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Twelve years after its release, Zombieland (2009) remains one of the most enjoyable films in the flesh-eating genre. Its secret sauce? Brilliant casting – five Academy Award nominees – fast pacing, and the fact it just doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The premise of Zombieland is pretty simple: four jaded individuals reluctantly join forces and carpool across the country during a zombie apocalypse. The narrator, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a social recluse who has survived by following a list of conservative rules, including staying fit enough to outrun the zombies (Rule #1: Cardio) and shooting them twice to make sure they’re actually dead (Rule #2: Double Tap).
Director Ruben Fleischer made his directorial debut with this film, and takes great delight in covering each of these rules in gory detail: a homemaker escapes the neighbourhood zombie kids, only to go flying through her windscreen because she’s not buckled up (Rule #4: Seatbelts).
Columbus, with his irritable bowel syndrome and rolling suitcase (Rule #7: Travel Light), is the perfect foil for snakeskin jacket and cowboy hat wearing Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). Tallahassee is in the butt-kicking business (and “business is GOOD”, Harrelson declares, two chainsaws in hand). After a tense standoff, Columbus hitches a ride.
The film looks set to fade into odd-couple mode, until the pair are outwitted by jaded 20-something Wichita (Emma Stone), and her pre-teen sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The women quickly hustle the unsuspecting men, taking their guns and their truck (not once, but twice), on a quest to reach Pacific Playland, their childhood happy place.
Part of what makes this film work is the chemistry between the cast. There’s a sense of ease and camaraderie, which is greatly helped by the film’s zippy editing, well-paced flashbacks, clever use of graphics and snappy dialogue (Little Rock’s explanation of Hannah Montana to an engrossed Tallahassee stands out).
Above all, they seem to be having fun, something missing from most of the exhaustingly gritty string of zombie productions that have emerged over the last two decades, from the 11 angst-riddled seasons of The Walking Dead to Hollywood hit World War Z and umpteenth Resident Evil film. When the cast trash and smash an Arizona gift store, their delight is so genuine, you kinda wish you could be in there with them. A standout moment is the appearance of actor Bill Murray, who shows up in a brilliantly executed cameo.
While Murray almost steals the show, it’s Harrelson as Tallahassee who ends up carrying the film. His character offers a handy roadmap in how to deal with the apocalypse: indulge in blind rage to vent your frustration, develop a dark sense of humour, and pursue your comfort food of choice (Twinkies) at all costs. He even inspires Columbus to add another rule to his list (#Rule 32: Enjoy the Little Things).
It doesn’t set out to be, but by the end this zombie movie is quite sweet. Sure, there’s blood, guts and gore, but the virtues of loyalty, trust and family are established without feeling cheesy or insincere. Almost as much of a triumph as surviving the apocalypse.