All the fanboys love Zombieland. It’s like Drag Me to Hell, only it’s actually making some money — it’s crossed over to the non-geeks. What do all those people see in it, though? They must’ve seen a different Zombieland, one that isn’t so slight and glib, one that has some decent characters defined by something other than clichés and traits. Some have compared it to Shaun of the Dead, which set the bar very high for zombie comedies. Zombieland doesn’t clear that bar; it barely even runs up to it. It’s a fundamentally lazy and witless film.
There are four (temporarily five) human characters in Zombieland; the rest of the population has turned into slavering, gut-munching zombies (they sprint, like the flesh-eaters in the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake). We have the nerdy Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the zombie-killin’ good ol’ boy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), and a pair of sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) who con the guys out of their vehicles not once but twice. But eventually they all band together, because this zombie comedy is about finding a family. This is explicitly stated at the end, for the slowpokes in the audience.
Zombieland is over in 81 minutes (including end credits), which I suppose is a mercy, because most of this road film goes nowhere. Entirely too much time is spent inside the mansion of a Hollywood star cameoing as himself, none too amusingly — a shock, given the star. Word is that this cameo was envisioned for various different celebrities, depending on who could commit to it, and that the star’s scenes were written at the last minute. It shows. I didn’t particularly need to see the guy re-enacting one of his big hits from a quarter-century ago, like some outtake from Be Kind Rewind. He just drops in for a few jokey scenes (I have to say, his cameo in a big-budget film last year was a lot more random, and a lot funnier); then he’s gone, and the characters hang out in his mansion a while longer.
There’s a lot of padding throughout, including an odd bit when the characters arrive at some tourist trap selling Native American souvenirs and gleefully trash the place. Why? Boredom? (I could relate.) Is this supposed to signal contempt for Native Americans or for the whiteys who profit off fake war bonnets? Somehow I don’t think the movie thought about it, or anything else, that much. There’s some weak meta-humor when Columbus, who narrates, tells us various rules for survival (always check the back seat; shoot zombies twice just to be sure). But most of Zombieland seems to deal with a generic post-apocalypse — there are long stretches where the zombies aren’t around at all.
Okay, a lot of what I’ve said could also apply to George Romero’s 1979 classic Dawn of the Dead. But Romero worked the situation for social and political commentary, and the non-zombie scenes compelled us because the characters were fresh and had quirks and flaws. Zombieland doesn’t care about its people nearly as much. One character delivers a tearful revelation, then caps it with “I haven’t cried like that since Titanic,” which kills whatever pathos could’ve been built. (Remember, there were genuinely tragic moments amid the hilarity and Queen songs of Shaun of the Dead.) The troubling suspicion arises that people are enjoying Zombieland so much because its “heroes” don’t change much, never seem to be in much danger, and even get to hang out with a celebrity. There’s nothing at stake.
Is this the best Americans can do? France gave us Les Revenants a few years ago, and Canada produced the little-seen Pontypool earlier this year. Those films tried to run the zombie narrative through a different and intriguing filter. Zombieland adds nothing to the subgenre. It’s crude wish-fulfillment (yes, you World of Warcraft-playing nobodies can shotgun a bunch of undead and get the girl) best forgotten.