Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Land of the dead(pan)

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenwriter: Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Jesse Elsenberg, Woody Harelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard, Mike White
Release Date: 2009-10-07
Rated: R
Genre: Film

For the record: I’m a werewolf guy myself.

Not that it matters, really. I mean, we could, you and I, pop a case of cream sodas and set our teeth and really get down to the dirty-and-serious of determining whether-a-werewolf-could-beat-up-a-vampire-could-beat-up-a-zombie, but it wouldn’t go a hair toward unseating the latter two ghoulies from their gilded and velvet-cushioned perches atop Hollywood’s movie-monster stable. Which isn’t to say, necessarily, that lycanthropes are especially underexposed, particularly when compared with the relatively modest amount of
celluloid committed to, say, fishmen or blobs or killer puppets (mummies do OK, I suppose) — but it’s a tall order for any bump-in-the-nighter to truly contend with the persistent and pervasive mass appeal of the undead, fanged or otherwise. It makes some sense: Vampires are goth-pretty and sexually permissive; zombies furnish a film with guiltless, unremitting carnage. But who’s king? Well, sure, you can’t throw a rock and hit a vampire script these days without first wading intrepidly through the heaving mire of vampire scripts already at your feet to dig up said rock, which is hidden under still more vampire scripts. But Vampmania — in whose pouty, pallid grip we once again (and rather intensely) find ourselves — comes in spurts, returning every few years or so; Zom-bias (sorry for that) never really leaves.

Again, there’s logic at work: A zombie talkie is potentially not-all-that-expensive, comes equipped with a built-in audience, and is remarkably versatile — equally fertile ground for horror, drama, comedy, and/or social commentary. The flip side, of course, is that, with so much shambly, brain-eaty cinema already out there, a movie’s got to show a little taste, talent, and/or style if it’s going to get noticed.

Zombieland, as far as I can tell, is more or less a first feature for director Fleischer and writing partners Reese and Wernick, but the film doesn’t often let up long enough to really let you notice. From the opening, the narration is sharp, the viscera is abundant and occasionally semiairborne, and the laughs and flair are bold and steadfast. The story — four survivors, scarred by loss and known to each other only by the cities from which they hail, splatter their way west to California through waves of the reanimated and hungry — is very cleverly framed by protagonist Columbus’s (Eisenberg) entertainingly practical rules for remaining un-chomped (“Don’t be a hero,” “Limber up”), which periodically appear, printed, as pseudointeractive components of the characters’ environments. It’s tricky to explain, and a risky idea if mishandled, but Fleischer pulls it off, and the result is memorable and satisfying.

Also memorable: Harrelson’s turn as Snake-Plissken-with-a-heart Tallahassee, who offsets Eisenberg’s Woody-Allen-with-a-sawed-off narrator nicely as the pair form the sort of mismatched big-screen bond that usually begins as comic and ends in third-act-mandated growth. Not too much of the second part here, really (I mean, maybe — maybe — a tiny bit), but it’s OK — Zombieland keeps things light, fun, and best of all, funny. There are less successful, more conventional moments, and I didn’t buy the muliebral survivors as grifter-bad-asses, but there’s more than enough inventiveness and genuine hilarity here (not to mention — no joke — perhaps the very best surprise cameo of all time `I implore you not to spoil it for yourself`) to more than outweigh any missteps. Zombieland will be widely same-breath-ed with Shaun of the Dead, and the comparison is apt. See it — in a rowdy-crowdy theater, if you can, and enjoy.


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