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Zombieland - 2009

Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson
Emma Stone & Abigail Breslin

In my dreams everyone in the world would disappear - and the rules of society would vanish with them, leaving me free to rule my own kingdom with a population of one. I'd have unfettered access to everything, and my material desires could be sated at any time. If I needed to blow off steam I could destroy anything I wished to destroy - and if I grew restless I could travel to wherever I wanted to go at a moment's notice. Blame The Omega Man - especially it's opening - for making this seem like a desirable life. The film that really puts the most fun into it though, is Zombieland, although zombies were never any part of my materialistic fantasies. If I had to take the bad with the good though, it would be nice to have the attitude the characters in this film do, where zombies are treated as a constant irritant rather than terrifying monsters that pose a danger to life and limb. The zombies are terrifying, but Zombieland is a comedy in the truest sense of the word, and it succeeds in what it sets out to do with an amusing script and decent comedic performances - especially that of Woody Harrelson as the violent and gruff Tallahassee.

The genre has been so well defined in recent decades that filmmakers rarely have to explain what a zombie apocalypse is, and how they usually play out. In Zombieland we start out at a time where just about everyone in the world has been zombified - and lone survivors are rare to come across. One of these rarities is Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) - a nervous young man who narrates the film and tells us that he's survived due to following a set of rules he's devised for himself, and it's these rules that we'll come across throughout the film - often appearing in graphic form whenever an applicable one has or has not been adhered to. Columbus had few friends before the apocalypse, and the little family he did have he's trying to find. He meets Tallahassee along the way, and they both eventually cross paths with two hustlers, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). It's a road trip from there on - one with an uncertain destination. As with most zombie films, the characters simply want to go to a place where there are no zombies, if it exists. Those places rarely do. With the exception of Shaun of the Dead, these films usually end on a down note.

Zombieland was originally meant to be a television series, and the film's structure and feel definitely still resonate as a pilot episode for future adventures. It still retains it's 'Zombie Kill of the Week' and it feels like we've only scratched the surface after being introduced to these four characters. Collaborative screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick penned the immensely popular Deadpool films, and so have forged something of a reputation for comedy. They also wrote the forgettable sci-fi horror film Life with less critical success. It can be hard to assess how much of Zombieland's humour comes from what they've written and how much comes from director Ruben Fleischer letting his leads improvise, but overall you'd have to call their screenplay a success. There is something missing from this film though, and it's hard to say what it is. It's like eating junk-food and being aware most of the time that there are some nutrients you're not getting - perhaps it's the perfunctory ending that isn't any larger than what came before or a really clear, large goal for all of the characters here (Tallahassee just wants a Twinkie.) It might be the whole zombie genre which doesn't allow for any more triumph than keeping people alive to face more of the same down the road.

Composer David Sardy, at the start of his career here, gives out the kind of rock that typifies his work (I enjoyed End of Watch). Director of Photography Michael Bonvillain, coming off Cloverfield, his most successful film to date, does a pretty good job. The use of a slow motion camera (the Phantom, which shoots up to 1000fps) is taken advantage of in a great way during the opening credits and during one scene where the characters smash up a souvenir shop. Unfortunately as far as practical effects go, the filmmakers decided to go the CGI route with most of the blood and gore, which in some scenes sticks out like a sore thumb, especially during one fight between Columbus and a character simply named 406 (Amber Heard) where bones and blood seem particularly computer generated. I've always preferred practical effects - even when they don't appear real they still beat CGI in most cases, which should be relegated to scenery and not what people are paying specific attention to. Makeup was great on 406, but those effects diluted what was a scary and horrific scene up to a point. You can't really blame Zoic Studios for doing what they were asked to do, but I'll just mention them anyway in case they become my mortal enemies.

No review of Zombieland would be complete without talking about Bill Murray's special guest appearance as himself - the filmmakers having good fortune here, after first wanting Patrick Swayze which sadly wasn't possible by the time this film went into production. It stands out as a little gratuitous, but just fits in with the comedic tone of the film. Our foursome take refuge in a mansion which in all reality belongs to Lee Najjar, but stands in for the residence of Bill Murray complete with home cinema which Little Rock and Columbus watch Ghostbusters in. Woody Harrelson does a great job of acting like a fan (the two actors know each other well in real life) and Murray adds his sparkle to proceedings - managing at one point to let the audience know he perhaps regrets providing the voice to Garfield in a film that was a financial success but not a great artistic endeavour. The whole episode does take us out of the film for a while though, as we become very aware that this is just a light-hearted take on most things, zombies included. It doesn't come close to matching the satire that Shaun of the Dead brought to the whole genre, which was both ridiculous but also built a world that the audience believes in.

At times the World of Zombieland has been put together well however. Scenes of carnage which involve scores of deserted cars and mayhem have been built very effectively, at one point adding a broken apart passenger jet and a tank to the scenery. This is probably one of my favourite parts of the genre - this world-building which includes utter devastation and at the same time desertion. Reading into how everything is abandoned brings to mind humanity's last few moments of chaos and disorganised flight. This is the world the aforementioned The Omega Man built so well. Towards the end, as Little Rock and Wichita head for a theme park where they remember once having fun, they arrive at a surprisingly well-maintained working place where rides are ready to go and twinkies in full supply. The climax of our film happens here, and is staged well but is a little bit disappointing. There's a rushed feeling to proceedings when Columbus defeats something of a nemesis with one easy blow. It's easy to see that these were younger, more modern filmmakers here and not Michael Cimino. There's no really satisfying story despite most scenes working out quite well, and we continually move along before we really get a sense of where everyone is heading.

The acting talent on display is undeniable (all four leads have been nominated for Oscars, with Emma Stone winning one for her role in La La Land - and Bill Murray has also been nominated.) Eisenberg - an actor who took me a long time to warm up to - seems particularly comfortable and Harrelson is completely in his element. Stone and Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin play the straight characters against the two male buffoons and there is plenty of effortless improv on the run. Director Ruben Fleischer's first feature film takes things easy and is very modern in it's pace, humour and sensibilities. It's a genuinely funny film, good for many laughs if not scares - though his short slow-motion shots during the opening credits give us an example of the flair he might have added to a straight horror film if he'd decided to go that route. It's not a film that's going to require you to think a lot - unless you're seriously contemplating what your own rules might be if a zombie apocalypse suddenly broke out. For all the executives and producers that balked at a zombie television series, of which this was going to be the pilot - well, you've all got the terrible financial failure that was The Walking Dead to think about if you want to know if you did the smart thing or not. Along with all the spin-offs and games and merchandise. Well done.