Mark Reviews Movies


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin

MPAA Rating: R (for horror violence/gore and language)

Running Time: 1:20

Release Date: 10/2/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Zombieland opens and closes strongly, with an inspired, self-aware narration about the rules of surviving a zombie infestation and a delirious, bullet-riddled romp through an amusement park respectively. During the time between, the movie has a few flashes of genre-bending inspiration (and one significant one), but the rest is a little too low-key and obvious to really set this zombie comedy apart.

What happens when the movie isn't joking around about its scenario, its obvious genre trappings, its character types, and its extreme violence is that it becomes a quiet, bordering on somber, look at its characters and what living in a world full of the viral undead means to them and how it has changed their lives.

One might ask, how could I criticize the movie for letting it have its character moments, to which I'll respond, I'm not criticizing the existence of such moments. I'm critical of how they exist within the movie.

There's a large difference between allowing character moments and forcing them. For that difference in this context, one need only compare Zombieland with Shaun of the Dead, which allowed for character growth, sometimes at unexpected times, in the midst of its plot.

The script of Zombieland (by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) grinds to a halt when it wants its characters to open up and reveal themselves. For a movie that starts off with so much momentum, that shift in tone and pace is all the more transparent.

The energy does start strong as our hero, known only as Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) after the city he's from, goes through a list of his rules for surviving a world overrun by zombies. These include but are not limited to checking the backseat of the car, being cautious of bathrooms (very important for Columbus, who suffers from IBS), making sure the undead stay dead after you've attacked them (the "double tap"), and the all-important cardio, what with all the running around one will be doing. He tells these to us as he's being chased around a gas station, and the rules pop up on screen as he follows them.

Columbus is used to challenges, disappointments, and loneliness. Even before the zombie plague, he never really had a family, sat alone in his apartment playing video games, and never really spent much quality time with women. The first time he did spend time alone with a woman, he shows us, she ended up becoming a zombie. This is his luck.

Along his travels, he meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, first appearing as though he walked off the set of Natural Born Killers), a tough-as-nails badass who's become quite the expert at killing zombies. Not good enough to become "Zombie Killer of the Week" (Somehow, there does seem to be a competition organized), but he is pretty efficient in his own right.

There's also Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two grifter sisters who perfected their skills in a time long before the undead invasion. They, of course, don't trust easily but aren't too trustworthy either.

The script has its moments of fun with these characters. The sisters always seem to have the upper hand in any situation and take advantage of the guys any chance they have. Tallahassee, in spite of his zombie-butchering talents, is seemingly inconsolable about his puppy and loves to appreciate the little things. Also, his raison d'ętre is to find the world's last Twinkie.

These little deviations from expectations are a lot of fun when they're introduced and carried through, but as the group's road trip to find an amusement park out West progresses (Little Rock just wants a moment to be a little kid and her sister wants her to have it), the motivations and traits become a little more obvious (Hint: Tallahassee's not that upset about a puppy). The movie itself loses steam as a result.

There is a brief excursion in Hollywood in which the movie finds a joyous moment. Tallahassee decides to make a stop at the actor he considers to be at the top of A-list celebrities, a cameo I'll leave for you to discover. Then of course there's the big action climax at the amusement park. Here, director Ruben Fleischer regains a lot of the lost energy, as the park's rides become weapons, bullets and blood fly, and the whole thing comes to us in effective slow motion.

There is a lot to admire in Zombieland. When the movie has the conviction to play with genre conventions and its characters, it's a lot of fun. The wildly diverting route into forced character moments, though, proves once again that less is sometimes more.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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