Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland is about four people milling about in a world overrun by zombies. And…that’s about it. My expectations were low for this film. Back in June, when I wrote up the trailer, I referred to it as “the latest entry in an already clogged genre”, and attempted to explain the zombie phenomenon as an societal indulgence of psychopathic fantasies of mass slaughter. And in that grain, it did not disappoint.
These zombies are no slow-moving, Romeroan allegory for a society steeped in consumption and conformity. They’re beasts. They chase down and slaughter humans in grotesque, blood-spattering, gratuitous, slow-motion glory, in an apparent attempt to combine all the cinematic advantages of both fast and slow zombies. And Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is the rough-and-tumble zombie-killin’ cowboy who’s happy to put them down. To say that at least one scene ends with him literally standing atop a pile of dead zombies hardly merits a spoiler warning.
In fact, I’m not sure if I could spoil the plot of this movie if I tried. Ruben Fleischer has accomplished something truly remarkable here – he’s created a world that is not only completely devoid of plot, but could not logically include one. America is empty, save for a few aimless, meandering zombies and even fewer aimless, meandering humans. No one has a long-term plan or even a short-term objective, save for the usual rumors – the eastern survivors hear there’s a zombie-free zone out west; the western survivors hear there’s a zombie-free zone back east. As Tallahassee puts it when speaking to his new protégé, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), “You’re like a penguin at the North Pole who hears it’s nice at the South Pole this time of year.”
If that’s all this movie had been – an aimless, nihilistic slaughter fantasy – it would’ve been a huge disappointment. And yet, this film contains some truly remarkable character work. The survivors meet under the most random of circumstances, and band together (eventually) because they don’t know what else to do. After a brief Mexican standoff, Columbus catches a ride with Tallahassee, and the two are eventually joined by Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).
At first, there is very little sentimentality amongst these four. They refer to each other by their respective cities of origin, so as not to become too attached. They make blithe reference to the demise of each other’s loved ones. They have some pretty serious trust issues.
And yet, amid this loss of identity and hope, they gradually remember what it’s like to be human. For a long second act in which we see almost no zombies, these four actually start to open up to each other. This piecemeal family-amid-disaster could easily descend into maudlin territory, but the film manages to humanize these characters without losing any of the fun and cynicism of the first act. When the inevitable “romantic” subplot occurs between Eisenberg and Stone, it consists of the latter asking the former to join her so she doesn’t have to drink alone, shortly before announcing that she “could hit that”.
Harrelson and Breslin perform admirably in their roles, despite not getting much time to shine in the film’s 88 minutes, and Emma Stone’s performance is adequate, although her character’s motivations become increasingly muddled as the film goes on. But the strongest performance in the film is easily Jesse Eisenberg.
I’ve been a fan of Eisenberg’s since Adventureland, and he continues to demonstrate his prowess as an actor, doing a better job at playing Shia LaBeouf roles than LaBeouf himself. Columbus really is the emotional center of this film, and it is a testament to Eisenberg’s performance that I can refer to any of the characters as such. Columbus has stayed alive by following a self-imposed list of rules – some practical (“Wear seatbelts”), cautionary (“Beware of bathrooms”), or even philosophical (“Don’t be a hero”). They’re eventually supplemented by an entry from Tallahassee – “Enjoy the little things.”
If I had to extract a message from the film, it would be that last rule. It is exemplified by one of the best scenes in the film, in which the characters wreck up a kitschy souvenir shop at an Indian casino just for the hell of it. The amusement park climax of this film is more or less completely forgettable, and yet there are so many brilliant little scenes between these characters that I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with them. As a horror flick, creature thriller, or road-trip tale, the film does very little to distinguish itself, and as a zombie film, it’s actually rather boring (and devoid of zombies!). But as a comedy and character piece, it is quite an accomplishment.
FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10