There is a little, important secret of horror filmmaking I’ve been picking up on lately. That little secret is that less is more, that what we don’t see is scarier than what we actually do see. Even though much blood and guts is spilled in “Zombieland,” much is still left up to the imagination. This helps keep the film from being wannabe shlock to a totally satisfying horror satire.
“Zombieland” takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth, long after a virus has turned most humans into cannibalistic zombies. The world has now become a Darwinian society, where all you need are a few basic skills to get by. One of those people lucky enough are Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg). Columbus is a scrawny, awkward college student who manages to get by unscathed because he’s so used to loneliness.
While trying to reach his parents in Ohio, Columbus meets the tough, potty-mouthed, yet ultimately tender Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). As they head east, they meet two con women: Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The rest of the plot mainly consists of them traveling cross country, searching for safe haven as Columbus begins to fall for Wichita.
As you’ll notice, each character is named after a different city. They each name themselves after the destination they are headed to, whether it still exists or not out of confidentiality reasons. It seems kind of ironic that they want their names to be secret though, as they end up becoming something of a family in the end.
In my introduction, I made the film seem like too much of a pure horror film. That, it isn’t. I only felt frightened at a few moments in the film, but then again, “Zombieland” was meant to be a satire, and not a horror film. That doesn’t mean it’s not directed like a good horror film though. Take the convenience store scene. The most brutal death involves Tallahassee, a zombie, and a pair of hedge trimmers. We don’t see what exactly the trimmers do, but we do see them slide across the floor, covered in blood. It’s inferring what happened, rather than actually seeing what happened, that challenges the viewer, builds suspense, and just makes it even creepier to ponder. However, “Zombieland” does show us a good amount of graphic blood and guts. However it’s much more sparse than you might imagine, and it mainly happens at the way beginning. It’s almost like director Rubin Fleischer’s way of saying “there’s the gore. Happy now? Can we just move on?”
I can’t forget that “Zombieland” is first and foremost a satire. Unfortunately, I’m not well-versed enough in the zombie genre to say whether or not “Zombieland” effectively both pokes fun and pays tribute to the popular genre. However, the film may also be a satire of the horror genre in general (I picked up a reference to the banjo scene in “Deliverance”). I could spot even smaller possible satirical spots. Some of them could even be the more predictable moments of the film, possibly mocking how formulaic the genre has become.
The humor of “Zombieland” is buoyed by its two central performances. While it might be cool at this point to bash Eisenberg for playing the same character he played in “The Squid and the Whale” and “Adventureland” I’m going to go against the tide and say he gave a good performance because I like him and well, if someone is good at playing a certain personality, why shouldn’t they be allowed to keep playing it?
Mainly, Harrelson’s performance as Tallahassee steals the show. The writers give him a few great lines (“That’ll do, pig”), and he does such a great job at delivering each one. Harrelson plays Tallahassee slightly like Mickey from “Natural Born Killers,” if Mickey had a soft spot and a love for Twinkies.
Stone doesn’t bring a huge amount to the table, but she doesn’t really detract from the story at all either. Breslin, however, does a great job with the material. After this and “Little Miss Sunshine,” she proves that she can handle more adult material better than most girls under 18 [Editor’s Note: Let’s say for example, Hannah Montana, who’d I’d love to see be eaten by zombies]. The film also includes an extremely random, yet hilariously and even refreshing cameo. I dare not give it away here; I don’t want to ruin the fun for you.
“Zombieland” isn’t perfect. It’s short and it isn’t the first zombie satire ever made (there’s also “Shaun of the Dead” which, for the record, I still haven’t seen). But why did I like it so much? Mainly, its 81 minutes of pure, blissful, escapism. It’s the kind of escapism that will draw you out of reality and further and further into the world of movies. This isn’t a Seltzer-Friedberg satire, it’s the kind that has a deep knowledge, and even a deep respect, for the subject its consistently mocking. Not only that, but it stands as a comedy in its own right, with its own, original jokes, as well.