Last Wednesday I thought I would go down to the local cinema and check out the new releases. With the rising popularity of ‘zombie films’ across the world, I chose the action/horror/comedy ‘Zombieland’ to see if it matched the expectations I had of the genre. The cinema was packed, so I noticed I was not the only one who made this choice. The trailer I had seen on the television looked absolutely hilarious, so now it was time to see the main feature itself…
I was skeptical at first, having seen films such as ‘Shaun of the Dead’, assuming it would be an exact copy with nothing particularly standing out to differentiate it from the rest of the modern horror/comedies, however I was pleasantly surprised by the style and format of the film. The voiceover narrator, the use of the amusing non-digetic soundtrack, the continuous use of slow motion to show emphasis and the titles showing the “rules of zombie-killing” obviously made the film extremely unrealistic, but those are factors which made it so so ridiculously funny!
‘Zombieland’ was first released in the Uk on the 7th October (2009), directed by Ruben Fleischer and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. It has a running time of 87 minutes. To view the trailer click HERE.
The Plot (Warning – Spolier)
Due to a contagious virus related to the mad cow disease, the Earth’s population has been decimated, that turns everyone into flesh-craving zombies (hmm could be possible). Only a small handful of humans remain, including the nerdy virgin Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a student at the University of Texas. Columbus has problems socialising and has a phobia of pretty much everything, which he uses to his advantage in avoiding zombies. Funnily enough, zombies are not his greatest fear… clowns are.
Whilst walking down a deserted highway, he encounters his soon-to-be newest companion, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) who is on the challenging mission of getting to Florida and killing as many flesh-eating zombies as possible on his way. Tallahassee agrees to give Columbus a ride as far as Texarkana. When they stop at a convenience store with hopes of finding Tallahassee’s desired Twinkies, they fight off three oversized zombies. They then come across the next two main characters: two teenage girls, Wichita (Emma Stone) and her younger sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) who has seemingly been bitten by a zombie. Columbus gives Wichita his shotgun without hesitation, as she tells him she intends to kill her sister herself before she eats their brains (to put it bluntly). Although, she wasn’t really infected and the two girls rob them of their remaining weapons and the Escalade they were driving.
Columbus and Tallahassee soon find a Hummer full of guns, and so they drive west in order to get revenge on Wichita and Little Rock. They eventually find the Escalade broken down but Wichita and Little Rock trick them again. After a standoff, they agree to travel together. Wichita and Little Rock hope to make it to an amusement park near Los Angeles that is rumored to be zombie-free. Columbus begins to fall in love with the tough yet tender Wichita.
When they arrive in Hollywood, they dodge zombies by camping out in Bill Murray’s residence. Tallahassee and Wichita bump into a very much alive Bill Murray, who has managed to survive by disguising himself as a zombie, which allows him to roam the city freely because zombies won’t attack their own kind. After play-acting scenes from Ghostbusters, they decide to scare Columbus as a joke. Caught off-guard, Columbus shoots and kills Murray.
During a game of Monopoly, Tallahassee breaks down and reveals that he lost his young son, Buck, to the zombies. While he and Little Rock take out their pain by shooting fine art, Columbus and Wichita get drunk. They almost kiss but are interrupted by Tallahassee. The next morning, Wichita and Little Rock leave, afraid that any further bonds will break their sisterly bond. They go the amusement park. Believing it is deserted, they turn on the electrical power and enjoy the rides. However, the noise and lights attracts zombies from the surrounding area.
Columbus announces he is going after Wichita and Little Rock and when Tallahassee sees how pathetic Columbus is, agrees to help him, as he is impressed by his dedication. They get to the amusement park and see that zombies have trapped the girls. While Tallahassee runs throughout the park to distract and kill as many zombies as he can, Columbus faces and dispatches the ultimate fear: a zombie clown. He then rescues Wichita and Little Rock, whilst Tallahassee finds his beloved Twinkies. The movie ends with the four of them leaving united in the Escalade.
On a personal note, I loved the film. The genre was quite obviously recognisable from the start. Mise en scene is heavily adapted into the film; the use of stock characters (heroes/damsels in distress/brain-eating zombies), a realistic suburban setting, believable costumes and props (guns, cars and lots of blood!). The film opens with low-key lighting introducing a dark narrative as well as wide-angle shots establishing a sense of isolation for the main character (Columbus). The scene is set at night, at a petrol station out in the countryside, and instantly the viewer suspects that something is not quite right. Zombies covered in blood shortly chase Columbus, but the comedy comes from his wry, young Woody Allen voiceover and his list of paranoid, survivalist rules of how to escape every situation. We are told “stamina is the key” as we see Columbus drop his car keys and run laps around a car park to get ahead of his assailants.
In comparison to ‘Shaun Of The Dead’, the genre-leader, ‘Zombieland’, reaches out to its audiences’ needs more diretly. Stylish as it was, ‘SOTD’ spent a lot of time grounding the action in reality, whereas ‘Zombieland’ takes place in a bold fantasy world where little old ladies can crush zombies with grand pianos, and where the zombie apocalypse is merely an excuse for four characters to have the run of America, driving around like they own the place, camping out in luxury mansions and occasionally bumping into and dispatching some zombies in weird and wonderful ways. The voiceover allows the viewers to feel as if they are being read the story by the people in it, and this makes them feel part of the action.
But, despite the title, the zombies don’t really matter in Zombieland. Oh, they’re there, alright, occasionally threatening and always ready to be splattered, but Fleischer and his writers, Reese and Wernick, are far more concerned in putting flesh on their characters’ bones, as opposed to stripping it off. And what characters they are! Usually in zombie films, the heroes’ ranks are padded out by unlikeable zombie fodder just treading water until they get munched. But ‘Zombieland’’s greatest achievement is in presenting four wholly likeable characters in whose ultimate survival you become totally entertained with.
Admittedly, Emma Stone’s cynical Wichita and Abigail Breslin, as her little sister, are somewhat underwritten, but in Harrelson’s ice-cool Tallahassee, a man with an innate talent for turning the undead into the just dead, and Eisenberg’s Columbus, Fleischer has a classic buddy movie team at his disposal. Throw The Cameo in there, and the result is a zombie flick that stands, shoulder-to-decomposing-shoulder, with the best the genre has to offer.
So why is our love of zombies only growing stronger?
In part, it’s because the subject the zombie most directly addresses is so universal. For all the metaphoric possibilities zombies hold, at their most fundamental, they are death itself, pursuing us through the world we once knew. The particular nature of the genre’s violence may lie at the heart of the contemporary appeal of zombies in films and especially in video games. For example, in the incredibly popular ‘Call of Duty: World at War’, for PlayStation 3, Xbox and PC, there is an option for ‘Nazi Zombies’. In video games, you can chop off their arms, blow off their heads, and generally engage in the most horrific forms of violence imaginable, and it’s fine because they’re zombies. The zombie game allows us to indulge our inner barbarian without self-doubt.
The contextual factors may be induced by the affect of terrorism on the modern world. The zombies may be seen as terrorists, in a sense, therefore the people dispatching of them are positively perceived as heroes. And in a zombie movie, government tends to be either ineffectual or completely absent. On the other hand, when the zombie apocalypse comes, capitalism breaks down too; people turn to robbery and form their own rules. But most important, what ensures survival in a zombie story are the progressive ideals of common cause and collective action. In the case of ‘Zombieland’, a small group of people, from varying backgrounds are thrust together and find that they can transcend their differences of age and gender. They come to understand that if they’re going to get out of this with their brains kept securely housed in their skulls and not travelling down some zombie’s gullet, they’ve got to act as though they’re all in it together. Surviving the tide of zombies requires community and mutual responsibility.
While we can certainly use zombies to express all kinds of ideas, this sub-genre is arguably a progressive one.