Genres in Hollywood have always come and gone in waves, and this includes subgenres as well. When horror is on an upswing, it’s not always the same type of horror; sometimes it’s paranormal possession stories that are leading the pack, and sometimes it’s zombies. And when it is zombies, inevitably there are a few films out there that poke a bit of fun at the genre. The 1980s had Return of the Living Dead. The 2000s had Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, the latter coming out in 2009. The first theatrical feature from director Ruben Fleischer has a lot to offer a viewer; enough so that it would almost be a shame to label it a cult classic, as aside from the gore, there’s nothing keeping it from a mainstream mainstay.
Most zombie films, going all the way back to the archetypal Night of the Living Dead, start with the beginning of the zombie onslaught. In Zombieland, the apocalypse has already hit. Humanity has lost. There are only a handful of survivors here and there, trying to hang on in a constant barrage of ravenous ghouls. The film focuses on four of those survivors, traveling together in hopes of finding a mythical zombie-free place in the U.S. To avoid getting too attached or personal, they take up code names based on their home towns. Jesse Eisenberg plays “Columbus”, whose personality is Eisenberg’s standard neurotic nerd; he has survived because of his reclusive nature and a system of rules that he’s developed over time, and which the film regularly expounds upon through his narration. Woody Harrelson, in one of his more memorable roles, plays “Tallahassee”, a man who revels in killing zombies and causing wanton destruction to maintain his sanity in the face of their insane situation. And Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin play the sisters “Wichita” and “Little Rock”, a pair of inveterate con artists.
All four actors do remarkable jobs at not only making their characters believable, but making the situation believable. Even though the audience can easily see ways in which these characters would have died by now — especially “Wichita” and “Little Rock”, whose plans have a disturbingly high backfire potential — it’s also easy to see how, with just a little luck, they could still be going strong in a world where they have no society left to depend on. None of them ever needed society much anyway, and neither does the film. Like Night of the Living Dead, it keeps a small cast and a small scope, keeping the audience invested and never becoming too grandiose in its ambitions.
It allows for the personal touches that make the film a bit more than a comedy, a bit more than a zombie action film. There are moments of pathos, camaraderie, and personal asides here and there to make the audience genuinely care about these characters, and not just view them as delivery systems for one-liners and exploding zombie heads.
The humor itself is worth noting as well. Comedic styles shift with the decades just as surely as genre dominance does, and since the mid-90s the standard has been the crass comedy. Gross-out humor, raunchiness, and mindless stupidity are the orders of the day… and are all virtually absent in Zombieland. The humor is entirely derived from the characters and the situations, and always feels like a natural development — there isn’t any time in which I felt like a character was taking an action only because the writers felt it was necessary for a laugh. Instead, they would take actions that fit their personalities and their situation, and which were funny because of that, rather than in spite of it. Zombieland feels a lot more like a comedy from decades past rather than the modern day because of this. And despite being a movie with a lot of gore, it never goes for the gross-out humor; for a film featuring blood-spewing zombies, it has a surprisingly clean sense of humor.
All of this adds up to a film that holds up remarkably well a few years after its theatrical release, and which I expect to hold up well for years to come. And despite its outlandish premise, it always feels believable. The only thing I really question is that it would be that hard for “Tallahassee” to find a Twinkie.