By William Goss, reprinted from Fantastic Fest 9/29/09
The world as we know it has come to an end, and that's not much more of an inconvenience for Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) than he was already used to. He's a Mountain Dew-chugging loser whose introverted ways have turned him into an ideal loner for the post-apocalyptic realm -- as paranoid, vigilante and neurotic as they come, beholden only to his own strict set of rules (cardio good, bathrooms bad, always shoot zombies twice, etc.).
And so, while he doesn't want to become attached to the scruffy likes of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), their chance meeting provides as good an excuse as any for Columbus to try and recover whatever's left of his family in... well, Columbus. Oh, the names? Again, no one wants to get too attached once the infection hits the fan. That's just how one tends to roll as a resident of Zombieland.
And before I make things out to sound so serious, director Ruben Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick make their tone perfectly evident from the start. A groom is tackled by his zombie bride; a mother is chased down by her undead honor student daughters. So on, so forth, and so long, status quo. For the survivors, though, there's a little fun to be had here and there. Any man, woman or child can nab themselves the title of Zombie Kill of the Week. A store-smashing spree can help let off a little steam. And who's to stop a young girl (Abigail Breslin) and her older sis (Emma Stone) from heading off to California in order to make the most of a deserted theme park?
Hey, when society's gone south, it's time to have some fun, and Zombieland does just that in spades. It's a constantly clever comedy whose characters have amusingly direct motives (i.e. Tallahassee wants a Twinkie above all else) that disguise some genuine losses, and most of the gags stem from their relationships -- coward vs. cowboy, gals undermining guys -- above general (albeit welcome) irreverence. Harrelson's a hoot and a half as the gung-ho leader of this motley crew, while Eisenberg plays up the shy guy persona that's served him and Michael Cera so well of late in situations that violently and hilariously counter his nervous ways. As the more motivated pair of the group, Breslin and Stone are convincingly driven to protect each other first and serve their own interests at any cost.
Said irreverence does in fact rear its head, especially with the arrival of a cameo appearance that should be spoiled by no one who's already enjoyed it, but even then, the cheeky nature of these scenes harken back to things that these characters loved from their old lives, things that keep them going in a world where everything's stopped.
The climax takes place at the above-mentioned theme park (surprised?), but it's a setting incredibly emblematic of what type of movie this wants to be. This place of amusement and thrills morphs into a loud and flashy zombie magnet that unwittingly allows for all new kinds of thrills, given that one has enough ammo to make the most of it. The drive of cherished nostalgia likewise mutates into the newly found freedom of an unleashed id, which really just means that the humor comes much more from these people, these places and their plight than most wink-nudge genre pastiches have managed in the wake of 2004's still superior Shaun of the Dead.
But what really matters is that it is funny -- very much so -- and it has the brains to know when and how to get the most of blowing some brains apart. The world as Zombieland knows it has come to an end, and maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.