An ultra slow-motion chase between some scared witless humans and hungry zombies, all set to Metallica's "From Who the Bell Tolls", kick-starts Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland. Shattered glass, pus flying everywhere, naked zombie strippers chasing down their clients -- the tone's been set, one that leans toward gratuity with a splash of humor. What's left is the execution, taking this jolt of personality, complete with narration from the lead character that transforms a post-apocalyptic scenario into a yuk-fest, and wading through the gore in a way that backs up a sense of humor with a satisfying taste for the macabre. Even though most of the head-turning gags and lines fuel the trailer and the picture itself isn't particularly terrifying, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick still have plenty of grueling, absurdly entertaining tricks up their sleeves with this riotous (and earnest) zombie picture -- including a lengthy cameo that's not to be missed.
To barrel through the United States of Zombieland, you've got to learn the rules gathered by our narrator Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a gangly World of Warcraft addict screwed out of intimacy with his next-door neighbor because of the pandemic, that keep you alive during a zombie apocalypse. Get cardio, or zombies will outrun you. Look in the backseat of cars, because zombies are sneaky. Always deliver a second shot to the head. It's his rule to "travel light", also meaning to travel alone, that brings us where we are in the flick; he stumbles across a decked-out Tahoe cruising down the road and, after some sweaty-triggered hesitation, decides to hop in the passenger seat with a dude named Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) -- a snarky, killing machine with a thick accent, zero tolerance for whiny teen boys, and an unending search for the spongy goodness of a Twinkie -- and hit the road.
From that point on, it's all about ducking away from and, where necessary, killing zombies. Though it pays homage, whether direct or indirect, to The Omega Man and Romero's zombie flicks, as well as the unavoidable comparison to Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland is a distinct creation that mixes bloody zeal with uproarious humor to incredibly satisfying degrees. Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg play up the "buddy comedy" travel movie angle charming enough to not be obnoxious, tossing war stories back and forth about their travels in between their lighthearted one-upmanship. Harrelson in particular is perfectly cast as Tallahassee, giving the guy on a mission -- kill zombies, stay alive, and find a cream-filled pastry -- enough depth to not ham up his essence but enough fervor to tap into the right level of humor. When he and Columbus stumble across an abandoned Hummer owned by rednecks or talk about the fact that Tallahassee hadn't had headaches until Columbus started tagging along, their sane-insane banter looks back at Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon to a cheeky degree.
One driving force behind Zombieland comes in the fact that everybody's still trying to get somewhere or find somebody, even when the world's in the hopeless aftermath of an apocalyptic occurrence. Eventually, Tallahassee and Columbus come across a tenacious sister duo -- Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) -- who are on their way to an amusement park that's supposedly zombie-free. Columbus is on his way to find his family in Ohio, whom he's not even close with, while Tallahassee is hunting for a Twinkie. All of that mashes together into an roster of mixed-motive characters that, though not explicitly stated, all follow their own rules and wish for the innocence of their pre-zombie lives. They reminisce about the past and try to latch onto the things that they miss, Columbus and Wichita developing a twitchy, predictable romance and Tallahassee and Little Rock building a bit of father / daughter dynamic because of it, which anchor the picture's silly inclinations well.
You'll probably notice that they're all named after cities, which is intentional on the characters' parts. It's kind of like not naming a stray dog that you come across, with the knowledge that you might not be able to keep it or whether it's going to stay alive. This element of loneliness and detachment -- the fact that "everyone's an orphan in Zombieland" -- offers a foundation underneath the gore and gags, something secondary to grab a hold of while watching zombies get whacked in imaginative ways. Fleischer and the writers aren't tenacious enough to try and explore its contemplative themes beyond that, like The Road or something similar, but at least they add a sense of stability to all the laugh-inducing, bloody chaos. Moreover, this isn't that kind of picture; remember, we're getting our jollies from slapping zombies in the head with a car door and watching the blood fly, not thinking about the reasons why the zombie's there. Sure, Fleischer doesn't go for the sociological throat in the ways that George Romero has gone, but his escapist horror flick's not without a sense of brains within its construct, either.
I also couldn't help from relishing in Zombieland's immensely pleasing photography. Shot by J.J Abrams' stock cinematographer Michael Bonvillain, responsible for episodes of "Lost" and "Alias", his concentration on close-ups breathes a lot of life into simple situations. He's also the cinematographer for Matt Reeves' Cloverfield; don't worry, it's not a shaky-cam fest. He has an eye for capturing facial mannerisms, adding depth and emotion to simple scenarios, which carries over into giving Ruben Fleischer's direction an added sense of gravity. But, naturally, the cinematography work here hinges on exuberance and violent joy, and the array of captured goo-splatter and slow-motion destruction present in the picture definitely satisfy a primal desire for the gruesome.
Zombieland uses its stylish looks and added character-based vigor as add-ons to its primary draw, which is first and foremost -- leading from its adrenaline-fueled opening credits to the haywire conclusion at an amusement park -- to throttle forward with cackling laughter and brazen, not-so-scary grotesquery. There isn't a moment that doesn't satisfy, even if it's simply a bloated expansion of the content seen in the trailer. This post-apoc America isn't in the place where they need to conserve ammunition or resources quite yet; though that's arguably a gap in logic within the picture, we really couldn't care when we're watching Tallahassee's bullets fly. Somehow, writers Wernick and Reese found a way to bunch up this chuckle-worthy violence, zombie killin', a sprinkling of family togetherness and an iconic way about sketching out our four characters in a zombie-saturated environment. Though it's somewhat simple in its surface aims and short-lived for sequel posterity, it's certainly a hell of a ride.
Video and Audio:
Zombieland arrives on DVD from Sony in a slickly-handled 2.35:1 widescreen transfer that's been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. It's a relatively dark movie with a lot of low-lying contrast and warm colors at night, so the disc's capacity for fluctuating black levels comes into play. No details are swallowed up and, for the most part, they stayed stable. When it's in the daytime, the saturation levels are significantly scaled back for mood, which reflects in the properly-handled, low-color skin tones and the (mostly) Georgia-shot locations. However, a few blasts of lurid color do ink into the picture -- especially with the amuesment park shots -- that show off quite a bit of pop. Some of the shots do get a little hazy and the image is, overall, slightly flat, but we're still working with an appropriate visualization of Michael Bonvillain's cinematography.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track satisfies to the same lengths as the visuals, thundering forward with quite a few blasts of activity. Gunshots and musical crescendos fill the entire soundstage, remaining clear and distortion-free yet boisterous, while slight sound effects like the crashing of glass, the slight ring of a bell above a store, and the plucking of a banjo sound appropriate -- if just a hair thin. All of the dialogue stays clear and audible throughout, while the snarling, gargling effects pouring from the zombies get the job done just fine. English, English Descriptive, and French language tracks are available, along with subtitles in all those languages.
A commentary track has been included that wrangles together Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson with director Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. The track remains as insightful as it needs to be, talking about the scares in the picture, the dog used in Woody Harrelson's scenes, what's green screen and not, and the overall experience of shooting in southern Georgia. Harrelson, sadly, sits back a bit from the commentary, but Eisenberg prods the filmmakers with enough anxious questions to keep the track listenable throughout. This commentary can also be made available with English subtitles via the Languages menu.
Two featurettes come together to give us a glimpse into the creation process behind Zombieland. The first, In Search of Zombieland (15:57, 16x9), takes in a generic structure in talking about the initial writing and assembly of the picture, then shifting to actor interviews to give it some meat. Though the structure's a bit by-the-numbers, it also talks about the relationships build behind-the-scenes and some revelations -- such as Abigail Breslin's ability to get in the moment, and how Fleischer deliverately gave the zombies "little direction" to give them a sense of randomness.
Zombieland is Your Land (11:59, 16x9) focuses more on the production design, both with the zombies themselves and the construction of the sets -- which reveals some interesting tidbits about what's real and not in the grocery store sequence. However, it also discussing shooting the conclusion to the film first due to time constraints, which is intriguing.
Also available are some funny Deleted Scenes (5:32, 16x9) that would've been very welcome in the final cut of the film, a Visual Effects Progression (2:03, 16x9) area that covers the green-screen and digital effects behind the Washington, Seat Belt, Banjo Zombie and Falling Zombie sequences, and a series of five Theatrical Trailers.
Zombieland packs together snappy comedic timing, enough gore for bloodhounds, and a concerted effort to stitch them together into something that's not too over-the-top for its own sake. It's short-lived and somewhat one-dimensional for it surface purposes, but the entertaining characters created by Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, and especially Woody Harrelson give all the antics more than enough gusto. Sony's DVD looks and sounds up to snuff and carries a few strong special features, including a decent commentary and a handful of revealing featurettes, which makes this highly-rewatchable flick a Highly Recommended purchase.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site