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Nimble “Zombieland” a bloody good time

Be vewwy, vewwy quiet: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are huntin' zombies.

Be vewwy, vewwy quiet: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are huntin' zombies.

No matter how intelligent, urbane and evolved we humans fancy ourselves, there’s just no getting around it: Nothing beats watching a slobbering, crusty, stinking zombie get his skull smashed with a mallet. Or a baseball bat. Or a tire iron. Why is this so  satisfying? Because zombies, you see, exist solely to get murdalized.

And boy do they ever in “Zombieland,” a gonzo, bloody, ridiculously entertaining movie about a world overrun with mindless flesh-eaters and the two wildly different survivors — Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), zombie killer extraordinaire, and the timid Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) — who join forces more out of sheer boredom than any desire for human companionship. They are, we assume, the only humans to survive the fallout of a brain-swelling disease passed through cattle meat. And Tallahassee and Columbus kill a lot of zombies. Heaps of them. The hulking morons get slaughtered in such gleefully creative ways it makes me wonder if Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who penned the script, are brilliantly inventive or just didn’t get out much. It matters not. The kills (no, I’m not going to list them for you) are what make “Zombieland” wicked good.

Know what else makes “Zombieland” so entertaining? The characters, which sneak up on you in the midst of all those inventive ZKs (some are clear contenders for Zombie Kill of the Week). There’s something sweet and touching about the shy Columbus’ self-awareness; it’s obvious he understands that he let his fear — of girls, of clowns, of  life — cut off avenues for connection and emotional intimacy. Eisenberg, who should have Michael Cera quaking in his vintage cargo pants, drops these verbal bombshells with just the right amount of frankness and regret. “The first girl I let into my life and she tries to eat me,” he laments when he realizes his hot neighbor has morphed into a zombie. There’s far more bittersweet candor in this line than there has to be in a movie about lumbering liver-chewers and the people who blast ’em.

But back to the blasting. Columbus has managed to survive just fine using his rules, which include such gems as stressing the importance of cardio (“the fatties are the first to go”), the double tap (“don’t be afraid to use your ammunition”) and the perils of public restrooms. Tallahassee isn’t that cerebral. He’s a loner with nothing to lose and a mean hankering for Twinkies, and he’s transformed zombie killing into an art form. (Notice his nod to “Deliverance.” It’s thing of beauty.) These two make for an unusual pair, and their unconventional family gets even weirder when they happen upon Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two sisters who share a talent for working the short con. All four head off in search of a place where zombies don’t dwell, and along the way they end up in the posh home of the Greatest Movie Star in History.

(INTERJECTION: If there’s still a chance as small as a zombie’s IQ that you don’t know about the cameo, do NOT let anyone ruin it for you. Turn off your TV and Internet and radio, go all Howard Hughes and hoard tissue boxes to avoid genuine human contact — do whatever you have to do preserve the blessed element of surprise.)

So the body count and the gore, right? Completely disgusting, thoroughly enjoyable and mostly devoid of any of the sociopolitical commentary George Romero made famous. Nope, “Zombieland” is all about the sheer, unbridled joy of undead killin’, and it takes human form inTallahassee, played with characteristic drawl and zeal by Harrelson. (See, Christian Bale? Acting can be fun!) But the writers pepper in plenty of deadpan humor, and they make some half-hearted noise about how we should conquer our fears, learn to need people, seize the day. This touchy-feely stuff might seem out of place if not for Eisenberg, who gives “Zombieland” the very last thing anyone would expect: a heart. 

Grade: B+

13 Responses

  1. Caught this over the weekend, first 2009 film I’ve seen since Up. I really liked it, my only minor complaint being that it was too episodic. But, I am a sucker for the zombie genre, especially movies that exist in a post-humanity zombie landscape and are funny.

    • I admit I had my doubts about “Zombieland,” but I was extremely surprised (and a little impressed) by how consistently funny it was. Plus, the characters are not flat and interchangeable — I love the yin/yang thing Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg have going on. Some of it’s even kind of touching. And in a zombie movie, well, who woulda thunk?

  2. I didn’t see this one over the weekend…but I accidentally found out about the cameo. I am totally bummed that I know!!

    • I blame Ebert for ruining it for me. There I was, bopping along reading his review, and BAM! there it was. That’s the thing about his reviews: Sometimes he gives away nothing, but sometimes he reveals the one thing that ruins the movie.

      Note to other readers: See the movie before you read Ebert’s review. Trust me.

  3. Nice review of a very entertaining movie. Fortunately for me, I’m reclusive enough to have had the cameo be a surprise. I’m glad for that.

    • Reclusiveness is underrated these days. Let us celebrate it … and hey, thanks for not “outing” the celeb here!

  4. Good review. Jesse Eisenberg is basically a more-talented version of Michael Cera, it seems…I’ve seen him in both “Zombieland” and “Adventureland” (I guess he likes acting in “-land” films…)and both of his characters have been very likeable. And you’re right, there definitely is some heart to the movie. There’s a sense of “togetherness” the movie leaves you with that is very fulfilling. I really liked the ending–it’s like I knew that final action sequence was coming, but it was still awesome!

    • You make a good point about Michael Cera/Jesse Eisenberg — I’m coming out on the side of Jesse. I liked Cera at first, but over time I got the icky feeling that he’s one of those guys who’s a little too impressed with his own sense of humor. However, Eisenberg’s awkwardness seems very earnest and authentic It could be an act, and to a degree I’m sure it is; if so, he does it better than Cera.

  5. The cameo really made the movie…good on you for helping keep it a surprise in your write-up. Knowing it ahead of time would truly kill the authenticity…

    Only gripe was the narration. I was hoping for more of the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ feel that was given in the trailers. Still a very fun movie.

    • I’m still mad at Ebert; he “outed” the cameo actor and ruined the surprise. Grrr.

      I see your point about the narration, but I like Jesse Eisenberg and thought he gave me the movie a nice note of bittersweet humor.

  6. […] sentiment informing most horror films and a career-making performance by Amanda Seyfried; “Zombieland,” which glides in on sheer gross, witty fun; and “Bruno,” a fitting finale to the randy […]

  7. I enjoyed ZOMBIELAND, but I found it ultimately disappointing. It wasn’t nearly as funny as I was expecting (with the exception of the cameo scene), nor as clever. I think I got more laughs out of Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). So while I enjoyed the ride while it lasted, it isn’t one that I have any plans to revisit in the future.

    Whereas, SHAUN OF THE DEAD has unending repeat value for me. It works as both a comedy and a horror film, and with each viewing I notice clever little details in the dialogue, structure of the story, and in the performances that bring new pleasures.

    I think part of the problem was there never seemed to be any stakes in ZOMBIELAND (I need more than a search for a Twinkie), and I never once feared that the leads were in any real danger. However, I will be interested to see what the director does in the future, because the look of the film was quite original. Kudos to the art director and cinematographer.

    • I can’t resist a witty script, and while “Zombieland” is certainly no “Shaun of the Dead,” I can see myself returning to both films again and again.

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