Ten years ago, Brad Pitt made movie catchphrase history by declaring that Rules One and Two were “You do not talk about Fight Club.” Jesse Eisenberg is no Brad Pitt, but you will enjoy his rules for surviving Zombieland just as much, if in an entirely different way.
Zombieland’s reverence for its genre (and irreverence for pretty much everything else) is what allows it to avoid audience disenchantment with the zombie same-old, same-old. While the setup may appear familiar, the response of the film and the protagonists to the zombie apocalypse is as flippant as those of previous movies have been serious. This is a movie advertising itself under the pseudo-macho tag line, “Nut Up or Shut Up.” Sober reflection on the extinction of humanity this is not.
In fact, our hero, Columbus (Eisenberg), really has no angst about everyone he didn’t care about before the apocalypse being dead. Before the zombie infection ruined his one chance at pseudo-romance with an anonymous neighbor, Columbus lived for Mountain Dew and World of Warcraft. His priorities have changed since the human race devoured itself, but his average level of human interaction has not. What he has now are The Rules. The Rules help Columbus avoid any possible chance of being caught with his pants down. (Literally: one of his rules is very specific about using the toilet.)
The rules reflect Columbus’ neurotic, self-serving, and generally cynical attitude, all of which define the film’s ethos. The idea is to survive, period. Any system that enables a survivor to do that is a good one. It just so happens that the people most capable of dealing with near-constant solitude (punctuated by zombie attacks) are those who will make it. The only reason Columbus even ventures outside of his fortified apartment is boredom: he sets out for Ohio to see what became of his parents. Not out of any love for them but seemingly just to have something to do.
The people Columbus encounters on his trek are scarcely better adjusted. Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) suffered a loss in the outbreak and responded by being bug-fuck crazy and deliberately provoking zombies so that he might dispatch them via inventive, if suicidal, means. Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin, seamlessly transitioning from child to teen actress in the role), are a pair of scam artists, already comfortable with a little danger and a lot of shallow relationships of short duration. None of them object to addressing one another by the names of towns they either hailed from or were headed to because they intend to spend little time together. Attachment, in Zombieland, is the shortest route to doing something stupid that will get you killed; naturally, The Rules advise against it.
Of course, there would be little to no humor to be had if the four remaining humans on Earth met and then went their separate ways. Much of the fun derives from the various ways the survivors, in trying to pull apart, come together. The film never strays too close to the post-traumatic confessions or melt-downs that are typical of survivors in other zombie films. It avoids contemplating the pressures of resource scarcity. The fact that electricity would no longer be generated with most people dead never even comes up. The apocalypse seems to have happened too quickly for anyone to loot the grocery store or turn off the lights. For all intents and purposes, this is a world where everything still works except for the people.
Zombieland is a road trip movie as much as it is a zombie movie. We go on a journey with a quartet of misfits, who fight about music and smash up long-abandoned chotchke shops to relieve a little tension. (And to generate some between Wichita and Columbus.) Overall, the film has about as much appreciation of consequences of a life without people as a teenager home alone with a stocked liquor cabinet and the run of the house. There is no one left to tell these misfits “No.” To this end, while Columbus has thirty-odd rules about how to survive, the one that guides his behavior (besides the eminently practical “Double Tap”) involves learning to love the little things. Whether it be the good fortune to find a Hummer loaded with automatic weapons (“Thank God for rednecks!”) or the thrill of taking over a movie star’s expensive mansion, fun in the United States of Zombieland is there for the making. The joke is on the rest of the world. It ended, and the survivors threw a bitchin’ party.
About the only trope held true in Zombieland from zombie movies previous is the idea of a safe-haven. Tallahassee was headed east to find a mythical zombie-free green zone when he ran into Columbus. Wichita and Little Rock believe they’ll find respite from the zombie menace at an old amusement park in California. Nowhere mentioned: how anyone determined the location of the last human-only zone in the continental United States. It is one of the small concessions to indomitable hope in the entire movie—that despite their resignation to things as they are, the survivors have some small prayer of getting even further away from it all. This persistent hope is the one wrong note in their otherwise perfectly misanthropic harmony. And Columbus rightfully derides them for it even as he falls prey to another, more insidious hope: that he might want these people around after all.
However, no one is waiting out the plague, hoping for a cure, bunkering down in a mall, or expecting to save or be saved by anybody else. That would be against The Rules, after all. Zombie movie fans will appreciate the winking practicality of Columbus’ rules, not to mention the gleefully disgusting zombies. It defies common sense that any of these walking corpses should be so juicy after months of being undead (every single one vomits up blood right before attacking), but the zombies aren’t there to be realistic or even all that scary. There is no sense of danger about them, as befits the lighthearted tone of the film. They are there to be taken down in increasingly impressive and gut-churning ways by Tallahassee, Wichita, Little Rock, and even, on occasion, Columbus. Zombies as a metaphor for personal growth?
Nah. Zombieland does not pretend to be anything but fun. It doesn’t need to. There will always be scarier or grosser or more allegorical zombie films. Zombie comedies (zom-coms, if you will) are a little thinner on the ground, especially as most overshoot the gore and skimp on the laughs. (Shaun of the Dead being the notable exception.) Zombieland is good for some genuine laughs and a few tips for those who haven’t already memorized their Zombie Survival Guide yet. If this zombie-paranoid recluse can get out to the theater to enjoy it, so can you like-minded Tor.com folk.
Zombieland opens everywhere October 2, 2009.
Dayle McClintock intends to see Zombieland in the theater again in New York City when next she can afford it. So that will probably have to wait until the apocalypse drops ticket prices. See you there?