It’s a familiar horror-comedy premise: The Zombie Apocalypse. The world is in ruins and overrun with flesh-eating zombies. Among the few scattered human survivors is Columbus (as in Columbus, Ohio; the characters in the film are known for the destinations to which they’re headed), played by Jesse Eisenberg in his typical (and highly effective) dithering mode. He hitches a ride with the loose-cannon Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) along a highway littered with corpses and abandoned vehicles. Columbus and Tallahassee have a testy dynamic — the former being the tentative, always-anxious yin to the latter’s off-kilter, aggressive yang. Soon, the pair is joined by the scheming twosome, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). They form a dysfunctionally amusing clique, fending off hordes of zombies while tearing along in their truck towards a new destination, an amusement park in Los Angeles rumored to be zombie-free (No spoiler: It’s not).
The zombie-based action in Zombieland is old hat. We’ve seen it all before: Zombies attacking recklessly while our human heroes fend them off with shotguns and sharp objects. The comic violence is amusing up to a point after which it’s just a monotonous succession of beheadings and splatter effects; zombie violence is a dangerously one-trick pony and gives this sub-genre a been-there-seen-that vibe. But where Zombieland really shines is in its characters: Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, director Ruben Fleischer and the four-member cast create a group of truly endearing personalities who we enjoy following. Harrelson is in top nutcase mode, playing off perfectly against his exact opposite, embodied in Eisenberg. Stone, playing tough-chick Wichita, is charming, especially as a tentative romance develops between her character and Columbus. In fact, Zombieland’s best scene might be the one in which these two flirt tentatively and warm to each other. Breslin, meanwhile, as the no-nonsense Little Rock has a couple of sharply funny scenes with Eisenberg as well.
The central section of Zombieland, surprisingly, contains almost no action. It’s an extended interlude that takes place in, of all places, a mansion belonging to Bill Murray, who plays himself and brings to the film its goofiest, most hilarious moments. Dressed as a zombie to “blend in,” Murray has survived the apocalypse and, when he appears before our star-struck group, goes into a virtual stand-up routine, raising the nuttiness bar of Zombieland up one refreshing notch.
The action, especially its tiresome third act consisting of — you guessed it — more zombie mania, is about as dull and predictable as they come in this genre. It’s Zombieland’s delightfully offbeat characters that give the movie its staying power.
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Written by: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin