(MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES are in an amusement park, standing in front of a “House of Horrors,” with a brightly lit Ferris wheel and roller coaster in the background. The table in front of them is covered with Twinkies.)
MA: I love amusement parks. And I have a soft spot for Twinkies, too. (Takes a bite out of a Twinkie). Mmm. Delicious! How about you?
LS: Why are you doing such obvious product placement? Are you moonlighting as a Hostess salesman these days, like Woody Harrelson?
MA (with mouth full): No, I just happen to like Twinkies!
(Suddenly, an overweight zombie with bloodied flesh dangling from its mouth charges them).
LS (lifts rifle and shoots the zombie right between the eyes): Keep your Twinkies. I’d rather kill zombies!
(Another zombie approaches)
MA: Aaww, everyone and his grandmother is killing zombies these days. I’d rather try something different, like reasoning with the creatures. Step aside. (Approaches zombie) Ahoy there! The way you’re shambling towards me, it looks like you no longer have a brain. Is that true? (A gun shot explodes, shattering the zombie’s head and spattering its brain).
LS (holding rifle): It is now. You can’t reason with a zombie, you goober! They bite first and ask questions later.
MA: I guess you’re right.
LS: Hell yeah, I’m right!
And what’s this about them “shambling?” In ZOMBIELAND, the zombies are practically track stars, the way they run after their victims. There is a reason why zombies shambled in Romero’s original movies – they’re DEAD. When you’re dead, you rot, and it makes it kind of hard to run a marathon.
MA: Well, folks, if you haven’t figured it out by now, we’re here at this amusement park snacking on Twinkies and fending off zombies because we’re reviewing the new zombie horror comedy, ZOMBIELAND (2009).
ZOMBIELAND explains its premise immediately, even before its opening credits play. Because of a new disease, the world’s human population has all turned to zombies, and the story follows four characters as they try to evade the zombies and survive.
LS: You should probably point out that “Zombieland” is not the name of the amusement park in this movie, which is what it sounds like.
(Sign superimposes over them with the words NOT AN AMUSEMENT PARK flashing on and off.)
LS: It’s what the lead character calls America now that it’s overrun with the living dead. In fact, since the whole world is overrun, the whole planet has become Zombieland.
MA: The story is told through the eyes of the main character Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) as in Columbus, Ohio (all of the characters are named for the cities they came from – nobody wants to use their real names, for fear they’ll get “too close”). You might remember Eisenberg from movies like THE VILLAGE and CURSED, as well as another amusement park-themed movie from earlier this year, ADVENTURELAND.
LS: What’s with all the amusement parks? And why does Eisenberg remind me so much of Michael Cera?
MA: I have no idea. Columbus makes for a very entertaining narrator. He’s a cross between an everyday guy and a young Woody Allen. He’s a loner, and he makes the poignant point that before the zombie epidemic, he treated other people like zombies, keeping his distance from them, but now that they’re all gone, he misses them.
LS: I think you’re jumping the gun (reloads shotgun) about Columbus. At first, I didn’t find him entertaining at all. I found him pretty irritating. Another ironic kid who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. And another salesman! In his flashback to “how things started” he name-checks Worlds of Warcraft, Code Red Mountain Dew and Golden Grahams within minutes. I’ve rarely seen such blatant advertising in a movie. And the audience seemed to eat it up, laughing at the references. What the hell is this world coming to when advertising passes as entertainment? It’s bad enough movie theaters show commercials before the movies start these days. And I’m not talking about movie trailers!
As for Columbus – at first I wanted to strangle the bastard, although his “Rules for Surviving Among the Zombies” – which actually pop up onscreen every time they are referenced – are pretty damn cool.
(Another flashing sign: RULES POP UP ONSCREEN!)
LS: That kind of imagery really works in this movie. But you can tell Columbus is a guy who thinks he is way smarter than he really is. In real life, he wouldn’t last a day in a zombie world. He’s way too much of a wimp.
But I admit, he does kind of grow on you as the movie progresses.
MA: I didn’t find Columbus irritating at all. I found him entertaining from the get-go. You’re right about him being a wimp, though, and it might not be overly realistic that he’d survive so long against the zombies, but I think the point was since he was a loner before, it prepared him to be on his own when all the humans were gone. He had experience having to survive on his own. So, I kinda bought that he could survive against the zombies.
Columbus meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) who loves killing zombies and is on a serious quest for Twinkies. In one of the movie’s funnier moments, they bust into an abandoned Hostess truck only to discover, to his horrific disappointment, that it’s filled with the dreaded Sno-Balls.
LS: Aside from his Hostess Tourettes (what is it with the constant banter about Twinkies anyway? They aren’t even that good! Funny Bones puts them to shame!), he’s easily the best character in the movie.
MA: Oh yes, Funny Bones are better. But enough with the processed sugar snack food debate already! Back to the movie!
LS: I remember kind of hating Harrelson back when he played that idiot Woody on CHEERS, but ever since NATURAL BORN KILLERS, he’s made me a big fan. In the movies, he always delivers interesting performances. Here, he’s the exact opposite of Columbus, who pretty much whines all the time. Tallahassee is a man of action. And he sure does love killing zombies!
(They move over to a booth where zombies are on a conveyor belt. LS and MA take turns taking shots at them as they grunt and growl. LS wins a giant teddy bear).
MA: Eventually, Columbus and Tallahassee hook up with two sisters: the hot one, Wichita (Emma Stone), and her 12-year old sibling Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).
LS: Abigail Breslin? Little Miss Sunshine?!! Does she sing and dance in this movie?
MA: No, of course not. The foursome drive on to California to visit an amusement park. This all makes the plot sound more serious than it really is, though it does have some surprising serious moments that work.
LS: They’re going to the amusement park because they’ve heard that it’s a safe “zombie-free” zone. Don’t ask me how they heard this. There are no other humans around to tell them.
MA: Yes, I thought this was kind of a dumb plot point, but in a movie like this, I didn’t mind too much.
LS: And if they’re sisters, why do they have the names of different cities?
MA: I don’t know.
LS: And I have more questions for you. When Columbus and Tallahassee first meet the girls, it’s in a supermarket. At first, Tallahassee is looking for Twinkies, but then, after the girls abandon them, he totally forgets about it. And yet this seems like the most important thing in the world to him. Wouldn’t he at least have grabbed some boxes of Twinkies before they left the supermarket for good?
And what about real food? How do these characters eat? We never really see them stock up on food and water at all, which is the first thing survivors in this kind of situation would do.
And when they find the truck full of Sno-balls, even Columbus just takes one little package when they walk away – and he likes them! Aren’t these people starving? Don’t they have any kind of instincts for self-preservation? You can’t live on whining and joking around alone.
MA: I agree with you one hundred percent on all these points, but as I said, ZOMBIELAND is a comedy, one that I must admit, I enjoyed watching immensely. I just have to put this one down as one of life’s guilty pleasures.
The first 10 minutes or so of this movie is filled with one grotesque zombie killing after another, and had the film continued on at this pace, it would have worn out its welcome fast, but it doesn’t do this. Its comedy comes mostly from its main characters, especially the two males.
Columbus is the perfect main character to root for, likeable, funny, and vulnerable, while Tallahassee, as played by Harrelson, is a madcap hilarious maniac who nearly carries the movie.
LS: Do those two remind you of anyone?
MA: No. Should they?
(MA and LS stand in front of fun house mirrors, which strangely don’t change their appearance.)
MA: Now that you mention it—.
Anyway, there are lots of laugh-out- loud scenes, and one of my favorite sequences involves a cameo by a Big Star. For some reason, most critics have been keeping it a secret who it is. But I’ll tell you right now, that it’s…
LS (covers MA’s mouth): Come on! The reason why people are keeping it a secret is because it’s one of the best gags in the movie. This “Big Star” actually works perfectly in the events of this movie and is hilarious in every scene he’s in. So don’t ruin it.
MA: I still think that’s stupid. By now, everyone knows who it is.
LS: Listen, I’m not going to be the one idiot who ruins it for everyone. Neither are you.
MA: Whatever! Like I said, the film is not without its serious moments, like a scene where we learn why Tallahassee hates zombies so much, though had it gone on like this much longer, it wouldn’t have worked. It does work though, and it’s capped off by Harrelson delivering the hilarious line “I haven’t cried this much since TITANIC,” which of course brings the house down and allows everyone in the audience to move on from the brief moment of drama.
(LS and MA move on to another booth where zombies are making a human pyramid. The guys take turns throwing rocks at them, trying to knock them over. MA wins a kewpie doll).
MA: For a madcap comedy filled with violence and gore, the four main characters are surprisingly well-written and acted. I really cared for them, and even though this is played for laughs, during the final sequence at the amusement park, when a horde of zombies attack them, I found myself questioning whether or not they would survive, and worrying when their safety was in doubt.
And as the four characters really get to know each other, ultimately, ZOMBIELAND becomes a story about trust, trusting other people, and having people to share one’s life with. Without that, we’re all just a bunch of zombies.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to read too much into this movie.
LS: Read too much into it? You say it’s all about trusting other people. That’s a pretty simplistic message – anyone could have figured that out.
MA: Really? Something tells me a whole lot of people seeing this film might not be in the “thinking” mode; they may just be looking to laugh their butts off. I’m making the point that this film actually offers more than just goofy laughs.
Still, ZOMBIELAND is a zombie comedy, and it IS funny. Very funny. It also happens to be surprisingly poignant. I really liked ZOMBIELAND and recommend it highly. You?
LS: Well, I certainly enjoyed it. But you’re gushing over it so much, that I almost wish I hated it. For what it is, it’s a fun ride and I laughed a lot. But it’s not without its flaws.
The Twinkie thing bugged the shit out of me, not because it isn’t funny, but because it’s so obviously a clever way to put advertising into the script. Every time I laughed at that joke, I felt duped.
As for the sisters, I think I would have shot them pretty early on. Here we are in a world where you’re in a constant fight your survival, and these two are professional con-men..er women…who are always screwing the men over. You’d think they’d get sick of that right away.
And the whole sex equation bugged me, too. These are probably the last people left on earth. And Columbus still acts like the terrified virgin he is – which gets tired really quick. If you can’t get laid at the end of the world, then you really need to put yourself out of your misery. I kept wishing Wichita would throw him on the ground and get it over with already. And don’t any of these characters get horny? Don’t they yearn to feel the touch of another person? You’d think the uninhibited Tallahassee and Wichita would have gone at it pretty early on, but instead, they seem pretty sexless (and this is an R-rated movie, for chrissakes!). I kept waiting for Tallahassee and Columbus to double-team her. What else is there to do when you’re the last humans left?
MA: Now you’re reading too much into this film. It’s a comedy!
LS: Written by a couple of eunuchs.
I also had a big problem with the horror aspects of this movie. Sure it’s a comedy. But it’s also a horror movie – yet not once during the whole movie did I truly feel that anyone was in real danger. The zombies are just a gimmick. You know in the big finale that the white knights are going to save the day. You know that nothing really bad is ever going to happen, and that felt like a real lost opportunity to me. To make the zombies truly dangerous, to have one of the characters die, would have added another level to this movie.
MA: See, I disagree with you totally on this point. I thought the zombies were a threat, and I certainly wasn’t convinced that this film was going to have a happy ending. In fact, I expected something bad to happen. So, the horror part worked for me.
LS: Let’s just look at arguably the best zombie movie ever made, George A. Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). Not only does it handle humor well (some of the scenes in the mall are downright hilarious), but it also keeps up a steady feeling of dread. You know that any character could die at any minute, and that’s what makes it so compelling. It does an amazing job of balancing humor, social commentary, and horror.
But, when you get down to brass tacks, ZOMBIELAND is just pure cotton candy. Which is fine. For what it is, it’s a hoot, and I admit I enjoyed it. But I just felt it was a little too superficial, when it could have been something more. It’s really just a live-action cartoon where the ammo never runs out (at least for Woody), and nothing ever gets too scary.
And there are long stretches where there aren’t any zombies at all. Once they get to Hollywood, this post-apocalyptic world looks downright terrific.
MA: Yes, that was problematic. There was a big chunk of time without zombies, that much I’ll agree with, but during that time the humor was still working, and I was still laughing.
(The GUYS move on to another booth. This time they spray high-powered hoses into zombie’s mouths until one of them explodes. LS wins a giant stuffed heart that reads “I Wuv You”).
MA: So how does ZOMBIELAND compare to some of the other zombie comedies? I still think SHAUN OF THE DEAD is the best of the bunch, but ZOMBIELAND is a close second. It’s much better than any of the other zombie comedies I’ve seen, with the exception of SHAUN.
LS: I thought SHAUN OF THE DEAD was a lot smarter (and made a lot more cool references to Romero’s films), but I kinda thought it was a bit overrated, too. There’s a whole scene where they’re locked down in a pub that drags on way too long. In comparison, ZOMBIELAND doesn’t really drag at all, but it’s just dumb fun. No attempt is made to dazzle us with these character’s intelligence.
Hell, I liked them both.
But if you’re talking the real “best of the bunch,” no “zombie comedy” comes close to Peter Jackson’s 1992 masterpiece DEAD ALIVE (originally called BRAIN DEAD). That’s got everything – laugh-out-loud humor, real danger, and mountains of gore. I don’t think any of these other movies even come close to the sheer brilliance of that one.
Despite my complaints though, I liked ZOMBIELAND a lot, and I recommend it, too. It’s fast-paced, well-acted, and doesn’t tax your brain too much. In fact, this is the kind of movie that will probably grow on me more over time as I think about it. It’s a roller coaster ride – but it’s a good roller coaster ride. And Woody Harrelson is especially terrific in it.
I actually thought I’d be sick of zombie movies at this point, but I had a great time – that was the biggest surprise to me. I thought I’d hate this movie.
MA: That’s a good point. I didn’t think I was going to like it either.
(Another flashing sign: “GREAT TIME! GO SEE ZOMBIELAND! EAT TWINKIES!”)
(MA & LS fire rifles at the sign, and the letters explode on screen in a fiery mess. When the smoke clears, they spell “END.”)
© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares