Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review: "Zombieland"

Zombies have become a powerhouse franchise. Movies starring the walking dead, already popular for decades, have seen a resurgence, and zombie literature is on the rise with books like "World War Z" and even classic literary spoofs like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

The next logical step was zombie comedy films. "Shaun of the Dead" got the ball rolling, but "Zombieland" immediately leaps to the front spot of an admittedly nascent genre.

Hip, ironic and often raucously funny, "Zombieland" will have you holding in your guts with laughter almost as often as the zombies try to rip the viscera out of their onscreen prey.

I mean, what other zombie flick would pair two of indie film's young rising stars, Jesse Eisenberg ("The Squid and the Whale") and Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine"), both known for their shy, introspective roles, as post-apocalyptic ass-kickers?

Well, not quite: Eisenberg's still pretty dorky as Columbus, a lonely dweeb who spent most of his days playing "World of Warcraft" before the undead outbreak. He's come up with a list of rules for surviving what he calls Zombieland.

The first one is "Cardio" -- as in, maintain your ability to run fast. As the droll prologue narration notes to a scene of an obese guy getting run down and feasted upon, the fatties were the first to die.

Other rules include the "Double Tap," which instructs that even when you think a zombie is dead, put another bullet in its brain just to be sure. When the world is infested with creatures that want to eat you, now's not the time to get stingy with the ammunition.

Columbus soon happens upon a guy writing his own rules, which all boil down to kicking walking corpse butt in as many inventive ways as possible -- baseball bats, chainsaws, even a banjo. Tallahassee (all the characters go by the name of the city they're from) figures that everyone was put on earth to be really good at one thing, and his just happens to be killing zombies. It's Woody Harrelson's best roles in years.

This intrepid pair meets up with a pair of sisters, Wichita and Little Rock (Emma Stone and Breslin), who pull a con on them and steal their guns and ride. Soon enough, though, they've joined forces, with a love struck Columbus making plans to invade Kansas.

Director Ruben Fleisher, in addition to showing a good eye for the action scenes, keeps the tone goofy and light. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick seem to have watched every zombie movie ever made, and joke around with the conventions while clearly reveling in them.

So when the boys stumble across a Hummer loaded up with assault weapons, Tallahassee shouts to the heavens, "Thank God for rednecks!"

The movie reaches its full stride of daffiness when the foursome arrives in Hollywood, and they decide to crash in a celebrity mansion, only to find the one belonging to Bill Murray still occupied by its owner. In a short but rich stretch of screen time, Murray plays "Ghostbusters" with his guests and even delivers an apology of sorts for those awful "Garfield" flicks. (Stick around after the end credits for some more fun.)

Based on "Zombieland," I'd say the undead comedy genre deserves to rise again.

3 stars

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