George A. Romero defined the parameters of the zombie genre as we've come to know it around the notion that such films can be seen as post-apocalyptic allegories, satirising the political mores of the decade in which they are released. He also tacitly inaugurated the convention of the zombie movie being rather a misanthropic beast: time and time again, Romero's genre films depict groups of disparate survivors, unwillingly forced together in siege-like situations - whether they be barricaded in the cellar of a remote farmhouse; sealed off in a forgetful, consumerist shopping arcade paradise; or buried deep underground - whereupon they soon begin to nurture seething resentments and become isolated from each other, forming competing, increasingly uncommunicative social groups, until an inability to agree a coherent course of action inevitably results in the end of their feeble attempts to insulate themselves against the truth: that the world and human civilisation is, perhaps, no longer even worth preserving. It's usually only a matter of time, from that point on, before it's gut sandwiches all round for the ravenous, clamouring zombie hordes waiting to claim them on the outside.
In other words, on the surface, the zombie genre does not seem to easily lend itself to the sentimental feel-good shibboleths of your average romcom flick!
Comedy is not, and has never been, inimical to the zombie movie, of course. Comedy zombies have always been around, but it took Edgar Wright's British-made hit, "Shaun of the Dead", to build a credible, convincing domestic drama around the conventions of a zombie siege situation - mixing knockabout, surreal, gory humour with the gentle, reflective concerns of the slightly lost, drifting middle-aged couples who are the primary protagonists of the film. Despite the unfeasible optimism at its core, "Shaun ..." managed to capture the imagination largely because, as has been the tradition in British comedy from time immemorial, its characterisation is still rather hard-edged and the film is unafraid to depict its 'heroes' as, essentially, a bunch of losers! Still, humour in the genre does usually tend to come tinged with bleakness, confirming Romero's 'people-are-all-useless' message, no more so than in Charlie Brooker's excellent satire "Dead Set", which melded excoriating foul-mouthed humour with a satirical Big Brother scenario and still managed to end on a note of shuddering poignancy that was literally - as well as figuratively - gut-wrenching!
And so to the hugely successful "Zombieland", the debut of director Ruben Fleischer and a humongous hit in its native North America. It is indeed hard to dislike the movie, and it certainly has enough finely-tuned grace notes dotted liberally throughout its honed 85 minutes to justify all the noisy attention it's been generating, but to me "Zombieland" gives the impression (which seems to be confirmed by many of the director's comments on the accompanying group commentary track) of being a film largely cobbled together in the editing suite rather than one that always had a clear agenda from the get go. Youngish writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick talk very little about the film's origins in TV, the idea originally pitched as an on-going 28 episode series, until their proposed script for the spec pilot was eventually rejected after being sold to CBS. The details of all this aren't really dwelt on, but it does appear that the idea has more mileage in it as an episodic television series. What largely saves the film from a middling sort of mediocrity is the performance of one man by the name of ... Harrelson!
Woody Harrelson has busily forged a recognisable comedy persona over the last few years as a sort of lovable redneck dufus with a gun. Again, the commentary track confirms that a lot of the film's biggest laughs were a result of on-set improvisations by the actor made during the filming, and his versatile performance proves essential in bringing integrity to the otherwise fundamentally precarious juggling act the film engages in, often leaving it wobbling between unconvincing sentimentality and its requirement to ultimately deliver on kinetic, gut-splurging horror. Harrelson is instrumental in lending the film its bolshie swagger but also provides much heartfelt spirit, effortlessly bringing off a difficult-to-swallow third-act revelation in which his character is required to lurch from the almost defiant comic frivolousness that has defined him throughout the film up till then, towards a poignant back story that is inescapably tragic. It's an awkward transition that in lesser hands could have revealed the screenplay's desperate thrashing below its cooler-than-cool surface; but Harrelson makes it work, and it ends up allowing the great man to bring some much needed emotional heft to his otherwise crazy actions in the blazing fairground finale.
The film actually starts out looking rather like it is going to pursue the jaundiced 'Brooker' line of ultra-cynical comedy satire in its opening minutes. It opens with some fairly cruel and Brooker-esque sequences, such as the scene where a mother is assailed by her own blood-caked zombie children, still dressed in their cute party clothes. Her diminutive brood hang off the fender of her car as she frantically pulls away, only to plunge headlong into an oncoming truck that sends her crashing through her windscreen and skittering along the road, making a line of bloody grue on the hard tarmac! We learn that the most unlikely zombie holocaust survivor, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), has only managed to become one of the few remaining humans still at large in the world, precisely because he has always lived his life as though the world were overrun by zombies: hiding away in his bedroom and never venturing out to interact with other people. He's developed some rules, though, to help him stay alive, and at this point the film seems to be going for a spoofy take on the genre, gently taking the Mickey out of zombie movie cliches in rules such as 'Beware of Bathrooms' and with Columbus wryly noting that a zombie kill should always be delivered with a 'Double Tap' - an extra shot to the head after the zombie has hit the ground, just to make sure! These rules flash up onto the screen every time they occur in the plot, accompanied by a loud bell effect on the soundtrack. There's also a 'Zombie Kill of the Week' (which would indeed have been a weekly feature had the TV series got made!). Pretty soon though, these rules become so numerous and generalised that the joke applies to just about any action movie or thriller you'd care to mention. This isn't really a spoof movie then, nor even much of a knowing wink at the genre's cliches and mainstays. Neither the director nor the stars seem particular fans of the zombie movie per say, and Eisenberg appears to make a point of flagging his lack of interest in such fare on the commentary track, by pointedly asking his partners whether such-and-such a sequence is typical of the genre. When "Zombieland" does refer to other movies, it has far more fun, and seems far more at ease, referencing the likes of "Caddyshack" or "Ghostbusters" than in dropping in a nod to Fulci or Romero.
Eisenberg is essaying his usual Woody Allen-esque, wise-cracking nerdy wimp persona here ("my bread and butter", he correctly notes on the commentary!) and the pairing with Woody Harrelson's ever so slightly deranged (and Dale Earnhardt worshiping) redneck, Tallehassee (all the protagonists agree to address each other only by the name of their home town to avoid getting too close as their journey across America's deserted highways progresses), works beautifully during the film's first quarter, when the pair go off on a mad quest in search of the last remaining box of Twinkies in Harrelson's supercool race car - this quest being a bewildering obsession with Tallehassee that seems to be indicative of the character's almost childlike need to return to the more innocent times of childhood.
This soon becomes the main theme of the film, especially when the pair join up with Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a sexy but hard-as-nails twenty-year-old and her plucky twelve-year-old sister. The foursome forge a less-than-perfect, dysfunctional sort of family on their episodic travels, eventually winding up at a certain Hollywood film star's rather gaudy gold-plated mansion in the Hollywood Hills, before the desire for more innocent times reasserts itself and the girls abscond and go off to Pacific Playland for the film's funfair-and-zombies action-packed, conclusion. Unsurprisingly, the zombies themselves tend to take rather a backseat as the film progresses, at least until the last fifteen minutes, the wayward brashness of the first half making way for the usual concerns and cliches of a typical light romantic comedy: the trite moral is that people should overcome their isolating differences and learn to trust and open up to each other - otherwise they might as well be zombies; and, most importantly of all, of course (and despite being flagged as a socially retarded shut-in at the start of the film), Eisenberg's Columbus still has to be sympathetic enough for audiences to care whether or not he gets the unfeasibly good-looking girl at the end - and even more inevitably, he does get the unfeasibly good-looking girl at the end. Whether you're prepared to go with it and ignore the inherent and fundamental contradiction between the dystopian Zombie flick and the average soft and gooey romantic date movie, comes down to your tolerance for either, and whether the rather gentle comic style that comes to dominate in the film's second half is funny enough to sustain its contrived attempts to breech the gap between the two. Rather like a Twinkie bar in fact, the film seems an enjoyable enough confection at the time, but its aftertaste is hardly likely to linger long in the memory.
The UK Blu-ray from Sony Home Entertainment is playable on A, B and C encoded players and features the aforementioned commentary track with the director, the writers and male stars of the movie (what happened to the two female leads?), which sees everyone bigging up the shooting experience, as you'd expect; but director Ruben Fleisher is honest about ideas that didn't come off as well as he'd hoped, and gives full credit to Woody Harrelson's improvised skits, pointing them out when they make it into the finished film. There are a host of generous 'making of' featurettes and visual effects demonstration pieces, as well as some deleted scenes on offer. While the Blue-ray disc features exclusive content that makes use of the picture-in-picture capability of the medium to enable you to play the film alongside a scene specific demonstration of how each major effect was achieved, along with interviews with and explanations from members of the digital effects team. The BD-Live feature allows players connected to the Internet to access a special 'movieIQ' feature, giving you online access to info on the cast, the music and all sorts of film trivia while the film is playing. So if you are a people-fearing recluse like Columbus, you need never leave your room again! The High Definition 1080p image looks fantastic and the 5.1 audio is as loud and brash as it needs to be. The disc comes with all manner of foreign language subtitle options and even an audio description track, as well as English subtitles for the hard of hearing.