Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Zombieland" Review

I'm going to begin adversarial and maybe we can meet in the middle. I didn't love "Shaun of the Dead." There, I said it. Those still reading can only imagine my reaction then to the "Zombieland" trailer, which on every significant selling point seemed identical, without the novelty of having done it first. My primary objection to this burgeoning 'zomedy' genre is that its sense of humor hasn't been transgressive enough to match the post-apocalyptic setting. "Shaun" set every precedent for "Zombieland" to be a cutesy, inconsequential comedy chock full of gimmicky jabs at the expense of horror convention.

So I hunkered down in an irritable cynicism when the film began building a catalogue of positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes, Facebook feeds, and second-hand conversations all seemed to suggest my prejudice toward the film was unfounded. I saw it last weekend as part of a triple feature at Becky's drive-in in Walnutport and was, admittedly, pleasantly surprised. It turns out "Zombieland" does employ a cutesy, inconsequential narrative, but its emotional and comedic core is every bit as distinct and charming as that of "Shaun of the Dead," but which, as I admitted, I didn't love to begin with.

The screenplay for "Zombieland" is rife with seasoned surface-level details like zombie safety regulations and an intriguing character name template, but has a great big undercooked pink center. The structure doesn't have the snap of "Shaun," and the plot often feels tertiary to the disposable gags and the 'wouldn't-it-be-cool' set pieces. Certainly aimlessness is an appropriate feeling to elicit for a scenario in which any 'save-the-world' opportunity has long since expired, but it comes at the expense of the film feeling underwritten. As near as I can tell, three things happen over the paltry eighty minute running time: boy meets girl, boy and girl travel to surprise celebrity cameo's house, boy rescues girl from amusement park. And those aren't acts, they're scenes.

Fortunately, the screenplay accounts for all but one of "Zombieland's" most-rotten blemishes. Besides green-lighting the irksome giant text espousing every survival tip that floats or crumbles or unfolds distractingly amidst several scenes, first-time feature director Ruben Fleisher performs his duties admirably in bringing the film to life, though was blessed by the natural chemistry of his leads. Woody Harrelson stars as Tallahassee, the Twinkie-obsessed badass, while Jesse 'For-The-Last-Time-I'm-Not-Michael-Cera' Eisenberg portrays the swooning, rule-keeping wimp, Columbus. "Zombieland" works as often as it does because of the classic dynamic pairing of these two.

But I think the primary reason Fleisher's film has been so commercially successful, having already made back its 23 million dollar budget twofold, while other recent horror-comedy hybrids like "Drag Me to Hell," and "Grindhouse" have underperformed, is that his directorial sensibilities skew so comedic. A zombie may trigger a "Boo!" orchestral spike every so often out of obligation, but the undead don't pose any serious threat until the amusement park finale, and even then, "Zombieland" settles for a crowd-pleasing comedic outcome rather than what's logical, mature, or interesting.

Nevertheless, I was won over, if just barely. "Zombieland" contains plenty to chuckle about, but its tonal levity unfortunately extends to the storytelling itself, and the credits roll leaving a sensation of benign indifference in their wake. To bring it back to fan-favorite, "Shaun of the Dead," which is a better-made film, unquestionably, it's my heretical opinion that "Zombieland" is just as funny. The films actually oddly compliment one another in their very English and very American takes on life after the living dead.

And for "Zombieland," what's more American than the sequel? Bloggers are already atwitter over early talks of a follow-up, and as much as the idea disinterests me, I guess I have to give this one the benefit of the doubt.


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