That was pretty much my reaction to the trailers for Zombieland when they started playing in theaters in mid-2009. Horror comedy, and specifically zombie comedy, came back with a vengeance upon the arrival of the extremely popular British export Shaun of the Dead, and soon after, lesser fare, like Boy Eats Girl, Night of the Living Dorks, Zombie Strippers, and Dance of the Dead flooded the DVD shelves, with the overwhelming sensation of monotony right behind it. Worse, these films were crusting on top of the already gloppy, apparently unending stream of regular zombie movies, which had gone from the mild high of Dawn of the Dead 2004 to the alarming low of Day of the Dead 2008. Watching those Zombieland trailers, the sight of what appeared to be more of the same was not just disagreeable, but outright irritating. No, thank you, I sighed with annoyance. Been there, done that.
Thankfully, an increasing amount of positive press and word-of-mouth stormed the internet in the weeks before the movie's release, and it was more was enough to make me think twice about my resignation. The surprise of Zombieland, the one that makes it work, is that the film is actually about its characters and not about zombies. To meet Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is not to worry about their impending doom at the hands of the flesh-eating undead, but rather, to share in their exploits in an otherwise barren post-apocalyptic wasteland. The film runs 88 minutes in length, and I'm fairly certain that at least 50 of those minutes don't contain a single zombie.
Instead, Tallahassee and Columbus (not their actual names, but their intended destinations) form a hesitant friendship. It's easy to imagine how lonely Zombieland must be; it might be days, weeks, or even months before a survivor sees another. Despite the obvious clash between Tallahassee's wild-man attitude and Columbus' obsessive-compulsive germ phobia, the two manage to form a friendship because zombies are something that everyone has in common. When the two meet and are subsequently tricked by Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), they take it in stride, wandering into the next down and sharing stories of undead violence.
But I don't want to make Zombieland sound like a sociological drama. Using the strong characterization of the two lead roles (and, to a lesser extent, the girls, who give good performances but are not as fleshed out), writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have crafted some wonderful character comedy. Tallahassee's obsession with finding a Twinkie and freewheeling attitude bounce well off of Columbus' list of rules for survival and full-body terror at interacting with anyone, dead or alive. Harrelson is particularly funny in both his delivery and attitude, an element that really holds up throughout multiple viewings. It's funny to know that Tallahassee hates Sno Balls ("I hate coconut. Not the taste, the consistency!"), but it's even funnier to see his complete frustration at discovering a truck full of them.
If anything stood out to me upon seeing the movie again, it's that the character writing really is the entirety of the picture, which is 95% good and 5% problematic. It's clear in a couple of places where material has been edited out and patched together using ADR, and if you took out a flashback or two, it becomes apparent that Zombieland is almost entirely uneventful until the third act (likely a consequence of limited budget, even for a studio film). I already mentioned that the girls were underdeveloped, which is a shame, although in a sense, they are supporting characters (if the sequel happens, let's hope they share the spotlight). Finally, I suppose I can acknowledge the fact that the film totally grinds to a dead halt for a special cameo appearance (if you haven't seen the film and don't know, avoid the movie's IMDb, which inadvertently gives it away -- there are only six credited actors in the film), but it's pretty much the best thing that has ever happened, so, in this case, I'm more than willing to let it slide.
Despite the positive buzz, I walked into Zombieland with a few tiny bits of lingering hesitation, but by the time the truly awesome opening credit sequence kicked in (slow-motion zombie attacks set to Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls", an opening that rivals Watchmen as the best credit sequence of the year), those fears had melted away. In a sense, I'm still a skeptic -- really, Zombieland is probably better than it has any right to be -- but it really is good, shuffling off in a different direction than Shaun to stake a claim in the zom-com genre.
The packaging for the Best Buy Exclusive "Nut Up or Shut Up" Edition is identical to the standard Zombieland Blu-Ray packaging, aside from a flame-like red and orange border around the front cover, and a red box on the back cover identifying the contents of the bonus disc. It looks fine; it's the kind of not-great-but-not-terrible, use-the-poster studio artwork that doesn't really stir an opinion in me either way, but I think I'd have preferred the teaser artwork (I'm a big fan of that faintly eerie tagline). Inside the standard Blu-Ray case there is an insert with an activation code for the Digital Copy on one side and an ad for Sony's Blu-Ray Club on the back. The Best Buy Exclusive bonus disc is housed in a paper sleeve that sits in between the two discs, although, since I'm never going to use the Digital Copy, I popped it out of the second disc tray and put the bonus disc there instead.
The Video and Audio
Sony offers Zombieland in a 2.40:1 1080p widescreen transfer that uses the AVC codec. As a new movie, the film should be expected to look good in high definition, but man, it really looks good. I try to see most movies in digital projection when I go to the theater, but I'm pretty sure I missed the boat on this one, and seeing this Blu-Ray presentation is a minor revelation. The visuals really dazzle the viewer with strikingly vivid colors, rich blacks, and crystal-clear clarity that reveals plenty of tiny side details I didn't see on the big screen. I searched for flaws, and there may be some infintesimally minor issues that sharper eyes than mine will pick up when scouring this image, but to me, this is demo material.
Likewise, Zombieland's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track has great range, from the snarling of zombies in the immediate foreground to the sound of distant gunshots in parts of the movie's opening. I even caught an effect or two (like a honking nose) that I don't remember being able to hear in the theater, given the laughter and a less balanced presentation. I've been reviewing a lot of test discs and direct-to-video fare as of late, and it's been a bit since I've heard a really bold, exciting surround sound experience that packs a serious punch, but this is that track, a guns-blazing reminder of the power of good mixing, and the point of hi-def audio in the first place. French DTS-HD MA and an Audio Descriptive 5.1 track are also included, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and English and French subtitles (not a particularly Spanish-friendly release...).
The bonus material is kicked off by three extras that accompany the feature film. The first is an audio commentary with director Ruben Fleischer, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and stars Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg. Like many commentaries, the participants lay the complimentary attitude on pretty thick (especially Fleischer), but there's still a pretty good level of information and jokes in the track to keep it entertaining. Admittedly, I probably had slightly higher expectations for the commentary just thinking about the participants, but the laid-back, low-key vibe of the track becomes clear right from the beginning. A picture-in-picture track called "Beyond the Graveyard" is also included, but a severe lack of material (in terms of both interest and volume -- whoo, storyboards!) is a fatal flaw. Some of it (the visual effects progressions) are even presented elsewhere on the disc. The last is a BD-Live feature called movieIQ, which, well, I didn't bother activating. According to the packaging, it should allow you to reference filmographies and whatnot during the movie. Woo-hoo.
Diving into the video features, two featurettes are included. "In Search of Zombieland" (15:58) is a look at the movie's road from conception to release. While it only runs about as long as the kind of crappy EPK that they always throw on studio DVDs, the participants (including Fleischer, Reese and Wernick, producer Gavin Polone, the four stars, and some of the crew) actually have some interesting things to say, and it's fairly enjoyable for what it is (although the gag where they interview a zombie is kinda lame). The best chunk of the featurette focuses on the background of the zombies in the film, which is more thought-out than one might think just watching the movie. "Zombieland is Your Land (11:59) spotlights the movie's production design. It's not as good as the other featurette (it's on the dry side), but there's a couple of interesting B-roll shots (more on this in the "bonus disc" section) and funny on-set interviews.
Seven deleted scenes (5:28) follow, trailed by four Visual Effects Progression Scenes (2:08). A few scenes prove something I detected in the theater (an additional abandonment I could tell was edited over), and reveal a new rule, but they're pretty unimpressive. The silent progression reels are interesting -- the people doing fake blood for Fleischer are far better than those doing fake blood for Romero -- but not something I imagine people will play more than once.
The special features on the Blu-Ray are rounded out by five funny Theatrical Promo Trailers (6:04), in which Tallahassee and Columbus answer "viewer questions" (a few extra "rules" included here). However, the actual theatrical trailer for Zombieland has not been included. The disc opens with a Sony Blu-Ray promo, followed by the still-hilarious trailer for Black Dynamite. Additional trailers for The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, Universal Soldier: Regeneration, "Breaking Bad": The Complete Second Season, Ghostbusters, Michael Jackson's This is It, Snatch, and Night of the Creeps are also available in the Special Features section. The second disc of the set is a digital copy, compatible with iTunes and Windows Media.
Best Buy Exclusive Bonus Disc
The Best Buy Exclusive bonus disc (a standard-def DVD) contains two featurettes. The first one, "Shootin' Zombies with Ruben Fleischer" (20:04) focuses on the making of that kick-ass opening credit sequence, and aspiring filmmakers and/or techno-geeks should eat up the opportunity to learn about the cameras, lenses, and lighting that Fleischer used. The absolute highlight of the whole piece is the tests that Fleischer excitedly recorded on the first day he had the camera -- i.e., footage of the director slapping himself in the face to see what it would look like in slow motion, which is both hilarious and fascinating to watch. The extra continues with Fleischer basically giving audio commentary over several unused takes for the sequence, which include zombies getting punched and shot, as well as a stunt man taking a serious tumble down a flight of concrete stairs. Like Fleischer says in the featurette, I could watch this stuff all day. Not only is it great material, but hearing Fleischer enthuse about them with the knowledge that he's said he's "excited" to shoot the planned Zombieland sequel in 3D is more than enough to send anyone's hopes skyrocketing; even people sick of the format can see both his professional and personal investment in exploring what he can do with the equipment he's given.
The second featurette, "Behind the Scenes with the Cast and Crew of Zombieland" (7:26), is the dreaded EPK that I was expecting to see on the Blu-Ray proper, but thankfully (I guess), the piece is merely mediocre.
The only major disappointment with all of these bonus features is that not one of them has any material relating to the movie's big surprise cameo. Not only did Eisenberg mention some alternate takes of one of the scenes in an interview (I thought he mentioned it in the AICN interview, but he didn't, and now I can't find the right one), but there are no outtakes, which seems like it'd be a given (Smokin' Aces 2 has outtakes, but not this?). Eisenberg has also referenced a character deleted from the movie (an OnStar representative), and the second featurette on the Blu-Ray shows the filming of a bit not included in the deleted scenes (I'm 99% sure Tallahassee is discovering, to his fury, that the grocery store he and Columbus enter only stocks Cup Cakes). As for this exclusive version, I think the Best Buy Exclusive is worth it for the first of the two "extra" extras, especially since Best Buy is currently selling the exclusive for the same price as the regular Blu-Ray. However, reports on the DVDTalk forums suggest that the edition is in short supply, so if you want it, act now!
It's always nice to be surprised, and Zombieland is definitely that; it's a film I fully expected to hate that proved its worth through funny, well-written characters. The bonus feature package is clearly missing some material, but this exclusive version has two entertaining featurettes and a good commentary, not to mention stellar A/V quality. Consider this one highly recommended, even if you're burned out on the walking dead.
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