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Making Light of the Living Dead

MOVIE REVIEW
Zombieland (2009)

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Glen Wilson/Columbia Pictures

In order to survive the undead-infested America depicted in “Zombieland,” the film’s highly-phobic and anal young protagonist Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) adheres to his own set of rules. Scribbled into a pocket-sized notepad, his guidelines range from the obvious (“Rule No. 31: check the back seat”) to the darkly humorous (“Rule No. 3: beware of bathrooms”). The rule that will best prepare viewers of “Zombieland” for maximum satisfaction comes not from Columbus, but his newfound travel partner, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an eccentric killing machine who’s the Chris Farley to Columbus’s David Spade. It’s simple, really — “Rule No. 32: enjoy the little things.”

Unwavering in its off-center humor, “Zombieland” packs so many sight gags and droll one-liners into its rapid-fire 85 minutes that it’d be easy to under-appreciate the small details. If Rule No. 32 is embraced, though, “Zombieland” equates to brainless enjoyment of the most well-executed caliber. The horror-comedy wheel isn’t reinvented, but that’s measly potatoes when a main character’s biggest concern isn’t becoming corpse food, but finding the nearest Twinkie. And the payoff of his Hostess mission? A crowd-pleasing “D'oh!” moment right out of Homer Simpson’s playbook. “Zombieland” overcomes its ailments by simply going for comedic broke.

That “Zombieland” is the work of three relative rookies is the film’s most impressive feat. The script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (both with minor TV writing work to their mutual credit prior to this) breezes by with as if its sole mission is to beat an unseen clock. The story’s core centers on the straight man-loose cannon chemistry between Messrs. Eisenberg and Harrelson, the elder ruffian coexisting with the younger nerd turned reluctant hero. A pair of female companions are introduced in Wichita (Emma Stone) and her 12-year-old sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin); feisty and gorgeous, Wichita’s presence offers Columbus the chance at finally getting the girl. The four-way dynamic jumps off in rocky fashion — rather than divulge their birth names, each adopts his or her hometown’s moniker to avoid any personal connections amidst impending zombie-bite-issued death.

How Messrs. Reese and Wernick manage to tuck believable doses of inter-character relations into the film’s gore-and-laughs surface is worth admiration. The characters are so likable, though, that you’re left wishing they’d hang around longer once the end credits roll. It’s like meeting the girl-guy of your dreams only to learn that he or she is from out of town and has a flight to catch. At one point, it’s discovered that Tallahassee is harboring the pain of losing a family member, and the reveal is played as if it's heartbreaking. But Mr. Harrelson’s wisecracker is never awarded another chance to flesh himself out. Tacking on an additional 10 minutes of movie could have padded more meat into this lean delight.

In the hands of virginal feature film director Ruben Fleischer, Messrs. Reese and Wernick’s curiously too-short script is given a more colorful presentation than a first-grader’s hands after art class. Like any youngster hooked on cherry Kool-Aid and Twizzlers, Mr. Fleischer’s favorite shade is red — particularly, showers of crimson sprouting from zombie’s heads and victims’ innards. Even with viscera dangling left and right, “Zombieland” sidesteps any upchuck-triggering overkill. It’s tough not to imagine Mr. Fleischer and company tossing an issue of Fangoria aside and popping in a “Looney Tunes” DVD set. The final set piece, staged at a Six Flags Great Adventure-sized amusement park known as Pacific Playland, feels shamelessly contrived; of course, there’d be a rumor that no zombies have made their way into Playland’s thought-to-be-safe grounds. Where else could Mr. Fleischer find an in-joke-nodding zombie clown and a mechanism to dangle his heroines above a flesh-craving mob like catnip to that “Pet Sematary” feline? Thankfully, the gags that ensue don’t disappoint.

In that regard, “Zombieland” is one of the more accessible genre films in recent memory. There’s little — if any — of the insider winking toward George A. Romero handled so brilliantly in 2004’s similar-in-tone “Shaun of the Dead;” instead, “Zombieland” goes completely left into Wes Anderson territory with an extended sequence set in Bill Murray’s fictional Beverly Hills mansion. Tallahassee refers to Mr. Murray as “the king;” and living up to his biggest fan’s expectations, the comedy veteran — decked out in full-on zombie makeup, his own blending-in defense mechanism — brings out a mammoth bong, intoxicates Tallahassee and Wichita with Miss Mary Jane, and then proceeds to hazily reenact scenes from “Ghostbusters.”

One of the funniest and bizarrely random cameos you’re likely to ever see, Mr. Murray’s stretch in “Zombieland” encapsulates what makes the film such good messy fun: marrying intelligent humor without ignoring its subgenre’s horror prerequisites.

ZOMBIELAND

Opens on Oct. 2 in the United States and on Oct. 7 in Britain.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer; written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; director of photography, Michael Bonvillain; edited by Peter Amundson and Alan Baumgarten; music by David Sardy; production designer, Maher Ahmad; produced by Gavin Polone; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 21 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee), Jesse Eisenberg (Columbus), Emma Stone (Wichita), Abigail Breslin (Little Rock), Amber Heard (406) and Bill Murray (himself).

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