What is it about zombies?
Dating back to 1932’s “White Zombie,” the stories of the relentless, omnivorous undead and the humans who try to escape them have been one of film’s most popular genres, with sub-genres including the flourishing category of zombie comedies, best described as gallows humor, gasps of horror alternating with gasps of laughter. Zombie films turn out to provide many opportunities for some core elements of humor, especially the juxtaposition of dire circumstances with trivial detail and the deconstruction of our assumptions about what we need and the norms of lifestyle and behavior. As its title suggests, “Zombieland’s” take is darkly comic, with zombie encounters as theme park or video game. It even ends up in a real theme park, the few remaining humans battling the hordes from rides and concession stands.
One thing about zombies is that they thin out the herd. In this story, only four non-zombie humans seem to be left, which gives them an opportunity to try to band together with people with whom they would otherwise have nothing in common and show each other and themselves that they are capable of more in both physical courage and relationships than they ever thought possible.
The mixed bag, all known only by the names of cities, includes shy college student (Jesse Eisenberg) who tries to maintain some sense of control by compulsively making lists of rules for survival. He meets up with a modern-day cowboy (Woody Harrelson) in search of his favorite Hostess treat and a pair of sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) who have their own methods for taking care of themselves. And even though they have not much idea where they are going or why they should go there, they hit the road.
Funny zombie movies can be just as scary as straight zombie movies, but they leaven the terror with humor that comes as the characters try to find some element of normalcy in between double-tapping zombies (one of the rules), grabbing whatever they want among the abandoned cars and grocery stores. It also includes checking out the home of a major movie star who shows up for an hilariously deadpan cameo before one last zombie attack in the actual amusement park — that juxtaposition element again.
The actors, including the movie star, are all superb. Eisenberg and Stone are two of the most talented young performers in movies and they hit just the right notes here. The usual getting-to-know-and-trust-you road trip developments play out in a manner that is both endearing and funny, as when Eisenberg asks Breslin if her sister has a boyfriend as though there are any other possible candidates for dating who would have a very different idea of having her for dinner. It goes on a little too long and does not match the inspired lunacy of “Shaun of the Dead,” but it will keep zombie-philic audiences as happy as finding the very last Twinkie.
Parents should know that this film has extreme and graphic violence involving zombies, guns, characters in peril, injured, killed, and eaten, drinking, smoking, and very strong language including crude sexual references.
Family discussion: Why didn’t the characters use their real names? What do you think of Columbus’ list of rules? What makes zombie movies so popular?
If you like this, try: “Dawn of the Dead,” “Shaun of the Dead,” “I am Legend,” and “28 Days Later”