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Film Review: Zombieland

Zombieland (2009; Directed by Ruben Fleischer)

A slight trifle of a zombie flick, Zombieland mostly cannibalizes the genre and doesn’t give much back to it. It never manages to quite become the irreverent, boundary-transcending zom-com that it initially promises that it might try to be, a brasher American species of the modern model of the zombie satire, Shaun of the Dead. Lacking the anti-consumerist social commentary of Edgar Wright’s sharper, more considered, more deeply-felt, and yet more anarchically entertaining effort, Zombieland finds instead that a Stateside undead apocalypse would only serve to magnify the survivors’ yearning for the sugar-rush quick fulfillment of the products of American consumer capitalism, and indeed would only infuse those products with the nostalgic aura of a better, irrevocably lost time before hordes of viscera-splattered ex-people sought to devour the living.

All four members of Zombieland‘s unlikely quasi-family of continent-traversing uninfected survivors, their real names forsaken in favour of monikers derived from their cities of origin, remember, through the narratives of consumerism, a time before the undead contagion collapsed the entirety of society. Protagonist/narrator Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) was an anti-social loner downing Mountain Dew Code Red and playing World of Warcraft in his Austin dorm room while nursing pervasive single-male fantasies of kissing a hot girl; now he makes an OCD list of rules of survival necessities (#1: Cardio; #3: Beware of bathrooms; #22: When in doubt, know your way out; etc.) and longs for human connection amidst the carnage. Southern-fried brusque-talking badass zombie-killer Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) subsumes a painful personal loss from his past life with a playful enjoyment in dispatching reanimated corpses and a quixotic quest for Twinkies. Con-running sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) have set their sights on a Los Angeles-area amusement park called Pacific Playland, ostensibly as a rumoured zombie-free enclave but more honestly as an attempt to recapture a measure of childlike innocent happiness for the younger Little Rock. Even Hollywood movie star Bill Murray – in a droll, mostly-improvised cameo appearance that is a bit funny but mostly shamelessly flatters his outsized comedy giant reputation – seeks to retain his man-about-town habits and celebrity public persona, even in the absence of a public to consider him a celebrity.

Mostly taking the ground rules of this undead dystopia as assumed (the zombie condition is caused by a virus, it is spread by being bitten, head shots kill zombies, etc.), director Ruben Fleischer focuses on the comic interplay of his cast and their occasional encounters with their implacable zombie pursuers. That interplay is enjoyable, if a bit too detached from the baseline reality to seem anything more than an entertainment conceit. Most of the choices the characters make in the last act of the movie in particular are driven more by the comedic thrust of the script (by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) than the core sensibilities of logical self-preservation in a constant crisis situation. Basically everything the sisters do during the climax at Pacific Playland, especially, undermines their supposed savviness.

Of course, this is intended to be a fun, laugh-out-loud zombie-killing romp. The decisions and actions of its characters need not be based in common sense or survival instincts to ensure such fun or such laughs, but it has a tendency to help if they do. After all, Zombieland throws together this ragtag foursome against their better judgements and survival-driven vows to avoid being saddled with human attachments that might imperil their endurance. They find that survival in the face of a wave of the living dead doesn’t mean much at all if their own living is effectively dead due to a lack of human connection. It’s a classic comedy-film theme of correct family-centric socialization… amidst a denuded undead hellscape where the living must go to extreme and often violent lengths to survive being consumed by the dead.

Like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland is more of a fond and enthusiastic embrace of the zombie genre than it is an upending critique of it. Unlike Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland carries no suggestions that capitalism itself is a zombiefying virus, and keeps its emotional touch light as well, electing not to push the emotional thresholds of its characters. Consumer culture is another symbol of lost happiness and normalcy in Zombieland, while in Shaun of the Dead, it’s a masking curtain for the zombie-like mindless machine that grinds down ordinary working folks. One of these films cuts deeper and draws more blood, and Zombieland isn’t it. It’s only a flesh wound.

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