In any zombie movie, there's an invisible but important sliding scale that determines where exactly in between "terrifying and tragic" and "wish-fulfillment playground" the film's post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland will lie. On the furthest end of horrible, you have the 28 Days Later universe and George A. Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, lands where there's no fun to be had and everything is pain and dread and having your entrails feasted upon. Towards the other end you'll find Shaun of the Dead and The Evil Dead and Planet Terror, but to date, no zombie film that I've ever seen has dismissed with grimness to leave only goofiness to the same degree as Zombieland, where zombie-killing is a sport and abandoned shops and mansions and theme parks now exist unburdened by rules or tact. It's a wickedly fun, manic, energetic thrill ride and definitely one of my favorite horror-comedies in some time.
In the standard zombie flick, you have a large group of survivors who unite with epic goals like escaping the city or saving what's left of humanity. But although Zombieland revels in nonstop blood and gore as a zombie movie must, it happily sheds most of the subgenre's narrative conventions in favor only four major characters — Jesse Eisenberg's Columbus, Woody Harrelson's Tallahassee, Emma Stone's Wichita, and Abigail Breslin's Little Rock — who have much more modest goals in mind, like reaching the last Twinkie left on earth (Tallahassee), finding a safe place to take a shit (Columbus), and visisting a now line-free amusement park (Wichita, Little Rock). The decidedly non-epic scope of the character's plans makes for a highly refreshing change of pace.
As tends to be the case with male-scripted, male-directed action movies with male protagonists, the female characters are a bit more generic and shallowly-defined than the male leads (especially in the final act, where they seem to go out of their way to become damsels in distress), but they do a good deadpan and Emma Stone is mega-hot. I've said before and I'll say again that she would make a good lead in something. But the real comedy comes from the tension and stark contrast between Columbus, who is phobic and awkward and shy (Michael Cera-type) and subscribes to a zombie philosophy of running, avoidance, and not being a hero, and Tallahassee, your archetypical cowboy alpha male who loves luring and hunting and killing zombies en masse. Watching them get on each other's nerves over petty minutiae even as the dead rise to hunt them in the night is hysterical.
It's Columbus who provides the film's clever motif in the form of his thirty-one (and expanding) rules for surviving Zombieland, rules such as cardio, remaining limber, not being a hero, always checking the back seat for undead, and double-tapping each "killed" zombie for guaranteed "death." He explains his rules in nearly constant voice-over narration and is assisted by helpful onscreen graphics that appear to remind you of each rule every time it's applied. It's very clever and funny and has great payoff at the end, and even though his voice-over is arguably a bit too constant in the film's first act (where he tends to outline what's going on onscreen even though it's pretty clear), it's still one of the better uses of voice-over in some time, with plenty of great one-liners.
Zombieland isn't great cinema, nor does it aspire to be, but it seems destined for cult classic status and a lot of what makes it so entertaining lies in it being one of the most streamlined movies in ages, with a lightning runtime (81 minutes, including end credits) and a smaller cast (seven credited actors) than the vast majority of TV episodes, let alone feature films. Always moving, the film is at any given point either introducing a character, outlining a new rule for surviving Zombieland, plunged into a goofy comedy sequence, or battling the undead with gory results. It's a very slight movie with a few flaws, but one that it's not physically possible to become in any way bored or antsy during. I'd recommend it to basically anyone who's a fan of fun movies, whether you care for horror or not.
4 Stars out of 5