Zombieland (2009)
By: Julian on December 11, 2009  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
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Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigal Breslin
Screenplay: Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese
Country: USA
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Zombieland is Ruben Fleischer's debut feature and it's an absolutely terrific film, a US affirmation of zom-coms like Australia's Undead and the UK's Shaun of the Dead that seem to be the re-animated zeitgeist, pipping more serious efforts at the post. As well as (hopefully, though it remains to be seen) putting director Fleischer on the map with his flashy, inventive efforts here, Zombieland gives Woody Harrelson his meatiest lead role in over a decade, creates an hysterically funny neurotic in Jesse Eisenberg's Columbus, provides Superbad's wonderful Emma Stone with more big screen time and allows Abigail Breslin to act in a movie that's actually worth watching.

Columbus (he goes unnamed until he meets Harrelson's Tallahassee, who insists that they remain as impersonal as possible and instead regales them both with names of their geographical origins) is a geek, by his own admission an insufferable one, who has written a manifesto of rules to survive the zombie plague that has afflicted the world. He details them explicitly in the film's opening scenes and it sets the tone of Zombieland's comedy – dry in the Shaun sense, but certainly not the misfire you might expect if you compared the two too closely and perceived this to be a futile bash at British humour. In fact, remove the zombie element and those films are apples and oranges, so you'd do well to take comparisons with a hefty pinch of salt: Zombieland is best described as an indie comedy and it carries that vibe on its sleeve. The first rule, 'cardio', will be the red flag to the zombie purist: we see a fat man being hotly pursued by a zombie that'd rival Usain Bolt in its consummate ability to sprint like a cheetah. I'm not averse to the running zombie at all: call me a philistine, but lumbering, awkward zombies never struck me as scary. Simon Pegg does provide a convincing and quite funny argument against the speedy undead in a criticism of the E4 television series Dead Set, but I stand by mine: any antagonist I can stroll away from isn't as malevolent as it thinks it is.

So, in the perpetual 'running zombie' argument, it's on the side of speed that Zombieland stands. But the genre conservatives need not be put off: when Columbus encounters the gun-toting hard man Tallahassee, Zombieland shifts into pure survivalist mode and it's a helluva ride. The introduction of sisters Wichita (Stone) and Little Rock (Breslin), who get by conning people for their weapons and cars, provides the film with its narrative, as the girls' quest to get to the Pacific Playland theme park in Hollywood has both Columbus and Tallahassee in pursuit: the former for Wichita's affections, and the latter to get back his beloved Escalade and fulfil his thus-far fruitless quest to find the last remaining Twinkie supply in America.

I really dug Zombieland, though much more so the second time I watched it. The effects are top notch and there are some spectacularly gory scenes, with the re-animated munching viscera and ripping throats left, right and centre. The zombies themselves, which I thought were impressive for the film's modest budget, were designed by Tony Gardner, who worked with Rick Baker on Michael Jackson's Thriller clip, as well as Sleepwalkers, Army of Darkness and Seed of Chucky. Gardner also meets my Ultimate Criterion of Makeup Artist Greatness: in 1999, he was investigated by the Arizona State Police and Missing Persons bureau for an effect in Three Kings, where it was believed he used a real cadaver for a soldier being shot. He stands alongside maestros Carlo Rambaldi (Lizard in a Woman's Skin) and Massimo Giustini (Cannibal Holocaust), whose works were scrutinised by law enforcement who believed the effects to be real.

The four key players are excellent and they make up the only not-undead humans in Zombieland, with the exception of a few minutes by Amber Heard as Columbus' stunning next door neighbour, School of Rock co-writer and supporting player Mike White and a brilliant bit part (slightly more substantial than a cameo, but only by a couple of scenes) by one of Tallahassee's all-time heroes.

What I was most taken by though was Zombieland's visual style. It's a very slick film but it's got some delightfully inventive visual gags: Columbus' rules for survival pop up where appropriate, clichéd action set pieces are used for laughs (and the laughs rarely get stale) and the Zombie Kill of the Week is a great touch.

All in all, Zombieland is a superb cinema outing – at 81 minutes it's tight as a barrel, the laughs and grue come thick and fast (and often at the same time with Tallahassee's kill-crazy delight in offing zombies) and awesome acting showcases for all, especially Woody Harrelson. Go see it!
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