Wednesday, October 14, 2009

You must be this tall to ride the BRAAAAAAINS

From left to right: Columbus, Wichita, Little Rock, and Tallahassee. All images courtesy of Ain't It Cool News and Sony/Columbia Pictures.
Some would argue that the appeal of zombies at the movies is dying down these days (no pun intended).

Since about 2002, there has been a bit of a zombie craze that took a hold of Hollywood for a while, which was mostly sparked by movies such as the brilliantly funny Shaun of the Dead and the well directed 28 Days Later. Since then, zombie movies have been flooding the box office with gory, gruesome spectacles for the past few years. Unfortunately, most of these films aren’t exactly held to the same standard as Shaun or 28 Days Later. George Romero started making movies again, but they turned out to be very lackluster compared to the original Dead movies. Everything else, including terrible Resident Evil sequels and even a movie about zombie nazis, has been largely forgettable.

While Zombieland has some flaws here and there, it is by no means as forgettable as any of those other newer zombie films. What started out as screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhet Reese’s idea for a TV series eventually transmogrified into, with the help of director Ruben Fleischer, a somewhat disturbing but fun night at the movies.

The story concerns, and is narrated by, a young, geeky, pantophobic shut in we only know as Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg). He is able to survive the zombocalypse thanks to a personal list of rules he cooked up as he gained more experience dealing with the undead through his travels across the country. His odds of staying alive increase, and to an extent decrease a little bit when he meets a pop-culture junkie and gun-toting good ol’ boy named Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) on a wrecked stretch of highway. The two join together in a temporary partnership. Columbus interested in finding his parents in Columbus, Ohio, and Tallahassee is searching for a delicious, spongy golden Twinkie to snack on, which is arguably his way of dealing with the loss of a very special someone in his life. Things get kind of complicated when the pair run into a couple of teenage grifters, the sweet but strong Wichita (Emma Stone) and her little sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). As the film shows us their adventures slaying zombies and just generally doing whatever they want, Jesse learns that it takes more than a set of rules to stay sane and happy in Zombieland, and all the characters slowly learn that living is just as important as surviving.

In this scene, Columbus uses his speed and smarts in an attempt to not become dinner for a couple of hungry zombies.

It is made clear really early on that this is a comedy first and a zombie film second, but these zombies are genuinely shocking and scary. They’re the fast types made popular by the 2004 Dawn remake and 28 Days Later, and what they lack in built-up suspense they make up for in gore and the element of surprise. The latter also helps a lot with the comedy too, as evidenced by most of the opening scenes showing numerous encounters with them.

Speaking of that, there are some great shots in this film. The poetic brutality of the opening title sequence almost rivals Watchmen’s in how great it is to see it roll out. It also helps set the mood for the movie, which seems to get more light-hearted as the film goes on. The way the rules are used visually throughout the movie is a nice, funny little touch, and I wish we saw a little more come out of the concept for “Zombie Kill of the Week.”

The film had a very huge “road trip” vibe to it, and that played in to getting to know the characters. Tallahassee, Columbus, Little Rock and Wichita are all flawed individuals, but judging from what is seen of their personalities they all seem to fit together well as a group that seems like fun to hang out with. The way that they spoke to and interacted with each other actually seemed very believable, even with how over the top the movie is. I’ll admit that the romance between Wichita and Columbus seemed a little extraneous, but it sort of added a little extra emotional punch to the end. Of course, the funniest scenes usually involve Tallahassee and Columbus and their clashing personalities.

One wants love, the other wants a Twinkie. Whether or not they get what they want, they kick ass in any scene they're both in.

While I realize that some of Tallahassee’s better lines come from a few other movies, in a way that kind of makes them funnier. Some of the jokes in this film are a bit oriented toward people who have a light knowledge of movies. This especially comes into play when they run into the huge cameo once they get to Beverly Hills (if you don’t want it spoiled for you, I would suggest not reading my last post concerning this movie). There isn’t much I can say about it without spoiling it, but I will say this: as somebody who grew up with and still loves Ghostbusters, that cameo was definitely a crown jewel among the funnier scenes in the movie. It helps that it was written very well into the script too.

As entertaining as this movie is, though, I felt kind of put off a little by the quick pacing. As Eisenberg narrates the events of the film, it almost feels like he is rushing things along. He tends to gloss over a lot of details when he talks about Tallahassee’s former life before the zombie apocalypse, and he doesn’t say too much about Wichita or Little Rock either. These seemed like really great and fun characters, and even if it increased the film’s runtime it would have been nice to get to know them a little better. Apparently, according to the internet movie database, there are also a sizable chunk of continuity errors too, making the overall production of the film seem a little less streamlined than I originally pictured.

Despite that, this film definitely works as a horror and comedy film. The splatters of blood and guts and consistent laugh-out-loud moments fit together like peanut butter and chocolate, all thanks to a well written script and great performances from the cast all around. If it ends up having a sequel, then I can’t wait to see it, because the movie definitely left me wanting some more of these characters.

On a side note, this movie came out at the perfect time too. The mixture of zombie gore and comedy this movie provides is great for getting into the mood for Halloween. Hell, I was munching on a huge Snickers bar as I typed this review.