Film * Ruben Fleischer * Self Aware Zombies * 2009
I’m on record saying that clichés and tropes are perfectly acceptable so long as the story being told is well done. That said… ugh, zombies. If you tell me your thing is a zombie thing, I’m already not that interested. Insofar as apocalypses are concerned, the zombie scenario is the least fun to really think about, because it’s the least likely thing to happen. I still haven’t bothered watching The Walking Dead, and considering that show’s reputation, I probably never will. The thing with zombie fiction is that it’s such a silly concept that any story trying to take it seriously has to put in some real work to make the story plausible. The options are either focus on the visceral, immediate threat of scary zombies, like 28 Days Later, or focus on the human drama within a post-apocalyptic world, like in The Last of Us. And personally, the latter only works because it’s a video game and the zombies show up to provide gameplay. There is, of course, another option. You can just make a very silly cartoon version of a zombie apocalypse, which brings us to Zombieland.
Since I’m an old now, it’s hard for me to differentiate cultural eras in the last twenty years or so, but movies like this help. Zombieland is extremely 2009. If you were to ask me, independently of this movie, what the cultural aesthetic of a decade ago is, I wouldn’t have an answer. Mostly because I’d be thinking about how big a weirdo you are for asking strangers questions like this. But also because it doesn’t seem like there is one. However, here comes movies like Scott Pilgrim and Zombieland, and oh, I get it now. There’s a smooth flashiness to these kind of movies that is identifiable to this era. It’s in the use of flashy computerized text superimposed on the action, it’s in the manufactured snark of the script. The dialogue is that of people putting in a lot of effort in being clever and snappy, but only succeeds maybe a little over half the time. It’s very labored. Most importantly, though, is the willingness to embrace all things meta. 2009 was a time to be extremely self-aware.
All of this sounds negative, but I assure you that’s not my intention. I like Zombieland. I like Scott Pilgrim. I like it when self-aware meta-comedy is done well. It’s a tricky thing to do right! There’s always the risk that the audience will be rolling their eyes too loudly to pay attention to your movie (that’s a gross noise, too, just hundreds of eyes making a wet snk! sound). And yo, there are some things in this movie that don’t age particularly great. Actually, I remember some of the lines and jokes not really landing for me at the time. I’m not even referring to tone-deaf jokes about traditionally maligned groups (like the trans jokes in early Arrested Development – woof) There are just some cumbersome attempts at cleverness that simply don’t work. This movie has voice-over narration, which is a weird throwback that I’m not entirely on board with. At least the resisted the record-scratch open. Yet despite that, more jokes land than don’t, it’s still visually interesting, the dynamic on-screen text is still fun, and most importantly, the cast is still very charming.
There’s not much in the way of story in Zombieland. The narrator and protagonist is an extremely cautious, socially awkward wiener-kid played by Jesse Eisenburg doing his best Michael-Cera-in-Arrested-Development impression. That might sound unfair, but that’s kind of what it is. Anyway, he has a set of survival rules for the zombie apocalypse, and that’s where most of the fun dynamic text comes in. It works more often than not. Eventually he runs into Woody Harrelson, who rules. His character is an amped-up zombie-killing ding-dong (who ironically loves Twinkies), and he counters the narrator’s fastidiousness. The odd couple end up travelling together in a sort of zombie-killing roadtrip when they run into two sisters, Emma Stone and Little Miss Sunshine, who are basically scam artists. Hilarity ensues.
I’m trying my best to not compare Zombieland to Shaun of the Dead for a couple of reasons. First of all, I haven’t written about Shaun of the Dead somehow, which is an unforgivable oversight and I’m very ashamed of that. Secondly, Zombieland is the lesser of the two films, and it’s not close. Lastly, they’re actually going for different things, so just because they’re both ostensibly comedies with zombies in it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fair to compare them. Of course, “zombie comedy” isn’t exactly a rich genre, so I’m doing it anyway. Here’s the thing. Shaun of the Dead is vested in telling a straight zombie-survival story first and foremost. It does so with a contemporary (well, for 2004) London and a set of extremely average Londoners. It’s very funny but also leans heavily on character relationships. By contrast, Zombieland is essentially a very violent cartoon.
That cartoon is very kinetic and fun, but as a result the characterization is comparatively flat and the emotional moments don’t hit as hard. Over the course of Shaun of the Dead, Shaun pretty much fails repeatedly, but in doing so demonstrates an inner strength that was brought out by the emerging apocalypse, eventually earning the respect of The Girl. Zombieland rarely takes the time to take a breath, so when Columbus overcomes some of his over-cautiousness to win over The Girl it’s almost anti-climactic. Like how else was this going to end? But that’s not really the point of the movie. This is a movie about quips and one-liners and undermining its own emotional foundation. Which is totally fine! But there’s a reason Shaun of the Dead is on a short list of Matt’s Favorite Movies and Zombieland is on a list of things I saw once and enjoyed and immediately forgot about.
That said, there are some very good gags throughout this thing. Obviously Bill Murray showing up for no good reason is inspired, particularly his apparent enthusiasm for dressing up and reenacting scenes from his old movies like a skit from Mystery Science Theater 3000. I don’t know why, but Emma Stone’s performance as Janine from Ghostbusters is like my favorite thing. Also, “Oh, this is so exciting, you’re going to learn who to call” is great. I took a great visceral pleasure in the survivors destroying a trashy, touristy, fairly racist gift shop. And again, more of the writing hits than doesn’t, which frankly surprised me a little. Sure some of the language is a little labored, but for the most part Zombieland is still pretty funny. Of course, now I’m wondering if there’s a generation of people fifteen years younger than me who quotes this movie all the time. Somehow I don’t think so, even though it seems like it would be that kind of movie. Maybe it’s just me. I am old now, after all.