Hello Kemo Sabes, and welcome to the United States of Zombieland. This is Rhett Reese and Paul Warnick’s brainchild that bounced around as a TV pilot before it finally got picked up for production as a feature film directed by Ruben Fleischer. At first blush, it’s your run of the mill zombie apocalypse film, but what separates it from the rest of the pack is its characters. Sound interesting? Keep scrolling down for our spoiler filled walk through of the movie. Side note: this is our first movie starting with a Z, so now our name officially makes sense. Huzzah.
Reviewed by: Mark
Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a nerdy loner who is fending for himself in a world that has been taken over by the undead. He survives by being careful and by sticking to his set of rules (Cardio, Beware of Bathrooms, Limber Up, Travel Light, etc). As he is making his way eastward (toward his namesake), he encounters Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) driving a modified Escalade down the interstate. After a brief standoff the two ingratiate themselves with each other, but Tallahassee insists on not using their real names.
Further down the road the duo run into Wichita (Emma Stone) in a supermarket upset that her sister has been bitten. In the back of the store we meet Little Rock (Abigail Breslin… great cast, right?) preparing herself for the end. Wichita volunteers to be the one to kill her sister and takes Tallahassee’s shotgun. Gun in hand, the two girls turn the tables and rob our two so-far protagonists of the rest of their guns and their transportation. It is revealed that these two have been running cons on gullible men since long before patient zero. Stunned by the encounter, but still sticking together for survival, Tallahassee and Columbus search for and eventually find another source of weaponry and a hummer.
As they continue to push east, they run into the broken down remains of the black Escalade that was stolen from them. After they are ambushed once again by the girls, the foursome decide to ally and shift directions West to go to a theme park called Pacific Playland that Wichita and Little Rock want to visit. En route to the theme park the foursome stops by Hollywood, grabs a maps-of-stars-homes pamphlet and heads straight to Bill Murray’s palatial estate. There, they find Bill Murray, pretending to be a zombie so the horde will leave him alone. After a long conversation the group decides to try and scare Columbus, who shoots Bill Murray believing him to be dead already. Yeah, maybe not the best practical joke.
The next morning the girls once again take off in the groups car without telling the other two where they’re going or why. After applying a modicum of deductive logic, Tallahassee and Columbus once again set out for the open road, this time in search of their missing counterparts. They head toward Pacific Playland. Meanwhile Wichita and Little Rock have made it to the theme park. They turn on all the rides and get on one of those big ass tower things that shoots you straight up in the air a bunch of times. Before the end of the ride a massive parliament of zombies aggregate in the park and the two realize that they have to disable the ride, trapping themselves a hundred feet in the air, or face certain death.
The final act of the film involves a showdown at the theme park wherein Tallahassee goes full badass, Columbus faces his fears, and the two girls finally warm up to their new friends. Having survived the night the crew once again hits the road. Roll Credits.
What the Movie Does Right
The characters involved in the movie are all pretty interesting and varied. Jesse Eisenberg, who plays the primary antagonist throughout the film, grows and changes and slowly comes out of his shell. Woody Harrelson’s badass bruiser personality has its lighter and softer moments. The two girls, who arguably don’t really change much, are enjoyable in their own right despite repeatedly screwing over the only other characters in the movie. Without the strong characters, which are bolstered by both strong acting and a strong script, this would just be any other zombie movie.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also highlight the visual style of the film. There is your requisite satisfying gore, but beyond that there’s an overall lighthearted almost goofy quality to the progression of the movie. Maybe it’s the fact that the group gets creative with weaponry (yard shears, a banjo, a test-your-strength hammer…), or maybe it’s that we never really pause for the poignant “these used to be people” moment, or maybe it’s the CG text rules that are rendered over the background of many scenes underpinning the lessons learned, but this movie really leans hard into being “fun.” I suppose that could come off as flippant to some, but I still find myself smiling throughout the entire runtime.
Lastly, it’s not often that we get licensed soundtracks in horror movies (that shit’s expensive!) so I definitely need to highlight the strength of the music here. Whether it’s Metallica, or The Raconteurs, or the Velvet Underground there is a lot here to love. The soundtrack also works extremely well to augment the mood of the scenes that it’s used in. Case in point, the intro credits just wouldn’t feel the same without “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. There are more examples, but that is the longest and most noticeable song sample.
What the Movie Does Wrong
Truthfully, I don’t have a whole lot to write here. However, this being a horror movie website I should probably mention that this isn’t exactly a horror movie. Sure it has zombies, but this is really more of a comedy than anything. That being said you could say the same about Tucker and Dale and that obviously belongs here so I don’t feel too bad about writing this one up as an official selection. Comedy and horror are not mutually exclusive, ya dig? Just know, that this isn’t an edge-of-your-seat thriller or any type of nightmare fuel.
It’s also worth noting that this movie chooses flair over substance at essentially every opportunity. This means that while the characters are generally great, their choices are those of people who are actively suicidal. No one stops to ask where all the power is coming from to power the rides at Pacific Playland. The gang never stops for gas or for ammo or even really for food other than twinkies. Overall, it makes for a fun but ultimately maybe not the most believable world.
Story: 6 - At first blush you might think “this is just a zombie movie,” but really this is a character study. The story is good not because its concept or setting but because it’s a believable (mostly) set of characters interacting with each other. On top of that, it is a relatively fresh zombie take. Aside from Shaun of the Dead there aren’t many zom-coms out there and the uniqueness and pseudo-realistic wackery set this apart. It does get docked here for choosing flair over substance to pretty absurd levels at times.
World-Building / Immersion: 7 - Strength of performance is pretty high throughout except for maybe one or two moments with Little Rock. The humor is funny, the pacing is tight, and the effects are used to serve the schtick of the movie. The addition of Columbus’ rules and voiceover to many scenes also adds a lot of charm.There’s a magical realism quality to this movie that let’s them get away with a lot.
Scare-Factor: 3 - There are a few scary scenes here: When 406 wakes up, some of the shots in the amusement park (including the clown), the initial introduction to Bill Murray. Outside of those things there’s really not a lot here. You don’t even get the typical zombie trope of the roving band of still-human bandits.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 8 - This movie is largely good because of the world. It’s easy just to focus on makeup, costuming, and gore (which are good), but there’s also the soundtrack and sound editing, the set dressings of the mansion and the supermarket. They used the effects to help tell the story which is exactly what I want to see in this category.
Overall: 6 - This is a fairly big downward correction for me, purely because this is a better movie than it is horror movie. No one is going to be upset if this is the zombie movie they land on for horror night, but like I said earlier this one isn’t going to spook you.