Review by Mike Finkelstein
There was a time when zombie comedies were considered strange and unusual. The zombie genre took its time growing and expanding, and arguably most of the leaps and bounds seen by the genre were caused by the master of the genre himself, George Romero. It took The Return of the Living Dead, released in 1985 (around the same time that Romero released his own third masterwork, Day of the Dead) for zombies and comedy to truly be combined together. After that, though, filmmakers slowly started to realize you could combine the two together to create a fun, new side-genre. Aside from more Return of the Living Dead films (which themselves veered away from comedy eventually), and Shaun of the Dead, one of the most popular examples of this slowly expanding genre would be Zombieland, the 2009 film that did respectable returns at the Box Office before fading away for some time.
What made Zombieland interesting is that it has vision. It wasn't just a comedy about zombies, although it did nail that, but it also had in very specific voice that made it unlike anything else in the genre to date. With clever asides, frame-in-frame jokes, pop-ups, and additional gags, Zombieland felt like a zombie movie filtered through the brain of Deadpool himself. In fact, if Deadpool had shown up in the film it wouldn't have even seemed odd (although there is a cameo just about as good in the movie). That strange, funny, manic energy is the biggest draw for the film and it's what keeps Zombieland watchable year after year.
The film focuses on Columbus (his nom de guerre as he's traveling across country, post zom-poc, to Columbus). Our protagonist Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a nebbish nerd who has so far managed to survive the zombie outbreak due to his list of rules. These rules (presented on screen via helpful tool tips) include such useful items as Cardio (be ready to run), Limber Up (stretching is important), Beware Bathrooms (as things can be lurking in them), and more. In effect, he's a guy that's afraid of everything who has seen his fear proven right because they've helped him survive. Still, he chooses to leave the safety of his apartment in Texas to travel back home to Ohio to see if his parents are still alive. That's how he ends up bumping into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson).
Where others suffered and died in the zom-poc, Tallahassee thrived. This is a man designed for the ass-kicking business (and, as the film notes, "business is good"). Columbus hitches a ride with Tallahassee on his journey east, and the two fall into a sort of uneasy friendship. Their bond is tested more than once, on the road, by con-women (and sisters) Wichita and Little Rock. These two steal the car out from under Columbus and Tallahassee, and then steal their next one as well. But the second time around the guys manage to convince the ladies to let them ride together, and soon all four are on a journey across the country to see the sights, have a few laughs and, yes, kill a lot of zombies.
The core or Zombieland is the drive across country. This is a road trip film set in a zombie apocalypse, with our heroes just looking to get from point A to point B while seeing what happens along the way. The joy is in the journey, not the destination (especially when, as we see time and again, the destination is filled with zombies). When there's barely anyone around except the dead, the true goal in life is just surviving to enjoy the time you get while you're still alive.
That does mean the film is, essentially, formless as far as plotting and story. It's a character drive piece, not one motivated by any major, large-scale plot. Columbus wants to get east. Wichita and Little Rock want to go west. Eventually their plans all align and they enjoy their time traveling together, but there's nothing major going on with the story beyond that. There's no big plan to fight the apocalypse and maybe find a cure. There's no big plot to save a bunch of survivors and stake out a new life in zombie-free lands. The characters just hang out and have fun and we're all along for the ride. It's actually refreshing in that way.
Aiding matters is the film's irreverent tone. It's a zombie film, yes, but it leans hard on the comedy aspect more than the horror. I'd argue the film isn't really scary at all as it telegraphs all the moments when the zombies would arrive. There's not a lot of gore (more than the splashing of blood as zombies get killed) and the violence veers towards the cartoonish. This is a very casual zombie film that aims squarely to make you laugh. Jokes, not scares, are it's goal.
The film uses writing and editing that feel like a precursor to 2016's Deadpool. While the characters never directly break the fourth wall (at least while they're on the main story), there are a ton of asides, cut-away gags, flashbacks, and other inset moments used to flesh out the characters and add humor. That's in addition to all the on screen written tips on how to survive the zombie apocalypse, letting the irreverent asides handle all the fourth-wall breaking for the film.
The film is constantly moving and manic in its cut-aways, but it never feels out of place. All of these moments come from our lead character, as if he's narrating his adventure. It's clearly all from within his own head, we just get to see it splayed out on screen. It adds life and energy to the film, adding to the manic energy in a positive way. I know there are some that feel this film can be tiring at times (and they have the same complaints about Deadpool as well), but I find this energy, this constant movement, to be a real boon for the film. It's fast and zippy with a light tone, perfect for this kind of comedy film.
Aiding that is, naturally, it's game cast. The movie has three solid comedy leads, from Eisenberg (Cursed, Adventureland) to Harrelson (Cheers, EDtv), and Stone (Superbad, Easy A). These three help to carry the comedic weight of the film even when it's not bouncing around on asides and cut-away gags. Even Breslin had her fair share of comedic roles under her belt (such as the dramedy Little Miss Sunshine), although if I'm being honest she's also the weakest link in the film. She gets the least amount of screen time, and has little bearing on the plot in general, so I can't really blame Breslin for her weak character, except to say she doesn't really do much to truly stand out.
And, if we're picking at the film, I will say that it starts to run out of energy by the last act. This is where the film converts from irreverent comedy into something more akin to a zombie adventure. It has to tie up it's loose story, sure, but the film forsakes a lot of humor in the last section and while it works in the moment, this is the part of the film that starts to drag in repeat viewings. When all the funny asides are gone and the film actually has to focus it, strangely, loses its way.
Still, that doesn't weigh the film down too much, even when you go back to it time and again. It's a fun film, with a lot of great humor that helps to carry it along. It's a hang out film, a stoner road trip adventure, and it works well along those lines. As long as you don't go in expecting a real zombie horror film you'll likely leave satisfied with what Zombieland has to offer.