Zombieland: The Laughing Dead

Step right up, folks! Don’t miss your opportunity to visit the one and only Zombieland! See! the amazing traveling zombie-killers Tallahassee and Columbus! Witness! the beguiling sibling con artists, Wichita and Little Rock! Marvel! at the last famous person on Earth, Bill Murray! Watch! in horror as the undead walk and ooze assorted unidentifiable bodily fluids…

In the near future, a virus will sweep the world, turning almost everyone into flesh-eating, undead monsters with lightning reflexes and ravenous appetites. Civilization has collapsed, and very few living humans remain. Some things, however, never change: Murray is still at the top of the Hollywood food chain, and still insouciant. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg; Adventureland) is one of the few survivors – mainly because he has always been a skittish germophobe and budding recluse. Columbus adheres to a rigid set of rules, apparently derived from horror movie clichés, which has kept him alive. (Rule No. 31: Always check the back seat. Rule No. 17: Don’t be a hero.) He runs into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), who is the Steve McQueen of zombie-killers: bloodlessly efficient and almost too cool for words. Tallahassee’s only weakness is a mad craving for Twinkies. The corpse-grinding guys meet their match in a pair of sisters dubbed Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who survive on a wicked mix of brains and sex appeal. The boys just cannot stop underestimating them and falling for their cons. Complications inevitably arise when the group’s “every man for himself” ethos – the characters are designated by hometowns rather than names to keep each other at arm’s length – collides with simple human concern for one another.

Under the surprisingly assured hand of first-time director Ruben Fleischer, the movie has a free-wheeling sense of fun, as if the-powers-that-be really thought about the positives of living in a world conquered by the undead. The loose camerawork and editing — packed with slow-motion and ingeniously skewed angles – translate into a breezy pace that makes the business of stomping zombie ass look like an adventure and almost noble. The idea that all bets are off after the fall of civilization finds its ultimate expression in a liberating scene in which the characters destroy a kitschy souvenir store like rock stars on a bender. When there are no rules, why not turn the dump over? Then again, if there are no rules, what’s the point of violating norms? When the mice play, does it really count if the cat is dead? Wichita and Little Rock convince the boys to accompany them to Pacific Playland (a generic stand-in for the playground of a certain corporate mouse), because they believe the amusement park is a zombie-free zone. It also symbolizes the 12-year-old’s vanished childhood — lost, along with the rest of society, to the undead plague. Of course the supremely confident girls sneak off to enter the park alone, and the facility proves much more challenging than anticipated. And certain characters learn hard lessons about why Columbus keeps that little notebook full of survival rules. (And it ain’t because rules are made to be broken!)

Although this is an R-rated movie about the undead, Zombieland resists getting bogged down in gore, preferring to revel in disgusting use of unspecified, multi-hued ooze streaming from the orifices of the undead. Most of the more extreme violent moments – like dispatching a zombie with garden shears — are implied rather than actually depicted, however, the monsters do shred and eat flesh oncamera. This is not the kind of movie that demands a lot of acting nuance, but the performers do their best to make you root for their characters to survive. Columbus is the most…er, fleshed out, as Eisenberg avoids the easy pitfalls of playing nerds by depicting him more as a misunderstood regular guy. Harrelson’s Tallahassee is only too happy to learn that he is a natural-born killer of zombies with a zest for revenge against the abominations. As the treacherous sisters, Stone (Superbad) and Breslin sparkle as more than mere foils for the boys. Stone resists simply filling the role of love interest, while it’s easy to picture Little Rock as an older version of Little Miss Sunshine‘s overachieving Olive.

There’s something very appropriate about a movie featuring brain-eating monsters being perfectly mindless, but it is also totally enjoyable and strangely full of heart.

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