“The first time I let a girl in my life and she tries to eat me,” laments Columbus, the phobia-stricken, irritable-bowel-syndrome-afflicted narrator/nerdy hero of “Zombieland,” the newest in the zombie-comedy sub-genre (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Fido”).
A brief prologue, set to the ironic, yet poignant, guitar screams of a Jimi Hendrix-inspired rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” gives us the idea: zombie apocalypse; only a scant human population remains; flesh will be eaten. The story is all told by an unlikely survivor, played by Jesse Eisenberg, a young actor whose neuroses and wicked, deadpan delivery have previously shone in such films as “The Squid and the Whale” and “Adventureland.”
Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have fleshed out (get it?) a kinetic, bitingly funny script with a genre-specific self-reflexivity reminiscent of the “Scream” films.
Columbus has a code of rules he lives by that he swears are the reasons for his continued survival, despite his less-than-impressive stature and innumerable fears.
Pointers such as “Always wear a seatbelt,” and “Cardio” (“The fatties were the first to go,” notes Columbus) are depicted throughout the film to hilarious effect.
Director Ruben Fleischer’s repeated use of slow motion and flashbacks, too often a distraction in most films, successfully adds to the film’s aura and provides a glimpse into the characters’ lives before the global epidemic.
Like a shotgun blast to the brain, Mr. Fleischer’s opening-credit sequence, a slow-motion combo of vignettes designed to show individuals being overtaken by the zombie uprising, is a visceral, action-heavy introduction to a world in chaos, set to Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
Columbus eventually teams up with Tallahassee (folks in “Zombieland” do not refer to each other by their real names, only by city of origin, to limit the chance of attachments), a southern boy with a passion for killing zombies. Woody Harrelson plays the disgruntled living-dead assassin on an ongoing quest to find a Twinkie. He and Mr. Eisenberg have excellent chemistry. Two con artists, played by Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Emma Stone (“Superbad”) round out this motley crew.
At the heart of the film lies Mr. Eisenberg’s Columbus, who, like his James Brennan in “Adventureland,” is a tightly wound ball of neuroses that can only be released through love. In both films, his paradoxical needs to get the girl to find confidence in himself, and vice versa, are brilliantly portrayed by the man. It is fitting that the film’s climax takes place in an amusement park.
A small quibble is a cameo by Bill Murray that seems to drag on a bit too long. As a gag, it is bizarre and irreverent enough to be funny, but it is indulgent at best.
Zombie purists might take offense at the film’s ironic detachment detracting from the horror, but the filmmakers clearly did their research, and their passion for the genre is evident.
My favorite film of the year thus far.
Rated R for horror violence/
gore and language.