October 8, 2009

Zombieland (Review)


Zombieland (2009)

Director: Ruben Fleischer

RATING: 3 / 5 zedheads

Horror and comedy are perhaps the two most subjective and therefore slippery genres of film. That which makes one person laugh hysterically or claw up the theater seats in pure dread makes the next person yawn loudly and curl up to fall asleep. When you put horror and comedy together, you have the most unpredictable sub-genre of film. That is precisely why films like Shaun of the Dead, Evil Dead 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and An American Werewolf in London can develop such rabid cult followings at the same time that they completely alienate other audiences. Case in point: Whereas Zombieland has done well at the box office and I enjoy a good number of horror comedies, Zombieland itself left me feeling surprisingly unaffected.

Zombieland starts as the story of two survivors of the zombie apocalypse: the neurotic Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and the lovably unstable zombie killer Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). Columbus and Tallahassee become unlikely travel partners as they drive across a zombie-devastated America. Columbus wants to go home, but Tallahassee lives life on the road where he delights in destroying zombies and obsesses about finding and eating America's last surviving Twinkie. Along the way, they run into Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Wichita is leading Little Rock to a beloved amusement park that Wichita has promised is the last place to remain zombie-free.

While Zombieland has a lot going for it, I feel that making Columbus the focus of the film does more harm than good. On the one hand, he is the character with whom the general audience will most identify. Despite his social phobias and foibles, the character is designed to be quite likable. On the other hand, I found Eisenberg's whole performance of the character to be flat and unfunny. Eisenberg gets a lot of shit from people who say he rips off Michael Cera's mannerisms even though those same people have labeled Cera as one-note. Regardless, I like Michael Cera even if he is one-note, yet I feel Eisenberg lacks the comedic timing to make his character work. Everything about Columbus should make me care for him, but I just don't. By comparison, I'm more interested in Wichita, Little Rock, and especially Tallahassee. Whenever Woody Harrelson is on screen, he brings the funny. I can't even write too much about Harrelson's depiction of Tallahassee without spoiling his scenes.  Whenever Eisenberg is on screen, however, things start to go stale. If not for Columbus' running gag of explaining and illustrating his rules for surviving in a zombie apocalypse, I would not care about his character at all.

Making matters worse, I HATE overt character narration. When the lead character is also the narrator of the movie, ala The Wonder Years, I get very bored. There's nothing more annoying than a character telling us how he feels / felt rather than showing it on screen. It's a cinematic story-telling device that I feel is rarely ever used well.

Taking Columbus and his narration out of the equation, Zombieland also suffers from a weak plot and motivation. The plot feels like it is missing an act; the narrative feels structured for TV. At the same time, characters lack convincing motivations for their actions. Given that Zombieland is not a screw-ball comedy where the humour is predicated on the characters' idiocy, why Wichita and Little Rock would do what they do once they reach the amusement park is inexplicable given their previous characterizations. The choices they make force the final scenes on us and cast a question over the entirety of what should otherwise be an enjoyably madcap climax.

Things aren't all bad in Zombieland. This film is the first feature from TV director Fleisher and TV writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and I have to give extreme credit to this creative team for making Zombieland more than a padded TV pilot. The scope and look of the movie is truly cinematic. The special effects and special makeup effects give us some truly memorable zombie mayhem and a perfect sense of post-apocalyptica. With gorgeously diseased zombies designed by Tony Gardner and his team from Alterian, Inc., which includes Steve Prouty working on the set to bring most of the makeup effects to life, Zombieland should not disappoint zombie fans looking for some good-natured zombie carnage. Readers interested in the work that went into creating the look of Zombieland should read Philip Nutman's feature "I'm Going to Zombieland" in the October 2009 issue of Fangoria (#287).

There's plenty of surprisingly effective zombie gore and mayhem to satisfy any zombie fan, but I didn't connect with the story, the lead character, or much of the humour. Except for a "surprise" celebrity cameo and its related sequences, all the funniest scenes are spoiled in the film's trailers. In the end, I'm sure the Zombieland rules for survival ("Double tap") will become a part of the zombie community's collective language, and Zombieland is a movie people should at least rent, but it doesn't hold a candle to superior zombie comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Dance of the Dead.