I suspect there’s a lot of heart somewhere in “Zombieland.” Most of the time it’s cleverly pumping behind a smart script, deft direction, and plenty of bloody, oozing guts flowing out of various wounds inflicted on the ever increasing number of undead by some the few remnants of the rest of civilization. The latter — in this movie an unlikely quartet of makeshift survivalists — don’t have much of a chance against the marauding zombies. Thanks to a by-your-pants gumption, clever effects, and the interplay among the zombie warriors, the film is a terrifically funny action horror piece, the best since 2004’s deadpan British import “Shaun of the Dead” sent ecstatic moviegoers fleeing from theaters in a lunatic frenzy.
Director Ruben Fleischer’s first feature (kudos to this D.C. native!) is one of the fall’s best answers to forgetting the rotten economy, the torment over health care reform, or Chicago’s loss of the 2016 Olympics. While some Illinois zombies are celebrating the Windy City’s loss to Rio, director Fleischer couldn’t be happier that his sporting effort was crowned box office champ its opening weekend. I smell repeat business and robust DVD sales. The result could have be been quite different. When he was first assigned the project, the director admitted that his only previous exposure to zombie movies was Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” a straight horror classic from the guy who later brought us “Slumdog Millionaire.” Fleischer caught up on his homework for the genre and earns high grades for his low-brow spin on the undead.
“Zombieland’s” world of reanimated corpses finds humankind suffering from an unidentified plague, with its heroes fighting off the infected with nervous plum, an inventive odd lot arsenal of anti-zombie weaponry (shotgun, machine gun, baseball bat, toilet seat cover, pruning shears, rotary cultivator, grand piano), and some plain, “Made in America” common sense. The spiffy script by friends-since-high-school buddies Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (both of whom share executive producer credit with Ezra Swerdlow) builds on their screen success with several Spike TV series, including 2003’s “The Joe Schmo Show” and “Invasion Iowa” two years later.
The small (living) cast layers on their own serio-nonsense. Jesse Eisenberg, recently one of the shining stars in Greg Mottola’s indie hit “Adventureland,” also earned several award nominations for his performance as a teenage victim of divorced intellectuals in Noam Baumbach’s 2006 tragi-comedy “The Squid and the Whale.” He introduces and narrates “Zombieland” with a dorky nervousness. As Columbus (all the main characters opt to be called by the city of their hoped-for destination), he’s about as scary a zombie killer as a goldfish with curly hair. A family-disowned loner with a serious case of coulrophobia, we learn the shy college student can’t get the girl next door except under bizarre circumstances. And that’s far from the slam dunk he expected.
As the film develops, Columbus offers up his own rules of war, peppered with a few dozen dos and don’ts about killing zombies. Embellished with flashbacks to convince us how he’s refined this set of regulations, the film shows these various principles as 3-D letters hovering over the on-screen action, just like those location names that are popular on tv’s “Fringe.” But throughout the film (and especially in the opening credits), this signage (including “Always Wear Seatbelts,” “Double Tap”) become casualties of the live action around them, crumbling hither and yon.
Then there’s Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a gun-toting fanatic on the far side of sanity. I kept thinking of Harrelson in similar roles, especially the psychotic sergeant in Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog” (1997), and that he’s the perfect actor for the part of the Twinkie-obsessed take-no-zombie-hostage fighter. Mix in Emma “Superbad” Stone (Emma) and Abigail “Little Miss Sunshine” Breslin (Little Rock) as sisters with their own twisted agenda, plus a special bonus of Bill Murray in an absurd and entertaining cameo as himself, wherein he finally reveals which of his film appearances he regrets the most. (Stay through the end credits for an added scene.)
Thankfully there’s nothing remotely serious about “Zombieland.” It’s just a heck of carnival attraction (Shoot the ducks/Shoot the zombies) on a roller coaster filled with laughs.