100 Film Favorites – #80: Zombieland
(Ruben Fleischer, 2009)
And thus we embark on the…third tenth of our Countdown.
Zombieland was the feature film debut of director Ruben Fleischer, and it stands as one of the most entertaining entries in the zombie comedy, or “zomcom,” subgenre (though I have to extend honorable mention to Shaun of the Dead, Fido, and my own foray into the form, Undead Presidents: No Damnation without Representation:
The film stars Jesse Eisenberg as “you know, that guy who’s like Michael Cera, but not.” Actually, his character is referred to as “Columbus,” as he and the other survivors refer to each other by the names of cities with which they identify. Columbus has endured in the apocalyptic “Zombieland” due to his rigid adherence to a set of self-imposed rules. These rules pop up on the screen whenever they apply to a zombie encounter in which Columbus is engaged. These pop-up words are a dynamic element of the film, often being knocked aside or spattered with blood by a sprinting zombie. This happens so often that an alternate title for “Zombieland” might be “Kinetic Typography: The Movie.”
In his travels, Columbus meets “Tallahassee,” the cowboy hat-wearing embodiment of “badass” played by Woody Harrelson. Tallahassee’s one goal in the wake of the apocalypse is to track down one last Twinkie among the wreckage. Who could have guessed that less than four years out, Tallahassee’s absurd plight, the extinction of the Twinkie, would become all too real?
Columbus and Tallahassee become unlikely traveling companions, and much of the film’s comedy spawns from the interactions between the two, with Columbus’ meek, cautious persona alternately complimenting and clashing with Tallahassee’s brash, exceedingly manly brand of hyperconfidence. The little family of survivors is completed by “Wichita,” a girl Columbus’ age played by Emma Stone, and her younger sister “Little Rock” (Abigail Breslin). The four journey across the country with the goal of reaching “Pacific Playland,” an amusement park rumored to be zombie-free.
A high point of the film comes when the four survivors seek refuge in the “abandoned” mansion of Bill Murray. Within the world of the film (and in our own world, let’s be real), Bill Murray is regarded as the greatest actor of all time. In fact, Murray turns out to still be alive, and, because of this acting prowess, is able to flawlessly imitate a zombie and shamble unharmed through the throngs of real ghouls. As a practical joke, Murray puts on his zombie “act” and sneaks up on Columbus…who promptly shoots him dead.
Another highlight is Tallahassee’s aristeia at the climax of the film. (Thanks to my 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. Seavey, I can tell you that an aristeia is “a scene in the dramatic conventions of epic poetry, as in The Iliad, where a hero in battle has his finest moments (aristos = “best”). An Aristeia often results in death.” Even if you’ve never heard the term, you know the scene: A steadfast warrior character shouts something like “Go on ahead! I’ve got this!” The other protagonists tearfully hurry on to their objective, while the warrior faces off with, and is eventually overpowered by a wall of enemy forces, slaying whole divisions and typically getting off a last dramatic one-liner before perishing in the heat of battle. Here, the setup is the same: Tallahassee lures a horde of zombies after him to allow Columbus to rescue Wichita and Little Rock. Tallahassee barricades himself inside a midway booth which is soon overrun with the ravenous undead. The film cuts to Columbus’ rescue mission, and the assumption is that Tallahassee has gone out in a blaze of glory. But in the next scene, Tallahassee climbs up out of a massive heap of dispatched zombies and emerges victorious.
The film ends on an ambiguous note, with the band of survivors still on the road, still surviving among the ruins of civilization. This leaves open the possibility of a sequel, and indeed, a possible TV series continuation of the story has already received a pilot through Amazon’s nascent original content service. This show features none of the cast from the film, however, so my initial response is to be wary. I suppose time will tell whether it’s any good or not. But as far as a feature film sequel, I’d certainly be game if the original cast were to reunite. I for one would love to join the authentic Columbus and crew on another jaunt through Zombieland.
Tidbit: Zombie clowns play an important role in the film, being Columbus’ worst fear. Clowns are actually a surprisingly common appearance in the zombie genre, and I have to wonder why. Okay, I know the real reason is that clowns can be scary, so zombie clowns must be really scary. But what could logically cause zombie clowns? Assuming it takes at least a few hours to “turn” after a zombie bite, it seems like any clown unlucky enough to be bitten on the job would probably go home and change before dying. I prefer to think that maybe a regular guy got bitten by a zombie, then thought, “Well, I’m screwed. But before I go, I’ve got an idea that’ll really scare the crap out of some kids!” Before succumbing to his wounds, he dresses up in full clown garb. Finally, the man keels over and with his last breath, says “This is gonna be great.”