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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.7.10





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Brains, Sweet Brains

Killing zombies is just part of the fun

by Molly Templeton

ZOMBIELAND: Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Cinematography, Michael Bonvillain. Editor, Alan Baumgarten. Music, David Sandy. Starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. Columbia Pictures, 2009. R. 88 minutes.

Jesse Eisenberg  and Woody Harrelson in Zombieland

Zombieland is essentially the American road-trip version of Shaun of the Dead, the film said to have invented the rom-zom-com (romantic zombie comedy). Shaun is a feat of grody deaths, snappy humor and wry warmth. Zombieland, from first-time director Ruben Fleisher, isn’t quite up to par, but if it’s a little tonally challenged and occasionally a touch clichéd, it’s also — delightfully and gorily — even funnier than expected.

The not-quite-a-hero of this tale, in which most Americans have been infected with a virus that leaves them drooling blood and craving the flesh of the living, is referred to as Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), which is kind of clever and also a little silly — he’s exploring America! — like most things in the film. His backstory arrives in flashbacks that give him a chance to explain the rules of surviving in the new zombie order. Rule one is simply “Cardio.” Other rules include “Beware of bathrooms” and “Don’t be a hero.” This last rule is obviously begging to be broken.

After losing his ride (Rule four: “Wear seatbelts”), Columbus hitches a ride with Tallahassee (Woody Harrselson), who’s the one who insists they use not their given names, but their hometowns. You don’t want to get to close to future zombie fodder, even if you are traveling together. Harrelson has been on a good run since his turn as a cowboy singer in 2006’s  A Prairie Home Companion, and without him as this oddball father figure — drawling, defensive, gun-loving, hat-wearing, Twinkie-obsessed — Zombieland would falter. 

Tallahassee is a man meant to kill zombies, which die spectacularly. He’s also a secret softie, and he falls as hard as Columbus does for the bait set by two low-key grifter sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Wichita is heavily eyelinered and fierce; Little Rock is still a kid, if a fairly wise-beyond-her-years one, what with the destruction of her country and all. Everyone’s heading in a different direction when they meet, but the plot conspires to set the foursome on the road to L.A., where rumor has it there’s a zombie-free amusement park. There are also celebrity homes that serve nicely as crashpads. (Do yourself a favor: Do not look at the IMDb.com listing for the movie. Do not read reviews that list a fifth person in the cast. Don’t get spoiled. The celebrity cameo is best seen with unexpectant eyes.) 

Zombieland’s countless pop culture references both suit the goofy tone of the film and serve as a reminder that these characters aren’t living in the Movie Universe, where no one’s ever seen a zombie film (Columbus, a geeky shut-in, clearly based his rules on cinematic precedent), but in our universe, where teens remember their first R-rated movies and 12-year-olds are called upon to explain the intricacies of Hannah Montana. Every so often, the tone slips, and a joke crashes or a revelation throws off the tenor of a scene. Wichita is disproportionally hot compared to Columbus, as women in movies are so often required to be, and it’d be nice if we could’ve avoided the damsels-in-distress scenario, but to be fair, both female characters are pretty handy with a firearm. Zombieland has a sweet underdog spirit; it seems aware that the notion of a zombie comedy starring Little Miss Sunshine and the guy from Adventureland might have viewers a teensy bit skeptical. But this bloody, funny road trip is worth taking.