The zombie apocalypse has struck again, this time in director Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland. Bad meat was the culprit this go around, spreading a virus throughout the population that turns otherwise normal people into ravenous cannibals. That’s good for the audience, bad for the characters who inhabit the former United States, re-imagined as a nation/amusement park of the undead in the mind of Columbus, the movie’s main protagonist, played by Jesse Eisenberg.
Eisenberg is joined in Zombieland by Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, a dim-witted southern stereotype who happens to be proficient at killing zombies, and later Wichita and Little Rock, a pair of sisters searching for their own deliverance from the wastes, played by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. None of these characters use their names, preferring to wrap their identities in where they come from or where they hope their final destination will be. If that sounds too bleak, no worries, because although the world of Zombieland has fallen into the death paradigm with gusto, the film is a tongue in cheek entry in the zombie genre.
The plot deals with actual rules to surviving a zombie apocalypse as written down by Columbus, and a never ending search for the last Twinkies on earth by Tallahassee. The rules are a good starting point for the film, and probably where the initial idea came from. The first act of Zombieland plays like a real world application of late night drunken conversations debating the merits of shotguns over melee weapons in dealing with an onrush of the undead. Recently, cracked.com had an article about the rules cinema has taught us about surviving the hordes, and how those rules are likely to get us killed. These types of debates are probably more common than anyone would like to admit, since they are an unconscionable waste of brainpower, but they are an interesting outgrowth of the bizarre snuff fantasy we insist on playing out over and over again in both film and the printed word. Ridiculous and pointless, but Fleischer managed to turn such an exercise into a comedy.
Zombieland has an impressive amount of gore, but little of it involves anyone who isn’t already dead. The zombies really take a beating in this one in sick and twisted vignettes of bloody slapstick. Zombieland isn’t designed to scare, though, so often the zombies are pushed to the periphery and the actors are given time to work with an actual screenplay.
Columbus operates along the same lovable loser line as every character ever played by Michael Cera, whom Eisenberg channels. This isn’t a knock on his performance — it’s just that the resemblance between the two is uncanny. Columbus isn’t a real person. Instead, his role encapsulates the collective weaknesses of everyone in the audience. He’s hopeless and hopeful at the same time. He’s resourceful beyond anyone’s expectations, and an easy character to root for.
The others all circle around Columbus, making him the film’s center of gravity. The other characters are kept simplified outside of their backstories, meaning Columbus is the only one of them with depth and complexity that’s anything more than implied, but that doesn’t mean the others could be replaced by cardboard cutouts. More, this is just a natural progression of the structure of the plot. Everything is told through the eyes of Columbus — the audience seeing his interpretation of events. Despite all the screen time shared with the other performers, we only get little windows here and there into the personalities hidden behind their zombie killer fronts. Harrelson is appropriately silly in his caricature, while Stone and Breslin play their parts.
After the appropriate amount of aimless wandering in the story, the film held aloft by its humor, there is the inevitable final conflict Hollywood uses to wrap up comedies that would otherwise have no end in sight. It’s a tried and true method, one so expected that once it begins, in most any comedy, not just Zombieland, one knows the film is about to wrap things up and tie them in a little bow.
Zombieland defies no conventions in the arena of film comedy, and this is no sin, but it also means that while Zombieland is an enjoyable film, it’s not all that memorable.