Completely missing from this lifeless celebration of the living dead dispatching zombies
George Romero, the acknowledged master of the zombie flick, has said that one of the toughest parts of making zombie movies is thinking up creative ways to kill them. What Romero fans get, though, is that the kills are just window dressing for the larger ideas Romero tries to get across. He has to, you see, because zombies in themselves really aren't all that interesting, or, for that matter, scary. From their origins in colonial attitudes toward Haiti to the shambling consumers of Shaun of the Dead, the zombie has always stood for something else, and as Robert Kirkman pointed out in his Walking Dead comics, a good zombie story is always about the people.
Director Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland opens promisingly, with the introduction of Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) as he lays out his rules for living in what he calls "Zombieland." No. 1) Exercise. No. 4) Fasten your seat belt. The rest--up through thirtysomething--are either not mentioned or equally forgettable. The rules are accompanied by a montage of people who didn't follow them, with predictable results, before the movie dissolves into an opening-credit sequence of detailed, lovingly shot scenes of zombie mayhem. Savor it. It's the best part of the movie, and the last time that Fleischer pays attention to anything.
Zombieland doesn't care about the people. It doesn't really care about anything at all. The movie's most coherent motivation is Tallahassee's (Woody Harrelson) desire for a Twinkie, which for some reason are in short supply, while gasoline, bullets, and--given Wichita (Emma Stone)--eye makeup are available by the truckload. Not that the movie ever explains that, or anything else. The spirit of cheerful sadism that infects the characters guides Fleischer as well, so, for instance, an extended and meaningless scene featuring Bill Murray in zombie drag can't derail the plot, because there is no plot to derail. The movie relies on a strain of the American dream that appeals to adolescent boys and particularly violent right-wing militias--the dream of driving the largest possible car across a land where the ammunition never runs out, shooting the crap out of everything you see. Also, there is a hot girl.
In summary: Columbus, an annoying World of Warcraft geek whose fear of zombies is only surpassed by his fear of everything else, meets Tallahassee, who kills stuff good, in a world where the dead have risen from the grave (a condition that is mentioned only briefly as having something to do with a contaminated hamburger). They run into Wichita and her younger sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a pair of grifters whose survival strategy involves waiting in the back of a zombie-infested supermarket with an elaborate con prepared in case the only other two people in the world happen by. After some initial unpleasantness, they agree to join forces, so that they can go to an amusement park. Along the way, they kill a bunch of stuff, not because they are ever in any particular danger, but because, you know, killing stuff is fun.
So what about the killing stuff parts? Did the Fleischer put in Romero's creative effort? Well, it's tough to say, because after a few good gory scenes at the beginning, he chooses to cut away from, for example, Tallahassee surrounded by what seems an unstoppable horde of living dead, and return only after the action is over, to a pile of the newly re-deadified. More attention is paid to the gleeful and meaningless destruction of a roadside gift store than to, say, the killing of a zombie with a set of gardening shears, which is left to the imagination. Fans of zombie killing would be better served by finding a copy of the 2009 Norwegian flick Dead Snow, a formulaic account of a group of attractive young people who go out into the woods and meet up with a bunch of undead Nazis. That movie at least has the decency to kill off its annoying lead characters, and manages to get the gore part right and be funny at the same time. Anyway, over the course of Zombieland, Columbus learns a number of valuable life lessons, such as "Nut up or shut up," and "Enjoy the little things," culminating in the movie's cloying moral: "Without other people, you might as well be a zombie." Given the characters thorough lack of human emotion and redeeming qualities, it would be tough to tell the difference.