Let me start off by saying that there is no conflict of interest here: I am not related to Jesse Eisenberg, we just happen to share a very awesome last name. With that out of the way, Zombieland was one of the best-received comedies of 2009, and with good reason: mixing classic zombie films with great characters and a post-apocalyptic playground, the creators have created a laugh-out-loud film that you really just don’t want to end.
Audiences have been watching the cinematic evolution of the zombie since 1968, when George Andrew Romero (yes, the A. does stand for something) discovered that the undead creatures make excellent metaphors to point out societal ills with Night of the Living Dead. While Romero continues to personally extend the sub-genre he created (his most recent, Survival of the Dead, will get a limited release in May), other writers and directors have taken his original concept and morphed it, not only in movies (28 Days Later…) but in literature (Max Brook’s World War Z) and videogames (Left 4 Dead).
One thing that had remained constant in all of the mediums, however, was that they all stayed grounded in horror. When faced with an apocalypse overrun by flesh-eating monsters, it's hard to crack a smile. That changed in 2004 with the release of a small British movie called Shaun of the Dead. Now playfully put into the category of a “zom-rom-com,” the film has become a cult hit, largely because it was hysterically funny, but also because it showed great appreciation of the films it was spoofing.
This was no doubt also a goal set by director Ruben Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick when making Zombieland, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t succeed.
The film centers on four survivors of the outbreak who all share a common goal: survive Zombieland, formally known as America. From the outside, the characters all appear to be straight out of every same-genre movie from the last 40 years. You have Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the gutless, cautious weakling; Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), the gun-toting redneck who appears to be having a little too much fun; Wichita (Emma Stone), the over-protective older sister who would stop at nothing to protect her family; and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), the last remaining bit of innocence left in a world gone to hell. But after the four pair up and begin their journey to a supposed safe haven, an amusement park in Los Angeles, the stereotypes are broken down and left to blow away as individual motivations are established through tiny details. What is left are interesting characters that you can get along with for 88 minutes.
What truly shines in this film is the writing. The premise is far from complex, but the humor is organic and flows from the situations, rather then being from cheap and silly one-liners (the exception being Tallahassee being hit in the head by a golf ball, but that is as close as Reese and Wernick get). While most non-comedy zombie films gain their tension and spirit from the constant prospect of danger and never-ending loneliness, the writers, ever the optimists, instead see the lighter side of life, making a newly empty world feel like an amusement park, a metaphor pushed further by the film’s title and climactic location. Yes, the characters fear death and want to avoid becoming zombies, but that doesn’t stop them from having some fun along the way.
Movies like this tend to live and die by their characters -- if the audience doesn’t like a character, why would they want to see him or her survive? For such a short film, Zombieland doesn’t disappoint. While the four protagonists are almost always paired off, generally boys vs. girls, situations shake up the groupings that lead to different pairs and different kinds of comedy. Tallahassee-Columbus pairings are fun for a macho vs. creampuff shtick; Columbus-Wichita is good for Michael Cera-level awkward romance; and Tallahassee-Little Rock is great for old mind vs. young mind miscommunication. Even each character’s vices, be it Tallahassee’s never-ending quest for Twinkies or Columbus’ desire to brush a girl’s hair over her ear, are endearing, funny and all-around likeable.
It is nearly impossible not to like a movie like Zombieland. There is plenty of drama and horror to keep you grounded, more than enough comedy to keep you laughing and engaged, and a cameo that was by far the best of last year. By the end of the film, you are in a place where you just want to see more from the characters. Originally developed to be a television series, there is no doubt that there is more left in the tank for their four characters, so let’s hope that we see more of them very soon.
Considering that Sony, the production company behind the film, is also the creator of the medium, you can be sure that they know what to put on a Blu-ray disc. In addition to the film, which also includes a digital copy, there are a myriad of extras that make the disc a real killer.
While watching the film, there are three features that you can turn on to enhance your viewing experience. The first is a standard commentary track with actors Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson, director Ruben Fleischer, and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. The other two are a bit more complex. The first is Movie IQ, which is a menu that you can turn on and off that displays trivia about the creators, the actors involved in the scene you are watching, the full crew, music, and essentially anything else you want to know. The third is picture-in-picture track titled “Beyond the Graveyard,” which, as you are watching, shows a window with commentary from cast and crew, behind-the-scenes footage, and computer mapping.
The disc also includes two featurettes. The first, “In Search of Zombieland,” is a standard 16-minute bit that delves into the casting process, development, makeup, and everything that moved the movie forward through production. The second, “Zombieland is Your Land,” focuses more on set design with production designer Maher Ahmed, giving viewers an inside look at how they made America into a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
Throw in some standard deleted scenes (nothing you will be too upset was deleted), visual-effects diaries, and promotional trailers and you have the makings of an awesome Blu-ray release.
Reviewed By: Eric Eisenberg
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