There's something of a bait and switch involved in director Ruben Fleischer's debut, Zombieland. With an R-rating that seems justified in the first few minutes of the movie - graphic violence with the zombie apocalypse in full swing, a glib narrator with a vulgar and coarse manner - would you believe what you have in store is something akin to an indie romantic comedy instead, simply with the dross of blood and guts? It's true, Zombieland really does have a warm and gooey heart, and no, not in the organ-eating sense.
Exhibit A: the social misfit with a quip at the ready in Jesse Eisenberg (who was in the excellent Squid and the Whale by director Noah Baumbach). Exhibit B: the sexy, sardonic, smoky-eyed and tough-as-nails Emma Stone and unlikely love interest to the lead. Add a road trip, a message about precious childhood in a harsh world, a cameo by a well-loved Hollywood actor who frequently dabbles in alternative film, mix in deadpanned topical jokes, and you'll quickly realise to your horror, that what you have here is the Juno territory of saccharine indie comedies. And make no mistake; Zombieland is as saccharine as a pint of fake blood.
Eisenberg's character, by virtue of his social aloofness, fails to take note of the zombie apocalypse taking place outside the world of his apartment, cooped up as he is playing video games. When his neighbour comes knocking, she is a damsel in distress one minute, the ravenous undead the next. He takes to the road on his way to reconnect with his folks when he hooks up with Woody Harrelson's character, a wild man who particularly relishes offing zombies. Along the way, they pick up a pair of con artist sisters, the aforementioned Stone and the younger Abigail Breslin, whose childhood is truncated by the apocalypse and the hard life that preceded it. Each member of this quartet is assigned a moniker according to where they are heading, and it's one rollicking escapade after another from there on.
But how does Zombieland fare as comedy? It is surprisingly effective, thankfully. Fortunately, it distinguishes itself from really the only comparable zombie comedy, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead (2005), with a snarkier sense of humour coupled with a broad and violent slapstick element. But as a zombie movie, it's another matter. While the zombies, when we see them, are as bloody, hungry, leaky and pus-y as those in the best of the genre, there is a levity that spoils the mix. One component of zombie movies, perhaps counter-intuitively, is the pleasure of vicarious wish-fulfillment. With societal collapse, you don't have to behave, or pay for what you want, or repress your violent tendencies (in the face of zombies). This license has given us some of the most celebratory scenes of gleeful abandon in cinema, perhaps most powerfully in recent times in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. But in the absence of consequence or commentary on human society, anarchist or conservative, it becomes an empty pleasure. In Zombieland, in place of commentary, we are given indie sappiness. When Romero, the grandfather of the zombie movie, mixes political commentary with his mayhem, it may have been a necessary formula rather than simply an attempt to be subversive. Though in all fairness, Romero never had Woody Harrelson bashing in the head of a zombie with a banjo.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Woody Harrelson.
2009. R. 87mins.