Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Zombieland (2009) Review

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Zombieland
Rule #33: Take at least one trip through Zombieland

I hate it when people compare upcoming movies to previous trend and standard setters. It puts an unattainable level of hype and pressure on the new movie that most likely cannot be matched. It happened with Star Wars Episode I, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and now we have Paranormal Activity and Zombieland. Paranormal has the obvious comparisons to The Blair Witch Project because of its handheld documentary style camerawork, viral marketing campaign, and the use of word-of-mouth as advertisement. Zombieland, on the other hand (hehe), has to deal with the looming presence of Shaun of the Dead, another comedy about the zombie apocalypse. Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I hold Shaun with such high regard and respect that very few movies are and will be able to match its seamless blend of horror and comedy that never feels jarring. The first time I went to Zombieland, I still had Shaun in the back of my mind which kept me from truly enjoying it on its own terms. The second time fared much better.

Plot Synopsis: Columbus is not someone you would expect to have survived the zombie apocalypse with his nerdy personality, paranoid tendencies, and weak physical appearance. But it is these attributes that have helped him live this long. With his self-made rules list of what to do and what not to do, Columbus has followed a strict routine that guarantees his survival. When he meets Tallahassee on the road, who is much more rebellious and spontaneous, he figures that Tallahassee will help drive him back home to find his family and then both will go their separate ways. During one pit stop at a supermarket, the two find Wichita and Little Rock, two sisters who trick our male protagonists into letting their guard down. They steal their weapons and Tallahassee’s car and then leave them stranded. Luckily, Columbus and Tallahassee find another vehicle and continue on their journey…only to run into the girls again. Eventually, both pairs reluctantly decide to band together and help each other towards their respective destinations.

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Zombieland is not so much a horror-comedy as it is a straight comedy that happens to be about zombies. This is all fine by me of course since zombies are just ripe for comedic potential. In fact, the story seems to focus more on how the characters survive and live during this time rather than the ravenous hordes lurching forward. Columbus’ list of rules that he lives by isn’t just a setup for some successful running gags, but also works on other humorous levels as a satire of the clich├ęs of zombie movies. Remember all those times when a character shoots a zombie once, thinking it is dead, only to have the monster raise again and bite off their hand? Well that’s what double-tap is for. There are also a couple of other funny bits like where Columbus fumbles with his keys and runs in a circle to get some distance before trying again, which is unlike most stock horror characters who die because they stand by the car and keep trying. The full-on comedy tone works fine, but the middle act could’ve used some more zombie action. A subplot involving a famous celebrity (I won’t tell you who) is a comedic highlight in the movie, but by that point I began to notice that the zombies were off-screen for quite some time and some of the comedic wit was beginning to wane.

Thankfully though, first-time director Ruben Fleischer keeps the pace fast and lean for the most part. With the exception of middle act that drags a little, the gags come quick and the action is bloody fun. The amusement park climax dishes out the killing at an impressive rate, with many creative moments that had me hooting with glee. Fleischer lays the style on thick but in a way that feels organic to the tone of the story and isn’t gratuitous. Like Zach Snyder (who also did the impressive zombie remake Dawn of the Dead) before him, he loves to hit the slow-motion button to highlight the big action moments and during a great opening credits montage set to Metallica’s “To Whom the Bell Tolls” (funny, since Snyder used a similar style for his Watchmen credits too). In fact, the soundtrack is one of the movies more fun aspects, which uses the previously mentioned Metallica song and Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” to great effect. Like I said before, Zombieland leans more on the comedy side than horror; although despite that, there are some great gore bits that demonstrate the proud “R” rating (some dodgy CGI is relatively unobtrusive).

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But the real hook to the movies appeal is the badass that is Tallahassee, played with charm and style by Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is everything the movie sets out to be: energetic, fun, and a little offbeat. He kills zombies gleefully, but mention Twinkies and he will go on a meticulous hunt for one (you’ll see). This is definitely one of my favorite performances of his, and the ticket price is worth it just to see him. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Columbus, played with nebbish paranoia by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg is essentially playing a slight variant on his Adventureland character, and I fear that he may soon end up with the Michael Cera syndrome (same role, different movies), but in Zombieland he is at least a great foil for Tallahassee’s gruff personality and the two play off each other well. Eisenberg’s narration for the movie also proves to be consistently funny, providing some amusing side comments about what’s happening onscreen and laying down the foundation for the story and it’s setting. Not to be forgotten though are our female costars Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, playing the sisters Wichita and Little Rock. Coming off of this and the recent Superbad, Stone is really revealing herself as a promising actress. The bond between the two sisters is really felt throughout the movie, and their ability to outsmart our two male friends never ceases to entertain.

Although Zombieland has a few uneven patches near the middle portion, the fun cast, witty script, and light toned direction make it a cut above most other comedies. Just don’t expect it to be anywhere near the level of something like Shaun of the Dead or even The Hangover and you should have a fun trip.

3/4

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