which are inspired by his innate fear of everything. They include “never trust bathrooms” and “fasten your seatbelt,” and they’ve gotten him this far when, clearly, courage and brawn have not.
While travelling across a post-apocalyptic wasteland, hoping to see what’s become of his parents in Ohio, he runs into a fellow survivor (Woody Harrelson) who’s his brash, butt-kicking opposite – the dude literally rides up toting a shotgun in a stolen Cadillac Escalade with a hand-painted number 3 on the sides, a la Dale Earnhardt. Meanwhile, the undead they creatively fend off are just as speedy; George Romero, pioneer and purist of the genre, would not approve.
The two come to regard each other by their destinations – Columbus and Tallahassee – rather than their real names to avoid forging a personal relationship, should potential zombiedom force either of them to take drastic action against the other. But naturally they turn out to be perfect foils for each other: Eisenberg with his jumpy neurosis, Harrelson with his laid-back bravado. It’s great, fun casting on both accounts.
Eventually they hook up with crafty sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), and in traditional zombie-movie fashion, these disparate characters form an uneasy and unlikely alliance in hopes of staying alive. Little Rock wants to head west to California, where she’s heard her favourite amusement park from childhood is blissfully zombie-free. Breslin is developing comfortably from a child star wise beyond her years into a teenager of smarts and confidence – but here, she and cool-chick Stone play the straight women as the boys banter.
On the way there, as the four stop through Beverly Hills, they hide out at the home of a celebrity who absolutely will not be named here. Others who’ve written about “Zombieland” have given away this person’s identity, which is a bummer; the less you know beforehand, the better, because this extended cameo is by far the best part of a movie that’s full of lively, undead moments.
“Zombieland,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for horror violence/gore and language. Running time: 82 minutes. Three stars out of four.