As you might imagine, there are a lot of rules for survival in an American wasteland crowded with the flesh-hungry undead. Check the backseat, of course, and beware of bathrooms. Plan your escape, and don’t be a hero. And perhaps most importantly, the number-one rule: cardio.
This is the case, anyway, made by Columbus Ohio (Jesse Eisenberg, still jocking Michael Cera) over the opening moments of Ruben Fleischer’s manic Zombieland. His reasoning is pretty solid—in a world where the living exist primarily as a food item, the physically fit are considerably harder to catch, and likely much less tasty to boot. It’s also hard to argue with his authority, because the nebbishy, neurotic Columbus is somehow also one of the only living people in the United States of Zombieland.
At least it seems that way at first. Zombieland doesn’t take the time to explore just how many survivors still haunt the landscape, but Columbus does happen on a fellow traveler pretty soon after setting out from his dorm in Austin, Texas, to find out if his parents in Ohio have somehow been spared extinction. The man (Woody Harrelson, with that look in his eye) introduces himself as Tallahassee—he’s convinced that a companion will eventually end up in some zombie’s tummy and that sharing destinations seems safer, emotionally, than sharing names. (Columbus, you may guess, agrees.) They take to the road together, and Columbus shares his jotted-down list of rules; Tallahassee shares his zest for mayhem and his judgment-clouding quest for the last Twinkie on earth.
This is Zombieland’s set up; it doesn’t evolve too much from there, especially once Columbus and Tallahassee join up with sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who, despite their names, are headed to a Los Angeles amusement park rumored to be zombie-free. We spend lots of time watching the quartet interact, and see many corners of Zombieland as they make their way to the coast, but there isn’t much to any of the characters that wouldn’t fit in a one-line description, and aside from Columbus’ rules we aren’t asked to give much thought to the world of the undead.
Zombieland is charmingly lazy in all of these ways for the simple reason that it can afford to be. It’s not a movie about narrative arc or subtlety; it’s a movie about zombie-killing, plain and simple, and in that capacity it’s one of the year’s most wildly enjoyable films, loping carelessly from sequence to sequence while playing for maximum laughs and gore. This is especially true of the second half, where it first breaks into an extended skit featuring an encounter with a surprising fifth survivor and then climaxes with Tallahassee using amusement-park attractions to his blood-spilling advantage.
It’s a horror comedy, then, but the goofy tone leaves little room for any actual horror. (The scares and startles are limited almost entirely to Columbus flashing back to the night of the zombie apocalypse, which interrupts a lonely evening of computer games and sugary soda.) Instead, Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick use the grammar of the zombie flick for its next-best use: cartoonish ultra-violence visited upon hordes of creatures we love seeing dismembered and exploded.
The resulting near-constant cheers are a fun by-product of Zombieland’s crowd-pleasing tendencies, but they’re still secondary to the laughs. Not only is the film’s winning humor split evenly between broad gags and less showy wit, but even those whose tastes run strongly one way or the other will find the lines unusually blurred; the in-jokes and throwaways never sink to condescension, and the slapstick and otherwise obvious laughs are executed with irresistible gusto. There are clunkers here and there (a dig at Facebook status updates already seems dated) but it’s been a while since a comedy of any kind had the sheer quantity of laughs found here.
The movie has been unavoidably pegged as an American answer to Shaun of the Dead, the one film it suffers in comparison to. Zombieland isn’t a love letter to serious horror, as Shaun is, nor does it operate on the same perfect wavelength. It is, however, the best pure fun to be had at the movies right now; when dealing with zombies, after all, it’s preferable to leave your brains at home.