There hasn’t been a film this decade that writing a review for has been less necessary. The very title of relative newcomer Ruben Fleischer’s newest feature breaks down in the mind to give the perfect picture of what to expect. And, to the film’s utmost credit, that mental picture is followed religiously. “Zombie-,” an undead antagonist preying on the protagonist’s brains and the movie viewer’s subconscious desire to see every person that annoyed him in a crowded area blown to red chunks. “-Land,” a suffix granted mostly to amusement parks, the implication being a self-contained pleasurable escape for the surrounding, non-Land, areas of the world. What one gets for the ticket price is a precise combination of these two meanings, and it’s because of this that the film does what it needs to exceptionally well.
The plot follows a rag-tag group of zombie hunters lead by Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), the axis of which is the obsessive Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg.) The group’s continued survival – and the film’s overall progression – is based on the strict adherence to a set of rules like various forms of safety (seat belts) and personal maintenance (cardio.) By orbiting around these ideas, the film gains a well executed layer of brash comedy, the blatant humor carrying the film into even less subtle territory than “Evil Dead” and the original “Day of the Dead.”
Matching the blunt wit is even blunter violence, where Tallahassee and crew purposefully pit themselves against single, groups, or even hordes of the undead, and utilize both heavy fire-power and improvisational weaponry to dispatch the would-be brain-grazers of their not-so mortal coil. If you are nerd culture-savvy, it’s “The Zombie Survival Guide” as a movie. If you are a gamer, it’s “Dead Rising.”
Rounding out the zombie hunters is sister duo of Witchita (the ever-awesome Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin,) the latter perfectly suited to the burgeoning actress’ somehow perfect comedic timing. The blossoming romance between Witchita and Columbus is standard and piddles out to a somewhat regular emotional arch, but the strength of both actors makes the well-walked path entertaining enough to be strung along again. The performances that steal the show, of course, are the craved-from-granite ruggedness of Harrelson’s Tallahassee and the amiable awkwardness of Eisenberg’s Columbus. The two men quickly establish a buddy dynamic of opposing masculinities and talents, and though Eisenberg does impressively with what could have been an interchangeable role, Harrelson was made for the bloody-raw testosterone that is the archetypal one-man-against-all leader.
The plot progresses entirely as predicted, with the usual set-pieces of the noble leader sacrifice and damsel(s) in distress executed practically at the audience’s combined cue. Where the paint-by-numbers aesthetic is a death-knell for any other genre, films as proud of their cinematic heritage as “Zombieland” revel in it. There is an immediate, direct line of communication opened between what the audience wants, and what the production delivers, and this blatant catering feels as grossly satisfying as the image implies. The stereotypical structure prevents the film from bringing anything new or even noticeably remodeled to the proceedings, but with the intention of simple, visceral entertainment the film aspires for, innovation is hardly missed.
On the design side of affairs, the obvious front-man is blood and gore effects, and “Zombieland” delivers both in the anticipated excess. Creative deaths and the methods used to inflict the standard ones keep the find zombie-kill zombie-talk about zombie routine fresh enough to maintain interest. Costume design is basic but works well enough with zombie makeup to make an impression, and set design fluctuates enough from wide open death arenas to intimate one-on-one alley fights to keep attention throughout the runtime. Like the plot and performances, nothing is out of place or poorly executed, but nothing exceeds beyond a high enough point to drastically set “Zombieland” apart. But, again, it’s a hard failure to notice when so much fun is being had.
You knew what “Zombieland” was before there was even a trailer. The combination of undead schaudenfreude and a balls-out Harrelson is as giddily enjoyable as it appears on paper. Bonus points for Columbus getting that Eisenberg quirk and the needs-to-be-in-everything charm of Emma Stone. You’ve seen everything this film has to offer a million times before in a billion sporadic doses, but never in such a bluntly humorous and comfortably predictable way. Of course, you already knew all this.