Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Rated R for horror violence/gore and language. 83 minutes.
After “Shaun of the Dead” (2004), one might have thought the ultimate spoof of “living dead” movies had been done. While “Shaun” is great fun, it is a decidedly British take of this horror subgenre. While there’s no question that the British can do great zombie films (such as “28 Days Later”), there’s plenty of room for an American take-off. Thus we get the hilarious and surprisingly inventive ZOMBIELAND.
Jesse Eisenberg, fresh off a wonderful turn in “Adventureland” earlier this year, is our hangdog narrator, known only by the name of his hometown of Columbus. He’s a loner – actually a bit of a loser – who has survived the zombie apocalypse by keeping to himself and following the strict rules he shares with us, such as always wearing your seatbelt and not thinking you’ve killed the flesh-eating monsters with only one shot. He’s heading to Ohio to see if his parents have survived when he runs into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a gun-toting redneck who doesn’t simply defend himself against the zombies but positively enjoys killing them. He’s the one who insists on “no names,” arguing that the few humans left can’t afford to develop emotional attachments.
This is proven when they run into two sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) who cause almost as much trouble as the zombies. Soon the four are linked together on a trip to California where Little Rock believes a zombie-free enclave exists on the grounds of an amusement park. If you anticipate trouble ahead, you won’t be wrong.
What makes this work is, first, the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, which turns the end of the world into a joke. One has to go back to “Night Of The Comet” (1984) to find a movie that plays the apocalypse for laughs like this. There’s no mourning for humanity, no vowing to find a cure or restart civilization. As Columbus tells us, they’re living in Zombieland now and new rules apply.
Second, the film has a wonderful cast including a surprise appearance by a well known actor, not to be spoiled here, who gets to deliver one of the funniest lines in the film. Young Breslin has been playing it safe since “Little Miss Sunshine,” so it’s good to see her in another twisted comedy. Stone, like Megan Fox, tends to be cast for her looks, but gets to play a character for a change, while Harrelson – who arguably is a character – clearly is having a ball as a horror film hero on a quest for the world’s last store of Twinkies.
However it is Eisenberg, whose point of view we share, who is turning into a young Everyman. He is instantly likeable while remaining recognizably normal. Would he rather run than face death-dealing zombies? Well of course, wouldn’t you?
“Zombieland” is a must for horror fans, but also for those who want to laugh and don’t mind a few body parts being flung around in the process.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.