The best romantic comedy of the year!
I make that claim with only about 5% facetiousness. Zombieland, despite its name and premise (a pair of unlikely allies making their way through an America overrun with zombies) is much closer to a romantic comedy formula than a zombie movie formula.
The movie stars Woody Harrelson as Florida, a crazy zombie-hunter with no fear and an endless enjoyment of killing zombies; Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus, a paranoid nerd whose phobias and innate cautiousness have enabled him to survive the zombie apocalypse; and Emma Stone (AKA Jules from Superbad) as Wichita and Abigail Breslin (AKA Little Miss Sunshine herself) as Little Rock, a pair of sneaky sisters who keep getting the better of the boys on the trail from Texas to California in search of a zombie-free zone, a return to innocence, and some goddamned Twinkies. The acting is solid all the way around, especially for this kind of movie. Eisenberg makes a wonderful underdog hero, while Harrelson is hysterical as the hard-core, pseudo-redneck, half-psycho zombie killer. Stone is hard-edged and ruthlessly practical as the elder sister trying to keep her younger alive, and Breslin is adorably precocious as a 12-year-old con artist.
Columbus is the narrator for this journey, sharing with the audience some of his 32 (and counting) rules for surviving in the zombie-filled landscape. They include Cardio (because if you’re out of shape you’re easy pickings); Always Double-Tap (because that second shot to the head might save your life, and it’s still fun even if you don’t need it); Beware of Bathrooms (because zombies can sense when you’re vulnerable); and Don’t Play the Hero–most of the rules accompanied with a hilarious vignette to explain why they came to be.
The movie isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously. It’s there to show you some hilarious zombie deaths and take you on a road trip across an America devoid of any living people except the four frenemies. The previews give you a very good idea of what you’re going in for: Florida playing “Dueling Banjos” in a grocery store and talking about how his mama always told him he’d find out that one thing he was good at one day, but who ever guessed it’d be zombie killing? And the opening credits make sure to show anyone who might have accidentally come into the movie unaware of its content what they can expect, with a montage of zombies eating humans and in turn meeting gruesome ends.
I also think the casting of Jesse Eisenberg is a self-conscious move to contrast this role with Adventureland—the ultimate destination of the Zombieland foursome is an amusement park, probably the very same park used in Adventureland. The connection makes Zombieland feel almost like a spoof on the teenage dramedy. Florida’s hunt for Twinkies adds more almost-meta-humor, as they find store after store devoid of the cream-filled treats—even a Little Debbie truck crashed on the side of the road has only Ho-hos. It takes on an ironically epic nature; I mean, how hard can it be to find a Twinkie when you’re the only man left who wants to eat one?
Columbus’s infatuation with Wichita and his chase of his first kiss also seems as ephemeral and futile a hunt. He is the perfect anti-hero: self-deprecating, unwordly, and totally unwilling to get himself killed for some girl (“I really wanted to impress Wichita,” he narrates at one point, “but Rule #7 is ‘Don’t Play the Hero.'” So he turns to Florida–“why don’t you take this one?”). His mission to convince her she should go for him, if only because he might really be the last (young) man alive, creates a backdrop for the road trip and the zombie-hunting that make the movie surprisingly sweet and in a way rob it of being a zombie movie. Most importantly: there is more tension between Columbus and Wichita than there is in any of the fights with zombies. The movie kind of tries to make up for this in the big showdown at the end, to have a tense stand-off/rescue mission that none of them might survive, but it’s too little too late. This is a comedy, not a horror movie, despite the grotesqueries. There is a certain amount of threat that a real horror movie—a real zombie movie—needs to have. Even Shawn of the Dead had some truly tight corners. Zombieland never really does, hence why I am calling it a romantic comedy. It’s just a romantic comedy with zombies. And a lot of gore.
All in all, Zombieland was exactly as advertised. It was a hilarious take on the zombie movie, more campy than it was macabre, and less frightening than it was blood-spurting. If you’re looking for a scary movie, this isn’t going to help. But if you want to come out of the theater with your face cramping up from smiling for so long, or if you’re looking for that perfect date movie, then this is the right choice for you. As long as you laugh at things like exploding zombies. And as long as your date doesn’t find that a turn-off.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.