There are really only two conclusions you can reach regarding "Zombieland," the latest film in the zombie comedy sub-genre that runs quite the wide spectrum of cinematic experiences ranging from the masterful "Shaun of the Dead" to the mind-numbingly awful "Idle Hands."
You will either consider "Zombieland" the new king of, well, zombie comedy land or you will consider it just a notch below the widely recognized top o' the heap, "Shaun of the Dead."
For my money, "Zombieland" is just a notch below the delightfully and humorously wicked "Shaun of the Dead," a film that perfectly blended comedy with horror, drama with romance and lots of zombies.
"Zombieland" certainly has all these ingredients and, indeed, is quite delightfully and humorously wicked. In "Zombieland," it all just seems to happen in slightly lesser amounts.
This, of course, should not detract from the prospective box-office for "Zombieland," as the widely acclaimed "Shaun of the Dead" brought home a meager $13 million at the US box-office, most likely owing to American audience's long-standing resistance to anything involving a potentially difficult to decipher accent.
This problem doesn't exist in "Zombieland" and, to boot, we get Woody Harrelson in his best film role in quite some time.
In "Zombieland," Harrelson is Tallahassee, a twinkie-obsessed, zombie killin' machine and apparently one of the few surviving humans after a non-defined virus turns Mad Cow Disease into Mad Human Disease and, finally, turns everything in its path into mad zombies.
If you've seen the trailers for "Zombieland," and who hasn't, you've got a pretty good idea what to expect from the film without being exposed to only the good parts of the film as happens with so many trailers.
"Zombieland" actually kicks off by introducing shy, asocial and virginal Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), who basically isolates in his college dorm playing video games and drinking Code Red Mountain Dew until one night when a campus hottie shows up at his door frightened by an otherworldly encounter. She falls asleep in his arms and, despite fantasies to the otherwise, we all know how she's going to wake up.
Columbus, so named because of his desire to get back to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio to see if his family has survived, narrates the film with regular rules necessary for surviving Zombieland, rules that are routinely flashed on the screen but, surprisingly enough, never in an intrusive way despite the obviously gimmicky nature of it all.
Columbus and Tallahassee meet up, join forces and eventually encounter the big sister/little sister combo of Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone), two wise beyond their years young ladies who first turn on the guys then Wichita really turns on Columbus.
First-time director Ruben Fleischer does a nice job of blending the offbeat elements of the script from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, of the Spike TV series' "The Joe Schmo Show"). Much like "Shaun of the Dead," "Zombieland" never resorts to overly cheap humor, preferring dry wit and comic set-ups that are wonderfully played off by an almost gleeful Woody Harrelson in a performance somewhat resembling a more lighthearted "Natural Born Killers."
The brilliance of Harrelson's Tallahassee, though, is that for all his outlandishness and brash bravado there's a genuinely good-hearted soul inside that sort of tosses in a bit of his "Cheers" persona to the mix.
Sound weird? It is, but it works beautifully.
Eisenberg, as well, is a nice contrast to the brash, energetic and intense Harrelson. Eisenberg, more known for quietly quirky roles in "Adventureland" and "The Squid and the Whale," here gets to blend that quirkiness into the sort of dork who rises to the challenges that life presents.
Damn those clowns.
Both Breslin and Stone, in what amount to glorified supporting roles developed to a noticeably lesser degree, do a nice job with what their given. The two have a nice chemistry, and Stone shines when she and Columbus start to develop while Breslin makes a subtle, impressive shift when Harrelson's Tallahassee begins to adopt a fatherly tone with her.
In an extended cameo, Bill Murray shows up with his own brand of dry, yet over-the-top humor that may very well serve as the film's highlight.
"Cloverfield" D.P. Michael Bonvillain's camera work is excellent, and "Zombieland" is accompanied by a killer original soundtrack from the past and present. Tony Gardner's special effects make-up is solid across the board, giving a nice variety to the various zombies with often hilarious results in terms of facial expression and tone.
Fans of the more hardcore "28 Days Later" are likely to be a bit more disappointed with "Zombieland," as the film lacks that film's hardcore intensity and in-your-face horror aspects, though it certainly does contain its graphic scenes of zombies killing and killing of zombies.
Easily one of Fall 2009's most rewarding cinematic experiences, "Zombieland" is, without a doubt, in the top tier of zombie comedies and a great way to enter to Fall movie season as we get ready for awards season right around the corner.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic