I’ve re-watched ZOMBIELAND a couple times since I first saw it in theaters. I noticed a weird trend: I tend to bail on every re-watch right after the cameo. It’s a strange thing, the cameo. On several levels, I love it. Obviously if a movie like this was going to drop a big name all up into itself, there’s just about no one I’d rather see. But it also unsettles the movie. How can it not? It changes the stakes. It makes the whole thing a little too much of a lark. I’m no longer concerned what happens to these characters after the cameo. You’ll see right away in the following review, which I wrote around the original release in October 2009, that even then I had this problem — although I generally loved the movie and still do think it’s a ton of fun in a twenty-pound bowling bag. There’s so much good going on in this flick that it sucks to be the one guy stuck doing the quibbling, but I guess quibbling is what we do here on the internet. Anyway, here’s what I said back then:
It’s really right up next to impossible to talk about the new movie ZOMBIELAND without talking about the extended cameo scene that comes about an hour into it. I still refuse to say who it is, even after Fangoria and IMDB and Ebert and Letterman have already done it, because I can only imagine how smile-making that scene must be for someone who goes into it without that foreknowledge. Even knowing ahead of time who’d be making an appearance, I still got a huge kick out of the scene. And it’s not like the movie wasn’t kicking like a kung-fu master before then.
ZOMBIELAND is pure fun. For decades, at least since 1968’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the zombie genre has most often been used as a Trojan horse for sneaking devastating social commentary within a horror vehicle. ZOMBIELAND doesn’t have anything on its agenda except to entertain. This is a far cry from the righteously angry anti-authoritarian politics of George A. Romero; it’s not even much connected to the twenty-something-ennui satire of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, to which ZOMBIELAND will be most often compared. It’s not technically a horror movie at all, honestly. There’s one good jump early on, but if you pay enough attention you’ll totally see it coming, and either way, it’s not a lasting scare. And sure, there’s a ton of gore, but not much that you couldn’t see on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. (Boy, has our culture gotten used to gruesome!)
ZOMBIELAND is a straight-up comedy, and a very funny one, which I guess makes that cameo fairly appropriate. (Dammit! Almost spoiled it again!) It’s a buddy comedy, between the earnest, straight-laced Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, in a performance of relatability and expert comic timing) and the belligerent, shit-kicking Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, reminding everyone how great he is, all over again). Imagine if there was a zombie apocalypse, and David Cross and Larry The Cable Guy had to put aside their feud and work together. That’s the dynamic we’re working with here.
By the time the movie opens, the few remaining human beings are pretty much adjusted to post-zombie-apocalypse life. They roam around as best they can, developing their own methods to survive. What’s so funny about ZOMBIELAND is that the two lead characters are only tangentially concerned with the zombies – they’ve both developed their own ways to avoid being eaten, and have moved on to their primary concerns: Columbus is on a quest for true love, and Tallahassee is really, really fiending for Twinkies.
Into the mix come two sisters: Wichita (Emma Stone from SUPERBAD), who Columbus immediately crushes on big-time, and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE), who dreams of returning to an amusement park she once loved as a smaller child. And that’s just about it as far as plot goes: the characters fight and feud and get to know each other and eventually amble towards the movie’s climax.
The real joy of the movie comes from the interplay between the characters, which is constantly funny without ever feeling forced or dishonest. The amusement park setting towards the end of the movie reminded me of another friendly, humanist comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg, ADVENTURELAND – I thought it would’ve been funny if ZOMBIELAND was intended as a response to ADVENTURELAND. I thought ADVENTURELAND was a sweet movie, and I can’t think of a single way to improve it, except – oh yeah! Zombies.
And Woody Harrelson. His character is by far the most fun thing about the movie, because he indulges in all the crazy destructive impulses that any of us would probably get around to if we survived the apocalypse ourselves. He’s the personification of that scene in the original DAWN OF THE DEAD where the survivors go on a supermarket sweep, only Tallahassee has better music in his car. (Willie Nelson and original, David Lee, Van Halen – thank you very much.) And I’m not sure if his growing resemblance to Michael Berryman is a sly genre-casting in-joke or if I’m just insane, but isn’t it a fun observation either way?
Actually, going back to mentioning the music, the entire movie has a pretty sweet soundtrack, featuring a ton of cool newer bands like Doves, Metric, White Lies, Sea Wolf, and Band Of Horses. There’s a lot of good about ZOMBIELAND. I had a few quibbles here and there, such as tiny details (if the characters give their hometowns as their names, and Wichita and Little Rock are sisters, then why are they from two different states?), and somewhat larger tonal issues (as great as the secret cameo is, its resolution unbalanced me more than I think was intended). But no one besides OCD film nuts like me will even think much about those things – everyone else will be too busy laughing.
Seriously, go see ZOMBIELAND. Start off October with some good old-fashioned American zombie-shitkicking. If you haven’t seen it already, what are you waiting for? Hurry up, before someone spills the beans on that cameo! (I mean it – it’s THAT good.)
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Tags: 31 flavors of horror, Amber Heard, bill murray, comedy, David Lee Roth, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, Jon Abrams, Los Angeles, Road Trips, Shitkicking, Twinkies, Van Halen, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, Zombies