Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
The flesh-eating undead are not, understandably, every movie-goer's taste. There are plenty who will peruse their local movie listings and won't bother going past the first six letters of the title Zombieland. In 2004, the hilarious horror-comedy mashup Shaun of the Dead managed to scrape together only $13 million at the box office during its U.S. run.
This time, skipping the latest zombie flick will mean missing what may be the funniest American comedy of 2009.
Zombieland starts with a familiar apocalyptic premise: Some strange virus has swept through the population, turning most humans into relentless, flesh-hungry beasts. But a few survivors hang on, including a neurotic college student known as Columbus (Adventureland's Jesse Eisenberg) — because that's the hometown he's trying to make his way back to. That geography-laden name comes from Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), the taciturn road warrior Columbus encounters. Tallahassee's reluctant to form attachments, which makes sense when the next two people they encounter — sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) — promptly con them out of their car and their guns.
The opening minutes of Zombieland suggest that director Ruben Fleischer is going to crank up the nihilism, with the credits and captions becoming objects bumped and shattered by the characters as they chomp and/or get chomped. Columbus' narration focuses on his many, many survival rules, with Eisenberg brilliantly capturing a Type-A personality whose anxieties have been granted legitimacy — particularly when the hot girl he's been too insecure to woo ultimately tries to eat him for breakfast.
But while the first act offers plenty of bile-drooling, fat-chewing, no-personal-hygiene-having antagonists, they disappear almost entirely for the middle third of the film. The zombies become little more than the reason these four characters are traveling together, and the rest is turned over to snappy line readings from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's razor-sharp script. And while plenty of the humor comes from hip dialogue, there's also great stuff in the way it's presented, like a montage capturing the mundane road-trip chatter with which our heroes get to know one another. By the time Columbus and Co. reach Los Angeles — and an encounter with an A-list movie star whose name you'll have to seek elsewhere — the humor is flying much faster than blood or bullets.
And then it all kicks into high gear again for the amusement-park finale. Fleischer cross-cuts between locations in a way that dampens some of the tension, but he provides more than enough effective set-pieces — including the two sisters trapped on a free-fall ride — to make up for it. Unless a zombie falling like a melon to its splattering demise troubles you deeply, this isn't the kind of stuff that'll haunt your dreams.
Are there places to nitpick Zombieland's scenario? Oh, sure: There's no addressing whether the infection has spread worldwide, nor is there an explanation for why electricity and gas service continue, nor do we learn why the flesh-feasting menaces don't just eat one another. That, however, is stuff you worry about in a movie that's taking itself seriously. This one simply wants to have a laugh-out-loud blast with the end of the world, the kind that actually makes me hope that there could be a sequel.
And that, of course, would demand people come out and see the first one — even those who might ordinarily cringe at a little horror getting into their comedy.