Lunatics and Laughter Day 19: Zombieland (2009)
Writers: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray
Plot: Zombies have taken over the world, and only a few isolated survivors remain. A young man from Columbus, Ohio (Jesse Eisenberg) has lasted longer than anyone he knows thanks to a carefully constructed set of rules, assembled mainly through trial and error. Little things make a difference in Zombieland: cardio, “double tapping” (always use a second bullet to make sure the zombie is dead), and of course, fastening your seatbelt. He’s a nervous sort, afraid of clowns, and mostly a loner. “Columbus” is making the long journey home from Texas in the hopes that his parents may still be alive. He is picked up by a cowboy hat-wearing fella in an SUV who calls himself Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). In order not to get attached, Tallahassee insists on using their hometowns as identifiers, rather than bothering with real names. Tallahassee’s passion for killing zombies is matched only by his craving to find a Twinkie, and when they encounter a supermarket, Tallahassee insists on stopping to check it out. Instead, they find a young woman who identifies herself as Wichita (Emma Stone). Her younger sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) has been bitten, and they’re begging for help – they need a gun to kill her. Tallahassee is about to pull the trigger, but Wichita asks to do it herself. Taking the gun, she turns on the men, stealing their car, ammunition, and weapons; it was all a scam.
The girls head west, planning to get to a supposed safe zone called Pacific Playland. Tallahassee, meanwhile, finds a Hummer in good condition, loaded with big guns. They set out to find the girls, and although Columbus cautions Tallahassee not to let his anger take him, Tallahassee says he’s got nothing but the little pleasures since he lost his puppy, Buck. They find the SUV on the side of the road, hood open, abandoned. While Tallahassee checks it out, Little Rock hijacks Columbus in the Hummer. The girls rob them, again, but this time take them on the road. Wichita drops the sad news that Columbus, Ohio, burned to the ground during the outbreak. She offers to drop Columbus off so he can find a new path, but he decides to stay with her.
Eventually, they make it to California, where Tallahassee suggests finding and resting in the home of his favorite celebrity: Bill Murray, an unknown quantity to the 12-year-old Little Rock. They split up to search the place for zombies, and Columbus decides to culture Little Rock by showing her Ghostbusters in Murray’s own movie theater. Tallahassee and Wichita, elsewhere, make enough noise to summon a zombie – Murray himself. Or so it seems. Murray, still alive, had himself made up in zombie makeup as a defense. He begins showing his guests a good time, reenacting scenes from his movies, and they convince him to prank the jittery Columbus by pretending to be a zombie again. The joke goes too far and Columbus shoots Bill Murray in the chest. As he dies, Murray identifies his one regret: Garfield.
As they decompress and remember the things they miss from the Pre-Zombieland world, Columbus realizes the “Buck” Tallahassee has been mourning isn’t really his dog, like he said, but his son. He has a good cry, finally letting the emotion out. Later, Wichita brings Columbus a bottle of wine. As they trade life stories, Wichita asks him to dance, and he’s about to kiss her when Tallahassee interrupts, asking for help in moving the couch to build a fort.
In the morning, the girls take the Hummer and leave the guys behind, Wichita upset that she almost broke her cardinal rule: the sisters trust no one but each other. They drive the last few miles to the Pacific Playland amusement park. Instead of the zombie-free paradise they were promised, when Wichita turns the power back on the lights and sounds draw all the undead for miles. They are trapped at the top of a ride, surrounded. At Murray’s house, Columbus fails to persuade Tallahassee to help him find the girls and starts to set out on his own. When he drives a motorcycle into a hedge, Columbus takes pity on him, and they take one of Murray’s cars to Pacific Playland. Tallahassee lures the zombies away from the ride so he can blow them away. He locks himself in a carnival booth, shooting through the bars and ceiling, killing all the zombies he can. Columbus, meanwhile, makes it to the girls just in time: there’s a zombie climbing the ladder towards them and they’re out of ammo. But before he can charge to the rescue he encounters his greatest fear: a zombie clown. Taking a page from Tallahasse, he beats the clown to hell and saves the girls. Wichita gives him a special prize – her real name – and he kisses her. As they leave, Little Rock tosses Tallahassee a Twinkie from the snack bar, and the odd little family sets out on the road again.
Thoughts: Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick originally conceived Zombieland as a TV series, and looking at the movie through that prism, it’s actually pretty obvious. It plays much like a TV pilot, introducing a cast of characters and a situation through which it would be easy to tell a lot of stories over an extended period of time. It also explains why, unlike most zombie movies, the entire principal cast survives the film. There are a lot of short holdovers from that TV script as well – the rules for surviving Zombieland were intended as part of the TV framing sequence, and the “Zombie Kill of the Week” was going to literally be a “kill of the week.” It also suggests that there may have been intended answers to some of the assorted questions the story leaves open – why sisters Wichita and Little Rock have different home towns, for example, or perhaps even more tellingly, why on Earth the electricity is still on everywhere we go. Seriously, throughout the film we see a total of five living people post-outbreak, how is it that the only place with no energy is the amusement park, and all it takes to get that going again is Wichita hitting a few switches?
Those minor holes aside, the movie is still intensely enjoyable. The story comes across as a clear Type A horror movie, but that doesn’t diminish the comedy at all. We get a group of very funny, very relatable characters in this movie, each of whom displays more depth and potential than their archetypes would suggest. Columbus is your standard awkward nerd, and the others tease him as such, but at the same time the very fact that he’s survived so long on his own reveals the sort of steel he really has. Tallahassee’s tenderness is hidden for much of the movie, but obvious when he decides to open up about his son, and integral in his decision to join Columbus on the rescue mission. The girls are tough and fight dirty, but at the core is a mutual desire to protect each other. We don’t know why, exactly, they’re so damaged, but that damage is presented in a believable way that makes their behavior easy to understand. The four of them fit together very naturally and very organically, in a way that leaves open plenty of room for the comedy.
I was reluctant to talk about the Bill Murray sequence in my recap, because not only is it a delicious, hysterical segment of the film, but it was such a surprise when I saw it that I think it ratcheted my overall enjoyment of the movie as a whole, and I hate to spoil that for anybody else. But then, I suppose anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet either won’t read this recap or doesn’t care about spoilers, so why skip talking about something so memorable? The thing is, the film was planned in such a way that any of several celebrities could have been plugged into those scenes, depending entirely on who they could get to agree to do it. I don’t know who else was under consideration and I don’t care: Murray was perfect. His pedigree, the chance to listen to him as he performed some of his greatest one-liners, the admission that making Garfield was a terrible mistake… who else could have possibly filled that role in such a perfect fashion?
The finale, not to overstate it, is the greatest thing ever committed to celluloid. Killing zombies is always fun. Doing it while riding roller coasters, marching through a haunted house, or dangling from one of those spinning swing rides? It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Or at least a bitchin’ video game. In fact, that’s what the last fight actually feels like: we’re watching Tallahassee and Columbus fight their way through the final level, except instead of one boss it’s just more zombies than anybody has ever seen.
The zombies themselves really feel like a secondary element to this film. While it wouldn’t work as well if the apocalypse was caused by vampires or a virus or something of those sorts, the zombies are just stage dressing. In many ways, this movie shares a lot in common with that other zombie TV show that did get made. In The Walking Dead, the zombies are usually relegated to the background – a problem to be dealt with, to be sure, but not the major thrust of the stories. The same is true here. The major difference is that The Walking Dead plays the scenario for drama, while this is a relatively lighthearted comedy. The only truly serious moment, in terms of character, is when we realize that Tallahassee is mourning a dead child instead of a dead puppy, and our hearts break a little… something that is rectified only moments later when he wipes his tears away with a wad of now-useless money.
Like I’ve said for several of our recent films, I hope the suggested sequel to this someday gets made. Sure, Eisenberg and Stone have both become much bigger stars since the film premiered and Breslin is a teenager now, but that doesn’t mean the time lapse couldn’t be worked into the story in an organic way. By design, these are characters that have a lot of life left in them and much more story to tell. I just hope, sooner or later, we get to see it.