Woody, get your gun

Move over vampires, zombies are now the hottest thing when it comes to life after death.

Regardless of your preferred undead, Zombieland is a triumph, the best zombie film I’ve ever seen, packed with laughs, scares and even heart. Scratch that, it’s the best film I’ve seen this year.

Welcome to the United States of Zombieland. It used to be the United States of America, but as our narrator (Jesse Eisenberg) wisely points out, it can’t be called that anymore, as zombies far outnumber Americans. Two months earlier, Patient Zero ate a contaminated burger, contracting a mutated form of mad cow disease that causes zombie-like symptoms (cannibalism, rotting flesh, brain death), which spread like wildfire.

Our nameless narrator has managed to survive thanks to his 31 rules. Numero uno is cardio – all the fatties were the first to go as they couldn’t outrun the zombies – and other rules include the ruthless “double-tap” (i.e., shooting zombies twice to make sure they’re dead); traveling light (physically and emotionally); being wary of bathrooms (zombies have no mercy on bowel movements). He’s particularly good at this because he “avoided people like they were zombies even before they were zombies”.

Funnily enough, now that people aren’t around, he misses them, and is on a quest to see if his parents are still alive in Columbus, Ohio. So when he loses his car and encounters a bad-ass cowboy (Woody Harrelson) en route to Tallahassee, the two hesitantly agree to pair up. To avoid getting too attached, they refer to each other by their respective destinations. Columbus and Tallahassee soon run into Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two sisters who have especially creative ways of surviving Zombieland. And so commences a killer road trip…

Although a “zombie film”, Zombieland transcends genre. It’s horrific – the maggot-faced zombies are truly terrifying, and many scenes are graphic, gruesome and fraught with nail-biting tension. It’s hilarious – not just in that way that the macabre can be inappropriately entertaining (a hapless woman becoming a zombie “happy meal”), but purely too, such as when the adorable Columbus mirthfully informs us that a girl is in danger of getting her hair brushed behind her ear. It’s also heart-warming – relationships between the disparate characters realistically evolve, and they are all people you can root for.

Kudos to the writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Rheese, for their wicked dialogue and the genuinely surprising twists and turns the film takes. Together with director Ruben Fleischer, the relatively rookie team (with no other big film credits to their names) has envisaged an imaginative yet believable post-apocalyptic world, one that’s horrible and sad, but also one with the potential to be awesome, provided you have the right attitude – which Tallahassee and Wichita certainly do, infecting the timid Columbus with their joie de vivre, gleefully smashing up chintzy gift stores and raiding abandoned Hollywood mansions for a taste of the high life.

The quartet of leading men and women inhabit their well-written roles with gusto. I’ve never been sold on Jesse Eisenberg (Adventureland), finding him interchangeable with the similarly geeky Michael Cera (Superbad), but I’m a convert after seeing his Columbus, who is delightfully riddled with phobias, jumpy as a rabbit, but somehow heroic – you believe that he could even get the girl (especially as there’s very little competition!).

Woody Harrelson saves zombie slayer Tallahassee from becoming a caricature. He may be a cowboy-hat touting, gun-loving redneck, but he’s also fast-thinking and fearless, with a head for trivia and a desperate love for Twinkies, a squishy treat that represents what life was like pre-Zombieland. Harrelson and Eisenberg make a lively odd couple, with Columbus’ feyness complementing Tallahassee’s hard-nosed “tude”.

Emma Stone, so often willing to send herself up as a nerd, as in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and The House Bunny, is finally allowed to be an out-and-out babe, one willing to use her feminine charms to get what she wants – which is to protect her little sister (Abigail Breslin) and get them to a theme park they believe is zombie-free. Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is overshadowed by her co-stars, but does subvert the role of the annoying little kid, seeming as well adjusted as one could be in a country overrun with zombies.

The film is packed with other brilliant details, such as postmodern touches (occasionally omniscient narration, the rules popping up on screen in big white letters), increasingly inventive settings (Beverly Hills, theme parks), wonderfully differentiated zombies (clowns, Charlie Chaplin) and a cameo by a certain Hollywood comedy legend, in possibly his best role to date.

Throughout Zombieland, I couldn’t help thinking of another, far inferior, apocalyptic road trip film earlier this year – Carriers – which also explored a desolated America and its effects on the survivors. Whereas that film had a very negative view of the human condition, Zombieland displays a lot more faith, and succeeds in being uplifting without sanitizing the horrors the characters face. Zombieland also shows a lot of faith in its audience, offering sheer entertainment that isn’t afraid to be clever.

So what are you waiting for? Go see Zombieland – you’d have to be brain-dead to not enjoy it.

(Five out of five stars).

Zombieland (Columbia Pictures, 88 minutes)
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin

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