SEPTEMBER 17, 2009
Another day, another big studio horror comedy with the focus shifted more toward comedy. Being a horror nut, this would normally bug me, and in Jennifer’s Body’s case it did, because the horror was not only brief, but half-assed. Luckily, that is not the case for Zombieland, which manages to breathe life into the zomcom sub-genre by playing to the strengths of its cast members (Woody Harrelson - crazy; Emma Stone - hot, etc) and largely ignoring traditional zombie movie (comic or not) trappings.
Such as the lack of evil humans in the 3rd act. Sure, Stone and her sister (Abigail Breslin) are introduced as “villains” in that they play possum and steal our heroes’ guns, but you know their antagonism will turn into an alliance before the half hour mark or so. And even before then, they are hardly the hateful types that crippled films like 28 Days Later. They’re just trying to get by without doing any work - they don’t physically harm the guys or trap them in a room with zombies or whatever. It’s the refreshingly light, breezy tone that allows the film to work as well as it does. Even in potentially dark moments (such as when Jesse Eisenberg’s character learns that his hometown has been leveled) are not dwelled on, and it’s not long before another laugh is delivered.
Speaking of Eisenberg, I only have two issues with the film, and his performance is one of them. Basically, he’s playing Michael Cera. I can’t fucking stand that kid, and I don’t need to be reminded of him in an otherwise enjoyable movie. He’s a likeable hero, and one I can definitely identify with (I too spent many a Friday playing video games and am afraid of clowns), but his Cera-ness approached high annoyance levels at times. Maybe this is just Eisenberg’s style; I’ve never seen him in anything else, but if he’s like this in Adventureland (what’s with the theme park movies, dude?) then I will know I was right to ignore everyone that has told me to watch it.
(Oh, he’s in Cursed too. Like I remember frame one of that pile of shit.)
And that ties into my other issue, which is the fact that there are long zombie-free stretches. I wouldn’t mind a little of his fumbling awkwardness if I knew a zombie was about to shut him up, but there are a couple 10-15 minute stretches in the film without a single zombie. Not a big problem for a two hour plus epic like Dawn of the Dead; a little moreso when your film is only about 85 minutes. Sure, they make em count when they do occur, but you almost start to feel like they’re not even an issue for the characters.
But man, are the zombie scenes great. Woody’s shooting spree throughout the theme park is one of the all time best zombie sequences - shooting as he rides a roller coaster, hanging from an elevated tilt-a-whirl type ride and shooting as he spins round and round, etc. And the opening credits, set to Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (you know the movie is kind of special when Metallica allows one of their songs to be used - you’d probably be surprised how rare this actually is) is applause-worthy. Not only is it gory and epic (it’s sort of showing the overall scope of the zombie outbreak), but it features the best use of slo-mo in recent memory.
It also brings back the idea of “featured” zombies, something that has been sorely missing from several of the newer zombie films. It’s still not exactly up to the levels of “Hare Krishna Zombie” or whatever, but still: Clown zombie, Fat Ethan Suplee-looking Zombie, and even Chaplin Zombie leave an imprint. Speaking of Chaplin, there’s a scene where our heroes drive through Hollywood, and it actually kind of creeped me out, seeing it all deserted and showing signs of an apocalypse (crashed cars, trash blowing around, etc). Having just been there the night before, it was an eerie sight.
Another thing about Chaplin zombie (I would have loved if the entire Mann’s Costume crew attacked) is that it’s not only a hilarious sight, but it also helps ground the film in reality a bit. And that just paves the way for what will undoubtedly be the highlight of the film for its fans. Now that they are in Hollywood, director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick address something that is almost always overlooked in post-apoc movies: what happens to our celebrities? Woody’s character decides he knows just the place to hole up, and I thought for sure that they were going to reveal that his character was in fact Woody Harrelson (none of them are given real names - they go by their hometowns); that he was playing a caricature of himself a la Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold & Kumar movies. But the residence belongs to someone far more hilarious and “holy shit!” worthy, and I really hope it’s not spoiled for you before you see the movie.
Like Cut, the film also benefits from a wide-reaching soundtrack. Metallica, Willie Nelson, Velvet Underground, Van Halen, The Raconteurs, and Hank Williams all in one movie? Awesome. Some of these tunes are heard during what was my favorite non-zombie part of the movie, a driving/bonding montage where the four characters (constantly changing their seating arrangement; even the 12 year old Breslin takes a turn at the wheel) bicker and play the “You’ve never heard of _____?” game of identifying the difference in generations between characters.
This scene has a few pop-culture references, as does the entire film, so it’s nice that I saw it back to back with Jennifer’s Body. Zombieland has just as many references - but they are used as references, not in the place of other words, which means that they a. are funny and b. make sense. When Stone’s character talks about going to see her first R rated movie, she says “We saw Anaconda.” If the film was written by Diablo Cody, she would say “We saw a pirate-approved movie where Papa Jolie got Crunch’n’Munched by Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s dick.” (or something overly stupid like that - have fun deciphering it). By using movies, music, etc as actual movies, music, etc, it works even if you aren’t familiar with the material. If you take someone’s name and use it as a verb (as people in Body do), then you won’t understand the point of the line if you aren’t familiar with the person. And again, it just helps ground the film in reality - even if you haven’t seen Anaconda (and I haven’t, actually), you probably recognize it as a real world movie.
I know I’ve talked more about the humor and characters than the zombie stuff, but that’s just how the movie plays out (and plays well). And even during the zombie scenes, they never lose the humorous approach. Comparisons to Shaun Of The Dead are going to be numerous, and that’s fine (though I think Dance Of The Dead is closer in tone - and Zombieland is far superior to boot), but in Shaun they sort of forgot about the comedy during the finale in the Winchester, and that’s not the case here. It’s a damn fun film from start to finish, and will almost certainly rank among my top 5 horror films of the year. Kudos to all involved!
What say you?