Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I'm going to Zombieland

Who said zombies were played out? I did. And I was wrong. After seeing Dead Snow, the Nazi Zombie movie set in the snowy mountains of Finland, I figured it would be a long time until a good zombie movie came out again. At least until the adaptation of World War Z. But Ruben Fleischer's first feature, written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, has proved me wrong. It's a damn entertaining movie that learns from its elders and schools its peers.
They waste little time on the premise, a wise choice, and a daring one these days. So many fantasy, horror and science fiction films these days spend so much time explaining that you feel like you're at a lecture about the story instead of actually watching it. Not so here. We meet a scrawny gamer kid we'll come to call "Columbus" as he approaches a gas station crapper. His narration, which drives the story instead of telling it, has informed us that he has a strict set of rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse, and a case of irritable bowel syndrome. Unfortunately, rule #2 is "Beware Bathrooms."
Columbus, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a loner in Z-land. Most of the population has been killed or eaten, and your only company is abandoned buildings and raving cannibal monsters. He totes a double barreled shotgun and a suitcase, and not much else. One rule is "travel light." He wants to see if his Mom & Dad are alive, and along the way he runs into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, in an inspired role) driving an Escalade with a cow cutter on the front, in a nod to Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. He's another loner but they team up for a bit. Tallahassee is searching for Twinkies. A quest as good as any in the post-zombie world. on their search they meet two sisters played by Emma Stone (Jules from Superbad) and young Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) who even manages to make Hannah Montana references amusing.
The film owes a lot to Shaun of the Dead but never seems derivative; it knows that the characters have to be more interesting than the zombies, and it delivers. It doesn't over-do its references either; there's a great scene as The Last Human Family smashes up a roadside kitsch stand full of fake American Indian souvenirs that reminded me of the mall zombies in the original Dawn of the Dead, which I liked. There's also a great cameo as they head for an amusement park in Los Angeles that's supposed to be free of zombies, too. Things slow down a bit then, and the finale in the amusement park- offering zombie hunting on roller coasters- is a lot of fun, but lacks real suspense. When you find out this was originally pitched as a TV pilot, you see it in this part. But it's still a blast, and the ending is satisfying as hell.
Zombieland should also get kudos for giving Jesse Eisenberg enough elbow room to perhaps shake the "Michael Cera 2.0" fleas that plagued him since Adventureland. He still plays a neurotic starring in a film ending in "land" but he has more range here. He seemed to have more confidence in building a character, and Columbus is more funny than he was annoying- unlike his previous starring role. The director does a great job with his editor and graphic designer, keeping the story moving and still giving us a detailed picture of the barren future. Columbus's rules are broadcast on the screen in clever titles, which helps keep the comic energy up. Emma Stone is proving her worth, and will be a name I look out for. Woody Harrelson is as funny as he's ever been, and is generous enough not to steal scenes from his young cohorts. This was one of the more enjoyable theatrical experiences I've had recently, and lives up to the hype. Plus the soundtrack is just perfect. If it interests you at all, please go see it in theaters and tell Hollywood that R-rated horror and comedies still have a place here in MarketResearchGroupLand.

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