Horror-comedy is one of the most difficult genres to pull off, and the list of titles that have crashed and burned when trying to mix the two is legion. I know why people keep trying, though... there's a delicious appeal to seeing it done right. If you pull it off, you end up with "An American Werewolf In London" or "Shaun Of The Dead," and those are films that play beyond a genre audience.
I think it's safe to assume that "Zombieland" will end up on that list of attempts that worked, and there's a chance for this film to be a huge breakout audience smash.
It's got nothing on its mind beyond pleasing you from scene to scene, set piece to set piece, and director Ruben Fleischer ladles on just enough style to make it all fun without overwhelming the simple leasures of the film completely. Jesse Eisenberg further hones the awkward-but-sort-of-cool white nerd archetype that he and Michael Cera seem to be perfecting these days, and Woody Harrelson steps up with a badass zombie-killing persona that somehow manages to not play as yet another knockoff of Bruce Campbell's Ash. Throw in a sultry Emma Stone, a charming Abigail Breslin, some of the most enjoyable daffy narrative left turns in any mainstream film this year, and the entire thing adds up to a really solid piece of popcorn that has just enough red meat for real horror fans, but not enough to turn off the mainstream.
At the start of the film, Columbus (Eisenberg) is on his own, and that's the way he likes it. The world has fallen to the zombie plague, and survivors are few and far-between. Columbus is an unlikely survivor, as if Woody Allen were the star of "I Am Legend," and it's largely because of his list of rules that he has developed. Fleischer visualizes the list of rules in a very clever way, and the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick demonstrates why those rules are important, making for a solid and satisfying act one in the film.
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Once he meets Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus starts to find himself opening up to life again. Tallahassee is a gleeful zombie killer, and a guy who lives every second like it's going to be his last. He adds a rule to Columbus's list: "Enjoy the little things." In many ways, that's what the film is about. Even in a world that has been destroyed, where the dead walk, and where live human beings are nearly extinct, there is a difference between living and surviving, and it's all about the quality of the life you're leading.
That quality takes a dramatic jump forward when Columbus meets Wichita (Emma Stone) and her "little sister" Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Although their first few encounters are antagonistic, Columbus is drawn to this girl, and not just because Stone is ridiculously cute in the film. He sees the same freedome of spirit in her that he responds to in Tallahassee, and it is infectious. Little by little, Columbus loosens up, starts taking chances, and actually puts other people ahead of himself at times.
The film has some really great surprises in it, and I'm not even going to hint at what they are. If you're interested in the film, don't read spoilers. Don't go to any site that might spoil it for you accidentally. The audience I saw the film with was taken aback completely, and the delight that washed over the crowd as one particular set piece unfolded was palpable. There was a point where I thought to myself, "You're really seeing this, it's really in a movie and there really is a major studio releasing it." I give Sony credit for indulging such a hilarious impulse, and in everyone involved for pulling it off so well.
Ultimately, "Zombieland" is a little slight, but I like that there's no greater metaphor at work here. What you see is what you get, and it's a promising directorial debut as well as a nice surprise in what is typically a very serious moviegoing season. The film opens October 2nd, and it premieres tonight at Fantastic Fest in Austin.
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