This film was reviewed as part of Fantastic Fest
PLOT: In a post-Zombie apocalyptic world a mild mannered shut-in (Jesse Eisenberg) has developed rules of survival in what is now referred to as ZOMBIELAND. While on the road, he runs into a gun toting, simple speaking cowboy with a soft spot for Twinkies (Woody Harrelson) and a pair of sisters who have serious trust issues (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin).
REVIEW: ZOMBIELAND opens incredibly well. The zombie attack that has led to the current infested world is used to demonstrate Columbus' (Eisenberg) rules to stay alive in Zombieland. These include things such as staying in shape and the "double-tap" whereby one ensures a zombie's disposal by putting a second bullet in their heads. These opening sequences of universe establishment and zombie mayhem are simply awesome and really set the bar high. Unfortunately, the rest of the film never reaches the level one expects from such an amazing intro.
Once Columbus (the main characters are referred to by their home cities) hits the road and runs into Tallahassee (Harrelson), the movie's biggest weakness becomes apparent. This is a horror comedy that wants to focus on the comedy for a long stretch in the middle of the movie but, unfortunately, has a script too weak to carry it. The jokes are sophomoric and too often fall into the pop-culture wink-wink trap. There's mentions of Facebook, World of Warcraft and Hannah Montanna. Add to the mix Wichita (Stone) as a love interest and Little Rock (Breslin) as an additional foil to Columbus' and Tallahasse's plans and you have what tries to be a road comedy. The plot is paper thin, basically characters meandering through what is left of life on Earth and finding each other, distrusting and scamming each other and then learning to like each other. It provides a decent character arc for Columbus and Wichita while leaving the others to only help passively guide them there.
The thing that makes these script deficiencies even more painful is that there are genuine moments of character development. A handful of scenes delve into the characters past and show just the briefest of glimpses into why they chose to deal with life in Zombieland the way they do. However, these scenes are usually followed up by a joke the caliber of a Titanic reference. Capping it all off, there is a genuinely hilarious cameo which is just about the only really funny sequence in the middle part of the film. Ultimately, though, it serves no purpose in the story other than to show a glimpse of the gangs personalities when not thinking about zombies.
There are two things that elevate the material and saves the middle portion of the film from bogging down the movie entirely. The first is the acting. Jesse Eisenberg wowed me in ADVENTURELAND and he does so here as well. He has a very genuine quality and a dry wit that really allows one to feel for him. He's the buddy we all have and after seeing him in a few movies, we begin to recognize the nervous ticks, the twitching forehead during his best line deliveries. Whereas Michael Cera has stuck with his schtick too long and his one character is becoming tiresome, Eisenberg's performances (which, admittedly, between this and ADVENTURELAND have a small case of the "samesies") still feel fresh and maintain their charm. Emma Stone is a treat and it's nice to see her in a strong lead role and her partner in crime Abigail Breslin puts in a fine performance.
Of course, everyone will be talking about Woody Harrelson. His character here is exactly who you would want on your side in a zombie crisis. He maintains his composure and he knows how to kick serious ass. He brings a special sense of fun to lines that, frankly, belong in bad movies. The ensemble carries the film through its runtime and it's a tribute to them that because of their great performances I struggled with even spending so much time criticizing the weak script they were working from.
The other element at work here that saves the film is the direction by Ruben Fleischer. He has a keen eye for making zombies and zombie attacks look really cool. There is abundant slow-mo at work here but it's never intrusive or over the top. It just feels good to see zombies in this film. It's a shame, then, that we really don't get too much zombie action save for the opening sequence and the final standoff in the amusement park featured prominently in the trailer. The zombie action never gets too gory (that's a bad thing, by the way) and there's a few scenes using CGI blood and CGI zombies. I can forgive these, though, as the times "real" zombies are on screen, they are just so awesome.
All in all, ZOMBIELAND is most certainly not a bad film. As a rabid horror fan, though, I am uber-critical of all things in the genre. The biggest mistake the film makes is not taking things full in either direction. As mentioned, there is a bit of character development in the film, but it's not utilized to show any sort of deeper meaning of the characters. Instead, each bit is followed by comic relief. However, when your comedy writing skills are that of SNL writers circa 2001, maybe you should think about making this a more serious film or at least a darker comedy.
Like I said before, though, the performances are so good and when the zombie action is on it's so on, that almost all is forgiven. If your expectations are to see much of anything more than in the films trailer, you'll be disappointed. If you go in realizing your getting exactly what is promised by the previews and nothing more or less, I'm going to put money on your liking it. And that's not just talk, I will be throwing down my hard earned dollars to see this film during its regular release. I have a feeling it will grow on me. For now, though, it's flawed but mostly fun film and certainly better than your average Hollywood horror release.