When I first heard about Zombieland, my hopes weren’t exactly high. With the recent boom in the zombie/infection genre, it was only a matter of time until the boys in Hollywood would wheel out a zom-com in the vein of Shaun of the Dead.
Now horror comedy is a difficult genre to pull off; you have to finely balance the laughs and horror and if you don’t get the mix right you end up with a disjointed film that leaves the audience confused at whether they should be chuckling or gasping and dissatisfied on both counts. Hence in this genre the real classics, like An American Werewolf in London and Return of the Living Dead, are vastly outnumbered by the misfires. And with much of American movie comedy these days pandering to the lowest common denominator, I could all too easily see all the elements which make Shaun of the Dead a modern classic – the wit, well crafted characters and engaging storyline – getting lost in the mix in an attempt to clone it.
Thankfully then, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Zombieland isn’t just Edgar Wright’s movie translated into a US milieu and losing all the charm and intelligence somewhere over the Atlantic. Shaun of the Dead is essentially a humorous look at how ordinary British people would react to a text book zombie outbreak, and riffs on the familiar tropes of Romero and his imitators, and thankfully Zombieland heads is a fresh direction all of it's own. Rather an working as a pastiche/homage to Uncle George, Zombieland is basically a road movie, complete with a chalk and cheese buddies and a blossoming romance.
The film’s central character is Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) a somewhat neurotic young cove who in the course of his travels across a zombie ravaged America teams up with his polar opposite Tallassee (Woody Harrelson). Along the way they encounter two sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and of course, hordes of cannibal maniacs…
And speaking of which … the first major dividing factor for this film is the zombies themselves. Here we have the modern version of the zombie – the 28 Days Later model if you will – i.e. they are fast and feral, but most importantly they aren’t the walking dead but humans infected with a virus. Now while I can live with the fast zombie; the Dawn of the Dead remake and Dead Set demonstrating that the new corpse on the block is just as effective as the traditional shambler, I do rankle a little when the villains in 28 Days/Weeks Later are referred to as zombies. I know it’s a very typical fanboy nitpick but I do think that in my heart of hearts that to qualify for the zombie tag you do need to be a reanimated cadaver.
You can stumble about doing the Bub-man or be a cannibal sprinter but you do need to have risen from the dead! So strictly speaking, the infected in the 28 Days films and Zombieland aren’t really zombies – if they were we’d be counting the parasite infested denizens of Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid as part of zombie cinema and, or more tellingly Romero’s The Crazies would be the part of his Dead series. And therefore, if you are as obsessed with movie monster mythology as I am (and if you are, then may Great Cthulhu have mercy on your soul), you can’t quite shake that niggling feeling that this movie’s title is slightly mendacious.
But if you can silence your inner nerd’s complaints about the correct form of undead locomotion and the defining characteristics of zombiehood, Zombieland actually delivers a solid slice of comedy horror in the main. The most surprising thing though, is that Zombieland doesn’t take the easy road in gross out humour and splatstick, especially in the current Hollywood comedy climate that is hot-housing countless teen sex and drugs capers and the witless slew of parody films (Shit Spoof Movie is on the slate as we speak). Now if over the top Itchy and Scratchy style comic gore is what you’re after, I‘d direct you straight to Dead Snow as Zombieland is not going to tick that box.
While there is plenty of violence dished out, Zombieland’s vein of humour is more sophisticated than the blood and guts as custard pies approach pioneered by the early films of Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi. The comedy is mainly firmly rooted in the failings and foibles of the characters, the relationships they form and the situations they find themselves in. And while I roar as much as the next man at the sight of character slipping over on his own intestines, it’s very refreshing that Zombieland’s gags come from a more traditional vein of comedy where although the characters are comic, they come across as real people rather than just clowns.
A good example of the level of the humour in Zombieland is its running joke - throughout the film, Columbus reveals the rules for surviving in the zombie apocalypse. Now since Scream, there have been a great many movies have included an ironic strand of comedy that knowingly acknowledges the clichés and conventions of the horror genre. And in lesser hands, the rules shtick could easily been a rehash of the film nerd character’s lines from Wes Craven’s flick. However, instead yanking a thread from this balding species of post modernism, Zombieland takes a smarter approach and plays the rules straight Max Brook’s style. For example, Rule #1 is Cardio, and states that if you’re not fit enough, the cannibal ghouls will catch you – good advice for anyone in a zombie outbreak not just people in a zombie outbreak movie but not comedic in itself. However it becomes funny when Columbus fills in the details and informs us that “the fatties died first”. And rather neatly the mentioned rules reappear at appropriate moments. Hence when a character is fleeing for their life, “Rule #1: Cardio” manifests as floating letters within the scene. It’s a nice little gimmick that functions as a comic call back and gives the film a distinctive individual flavour visually.
The film balances the horror and the humour well. The characters are written and played with enough depth to make they both engaging and believable, and the film wisely keeps its ‘zombies’ threatening but the situations funny. It delivers more enough laughs and while it never raises any real scares, it does serve up plenty of action-horror thrills. In short, Zombieland is great fun start to finish and a worthy addition to the horror comedy genre.
But all that said, somehow Zombieland left me feeling mildly dissatisfied. It certainly entertained and I was never bored but somehow I came out feeling somewhat ambivalent. Now this is nitpicky and it’s debatably whether this is an honest-to-god failing on the part of the makers, but my feeling on leaving the theatre was that although the film is a great success I wanted just a little more from it than I got. Now any film that leaves you wanting more has obviously done plenty right, but equally if you leave the cinema feeling less than full there’s obviously something missing. And for me Zombieland is right on that line.
Having mulled it over, I think that this – and I stress - mild sense of dissatisfaction comes from Zombieland’s strengths rather than any weaknesses. To begin with, I did think that there could have been more of Columbus’ rules included – according to the movie he has formulated 32 but we only discover what 10 of them are. Certainly detailing every rule would turn a neat running joke/motif into a tiresome gimmick, but I did think for there was room to insert at least 5 more.
More crucially though, the film tended to overuse Columbus’s narration. There were times when it crossed the line and was breaking that golden rule of movie making: show, don’t tell. On a couple of occasions, the voice over was just stating the obvious and I felt that with another pass over the script, a zinger or two could have been inserted to break the curse of Captain Exposition. At other points though, the narration was telling us things about the characters that I felt would have better illustrated dramatically. And with the quality of the writing and the performances on show, I can’t help feeling that a little more drama would give the film’s humour and horror more punch.
But perhaps I am just being overly nitpicky – being slightly lightweight is not a very serious charge for a popcorn romp after all. And at the end of the day, I am carping about wanting more of what was there and worked, rather than grousing over what either misfired. Interestingly though, the movie was originally conceived as a TV project and the writers therefore have material plotted out for several more instalments. Considering its success so far at the box office, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a sequel before too long, and if said sequel retains the same creative team and delivers a proper Part 2 that builds on the story and the characters then my niggles won’t count for much in the long run.
Zombieland is certainly light years ahead of the likes of Lesbian Vampire Killers or the Scary Movie franchise. Although it doesn’t quite reach the fried gold levels of Shaun of the Dead, it certainly serves up baked bronze if not lightly grilled silver.
JIM MOON, 15th October 2009